Regular Season Journal: looking beyond the easy narrative

As we are fast approaching Memorial Day, a convenient point at which to evaluate a baseball season, I thought I would pick today to offer my off-the cuff thoughts on how the Indians and Twins have played, given that that was how I framed my outlook this past winter. No baseball team is its own island, as they are only deemed a success or failure by comparison to its competition, as such the Tribe’s 2019 season will be judged will be its record compared to that of the Twins.

Today’s standings see the Twins leading the Indians by 5.5 games, having the second-largest lead in baseball (the Astros have a 8.5-game lead over the second-place Angels in the AL West). The Indians are 24-20, while the Twins are 30-15, trailing only the Astros among all MLB teams. The Indians have a +3 win differential, which intimates that they’ve performed worse than their record would indicate. The Twins have a +77 win differential, and their record accurately reflects their performance (see the “X-W/L” column below).

How does this mesh with projections saying the Indians would waltz to another AL Central title? The Twins pitching has greatly over-performed projections (which were rather dismal) and their offense has also over-performed projections (which were already positive). The Indians are still allowing fewer R/G than the Twins (3.77 compared to 4.02), but that was supposed to be the method the Indians would use to power past the Twins this year. Instead, run-prevention is almost a push, while the Twins are blowing the Indians away in terms of run scoring (5.73 versus 3.84). Should these trends continue another six weeks, the Indians are going to need to start setting their sights on the Wild Card rather than the Division, as unless they get extremely lucky (or the Twins unlucky) they aren’t going to keep pace with that run gap.

As for causes for this turn of events, I would caution against assigning the team’s payroll reduction as the presiding one. I admit it is an easy narrative to grasp, but as with many easy narratives, it falls apart once you look more closely at it. The Indians are not one Michael Brantley (worth 2.1 bWAR so far for the Astros) from catching the Twins in the standings, and that is because several of their existing stars, whether it be Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor (the former due to not hitting, the latter due mostly to injury) are also under-performing. The trade of Yandy Diaz for Jake Bauers, which was more of a challenge trade than anything else, has also hurt the offense* based on how the two have played thus far. Jason Kipnis is on pace to have the worst season of his career. Tyler Naquin, who the Indians keep giving opportunities to, has not provided them with the type of production expected from a mid-first round pick. Bradley Zimmer, another past first-round selection, still hasn’t played a rehab game. All these offensive failures have little to do with spending and much more to do with either coaching or front office evaluations.**

On the other side of the ledger, the Indians have maintained their excellent run prevention despite losing both Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger for extended periods of time. The Tribe front office’s moves look much better on this front, as surprising performances from Jefry Rodriguez (who came in the Yan Gomes trade, a deal I unequivocally panned this winter) and Nick Wittgren (who was acquired from the Marlins), not to mention addition by subtraction in the bullpen by letting both Cody Allen and Andrew Miller walk. Spending $5.5M on Danny Salazar (who has yet to appear in even a minor-league game) while cutting costs elsewhere is really the only blemish that I can see on the offseason pitching moves so far.

*I still maintain that the trade may work out for the Indians in the long term (I like Bauers’ future), but it has hurt the Indians this year.

**
My goal here is not to act as an apologist for Cleveland ownership, who I think misjudged by trying to save $10-15M and justifying it by thinking they would win the division anyway. Instead, by also bringing up failures not related to spending I hope to paint a picture much closer to the true causes of this team’s shortcomings than by just fixating on spending alone. At the end of a season, a fan isn’t going to (or shouldn’t) care about what the payroll was at any point of the year, but instead whether the team made the playoffs or not.

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