If you were to analyze the 2015 Cleveland Indians season, you might as well divide the season into two parts: one part between Opening Day and June 13, 2015, and the second from June 14 through the end of the season. June 14 was the day Francisco Lindor made his Major League debut, and it’s stunning how different a team the Indians were after he made his debut. The biggest change was the defense, which bottomed out in May but got steadily better throughout the year as documented by this Grantland piece. The Indians finished 3rd in the Majors in defensive runs above average, behind only the Royals and the Giants, but fancy sabermetrics aside, the defense just looked better in the second half of the season, thanks primarily to Francisco Lindor at shortstop but also aided by Giovanny Urshela at third and Lonnie Chisenhall in right field.
The Indians pitching staff benefited the most from this dramatic improvement, because while the Indians actually pitched slightly worse in the second half of the season, they allowed less runs. The Indians’ xFIP — a stat designed to measure a pitcher’s performance independent of the defense behind him — ballooned slightly from 3.50 in the first half to 3.66 in the second, but their ERA decreased from 3.80 to 3.53. This is a big deal, because the Indians pitching staff is undoubtedly the team’s biggest strength, and having a defense that improved that much over the course of the season just made it that much stronger.
It seems like the Indians haven’t had a consistent offense since the days of Belle, Ramirez, and Thome, and last year came with its share of frustrations. But after starting slow, Francisco Lindor slashed .310/.353/.482 for the season while slugging 12 home runs. He may regress this year, particularly in the power department, but the fact that he started slow and got better as he got more time in the Majors suggests that the dropoff might not be as severe as other prospects the Indians have brought up. And with Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley hitting well all season, adding Lindor into the mix made the second half a lot more enjoyable to watch, even if the improvements were modest.
All of this added up to a team that was 42-46 before the All Star break, but finished the season at 81-80 (with a Pythagorean win expectation of 84-77) by going 39-34 the rest of the way despite a really young and wildly inexperienced roster. So I’m pretty excited about the 2016 season, because while every season comes with its share of unexpected twists and turns, the Indians are retaining most of their improved defense and just about all of their excellent pitching, meaning that we should expect the 2016 Indians to resemble the second half of 2015 more than the first half of 2015. My preview of the 2016 baseball season is after the break.
A couple years ago, the Atlanta Braves announced a plan to build a new stadium, abandoning Turner Field before the Braves had even been there twenty years. The move has generated its fair share of controversy and discussion: some don’t like that the Braves are moving out of Atlanta proper and into a more upscale suburban area, and many point out that the stadium — SunTrust Park — will be mostly paid for by Cobb County, which surely has better things to spend its money on. I had just visited Turner Field for the first time a few months before the announcement, and at the time I noted that “I had the feeling that in the 18 years of the stadium’s existence, the owners have taken care to keep it up to date,” and if you asked me what baseball teams needed new stadiums, Atlanta would have been prioritized at best halfway down the list.
Cleveland is a different market than Atlanta, and Atlanta’s situation is different because of its relationship with Disney, but a year later, the Indians’ announcement that they were doubling down on Progressive Field stood in stark contrast to Atlanta’s plan. Progressive Field has undergone several renovations in the past — the most recent major renovation was in 2004 and brought a new Jumbotron and auxiliary scoreboards — but the proposed improvements promised to be the biggest by far. To me, Progressive Field has never really felt outdated, even though it’s now older than all but 11 active MLB stadiums, but I was intrigued and impressed by the scope of the improvements the Indians were making. And while it took me a while, I finally got a chance to check out the (almost) final product. My impressions are after the break.
Going into the 2015 season, the bad news for the Cleveland Indians is that the renovations to their 21-year old ballpark might not be complete by the home opener. It was a historically cold winter in northeast Ohio, and despite the conservative planning and scheduling and the best efforts of the construction crews, the renovations to Progressive Field fell a little behind and it might end up being too much ground to make up this late in the offseason.
The good news is that Progressive Field is really the Tribe’s biggest question mark, which is refreshing because for the Indians that’s pretty abnormal. It seems like most offseasons feature a lot of roster turnover, some low-risk but nominal free agent signings, and at least a couple roster slots that are open for competition if not completely up in the air. But this year, the Indians will enter the season with their 2014 team largely intact: there were no major departures and there was only one major arrival in Brandon Moss. This is a team that won 85 games last season in one of the league’s more competitive divisions, so the fact that it’s mostly the same team returning is a really good thing. In fact, I think this is the best the Indians have looked going into a season in a long time, and with any luck, Tribe fans will be in for a fun summer and maybe even a fun October.
The Indians opened the unofficial second half of their season last night with a comeback 9-3 win over the Tigers. The Indians started the second half at 47-47, and despite the fact that 47-47 is only .500 and only good enough for third place, I think I’m mostly relieved, if not pleasantly surprised, at what the Indians have managed to make of their season so far. The Tribe aren’t out of it by any means, and if they’re able to reverse some of the problems they’ve had in the first half, we’ll be well on our way to another October run.
This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.
At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.
That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.
A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.
In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. After that ridiculously long introduction, I’ll break down the Indians’ chances after the break.
Last night I went to my second Indians game of the year, the last home game of the season for the Tribe. Indians games are always a good idea, but ever since moving to South Carolina I try to get to a game every time I’m in town. I planned this visit home about a month and a half ago, but as the weeks passed and the trip got closer, the American League Wild Card race got closer and more interesting, and it became more and more evident that it’d be important to be at Progressive Field sometime this week. I decided it was important enough to leave a day early to give myself time to get to the stadium before the Tribe wrapped their home schedule.
I should mention that the night before last, the Indians led for most of the game before giving up a one-run lead in the top of the ninth on two White Sox solo home runs. But then in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and a runner on second, Jason Giambi, who is 42 and earlier this season slid head first into first base to stretch out at infield single, hammered a 1-1 pitch into the lower deck to give the Indians a 5-4 win. (Reason #1,425,241 why I love baseball: plays like this. Did I mention the score was 14-2 at the time?) It was the Indians’ 11th walk-off, which means that for any given home game this season, you had almost a 15% chance to see a walk-off win (want to see them all?). But it was last night that seemed to say, hey, you know what? We might actually pull this off. And it was for that reason that the Final Day crowd numbered 30,942, not a sellout, but a pretty good night all the same.
I’ve been to over fifty games at Progressive Field. Three of those were Opening Days, two more were playoff games; another was a division clincher and every game I attended before 2002 was a sellout. But last night was unique. I learned that the people at a last home game of the season are a vastly different crowd than Opening Day or even the playoffs. Opening Day, in a lot of ways, is a national holiday. After all the preceding pageantry and ceremony, the game seems almost secondary. People are there because it seems like a place to be that day (and if you can use it as an excuse to get out of a half day of work, why not)? Playoff games are also different: playoff fans are intense, but not necessarily knowledgable; excited, but not necessarily invested. If the Indians were to make the playoffs, the stadium would sell out for each home game. But the odds would be that a good portion of those fans hadn’t been to a game in 2013, maybe longer. Many of them only tune in once things get really interesting (sort of like me and the NBA).
But the last game of the season crowd was really interesting. These were knowledgable fans, who knew when to cheer (I give them credit for the standing ovation for Giambi, but I give them even more credit for the standing ovation for Masterson). When the scores of the Rays’ and Rangers’ games were announced, and both were winning, the crowd knew to boo, because those are both teams that would help the Indians out a ton by losing. There were big roars of approval for strikeouts in big moments. I didn’t ask around, but I bet most people weren’t at Progressive Field last night for the first time in 2013. The difference between the Opening Day crowd and the Final Day crowd can be summed up with the following statement: the Opening Day crowd is glad to have baseball back, but doesn’t really notice it’s gone; the Final Day crowd is dreading the offseason, dreading the long, baseball-free winter.
Last night felt like a final number for the Indians, a band on stage playing their final song of the set. But the way we were roaring, the electricity in the building and the intensity of what wasn’t a particularly close game, it felt like the crowd was demanding an encore. The Indians won last night, extending their winning streak to six overall, fourteen against the White Sox (which is ridiculous), and running their home record to 51-30. It was a typical Indians win: not entirely clean, not entirely efficient, but effective, and it got contributions from everyone.
I remembered last night that the Indians are more than a team who plays in Cleveland. Back when I was a kid I liked all the Indians, but to me they were always part of a whole and if they weren’t on the Indians I didn’t necessarily root for them. I remember assuming that as the fan, I cared the most, that if they lost it wouldn’t bother them much and they’d just try again the next season. But as the 90s and the yearly playoff visits faded into memory, I came to realize that careers are finite, and chances like this don’t come around all the time. Which is why I want this not just for the organization, the fans and the city of Cleveland, but for the guys on the team. For Nick Swisher, who turned down money from big market teams to play the hometown hero. For Brantley, Bourn, Chisenhall, Kipnis and Santana, who have yet to play in the postseason despite being super talented. For Jason Giambi, who could have retired a long time ago but loves the game so much and just wants another shot. For Terry Francona, who passed up more talented and more wealthy organizations to manage the Indians.
For now, the job at home is done and done. The Indians took care of business on their final six-game homestand, annihilating two teams that they should have annihilated. Their hard work has paid off: the Indians control their destiny. It’s up to them to keep that control.
Four games left. Roll Tribe.
The Cleveland Indians, to say the least, had an atypical offseason. During most offseasons, Indians fans gaze wistfully and briefly through the toy store windows at high priced free agents who are being wooed by richer teams, before coming back to reality and settling for secondhand free agents who are longshots at best. To the credit of the Indians scouting department, some of those longshots actually do pay off (Derek Lowe in 2011 springs to mind), but many of them don’t (Grady Sizemore, Mark DeRosa, David Dellucci. I had abusive nicknames in mind for Dellucci, but in light of the coming baseball season, I’ll hold back). But this offseason was different. Not only did the Indians land Nick Swisher after a somewhat-touching, somewhat-pathetic courting process, but they also landed Michael Bourn (how long until the Indians PR team makes their first Bourne Identity joke?), Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, and a plethora of other players on minor league contracts like Daisuke Matsusaka, Scott Kazmir and Jason Giambi.
It was really nice to see how Indians fans reacted to the Indians investment in their future. But will it be enough? Is this team good enough to contend? I’ll preview the 2013 Major League Baseball season, with particular emphasis on the Indians, after the break.
The Major League Baseball playoffs started over the weekend, which means that despite the fact that the Indians season has been officially over for a little less than a week, you could say that the Indians have been in offseason mode for months now. So rather than review this season, I’ll just jump straight into what the Indians should do in the offseason, after the break.
This past weekend, I went to three different baseball games in three different cities featuring six different teams. There’s a story with all of them, and since my trip took me around the perimeter of Lake Erie, I’m making this a series of posts called the Lake Erie Baseball Odyssey.
Last Thursday afternoon, I went to my first Indians game at Progressive Field in more than a year and a half. I had vowed that 2003 would be the last time I missed a game. But as they often do, things happened, and last year, I never got to see the Indians at Progressive Field last year (although I did see them in Minneapolis). So I was happy to see the Indians at home, and I was even happier that they managed to come back from a 4-0 deficit and walk off with a win.
But last Thursday was also the start of a controversy. Chris Perez, the Indians closer, entered the game in the top of the 10th with one out and immediately allowed a single and a walk. The fans that remained of the 12,894 tickets sold booed him, before Perez found the strike zone and got the last two outs of the inning. On Saturday, after a much less eventful appearance which resulted in a save, Perez ripped the fans that booed him, saying:
I don’t think they have a reason to boo me. They booed me against the Mariners when I had two guys on. It feels like I can’t even give up a base runner without people booing me. It’s even worse when there’s only 5,000 in the stands, because then you can hear it. It p****s me off.
And you know what? I agree with him.
Since it’s been almost two months since I last blogged, I thought I’d take a few minutes on this Jackie Robinson Day to talk about the Indians after eight games.