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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | December 3, 2016

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Inside the Numbers: A Look at How Close the Indians are to a Playoff Team

Inside the Numbers: A Look at How Close the Indians are to a Playoff Team

| On 02, Nov 2015

Are the Cleveland Indians really on the cusp of being a playoff team? Do the Indians really have a strong core to be proud of? Is it really a young core to be built around for several years to come? And if the Indians really are that close to a playoff berth, how close are they to competing for and winning the World Series?

The Indians organization—the front office, managerial staff and players—tell fans that they are close and that indeed, yes, the Tribe is on the cusp of great things, all the time. Fans watch the games, listen to the organization and their message and just accept it as fact. However, no actual data or evidence is ever provided to fans to try and put a numerical value on how close the Indians really are to a playoff spot or being a serious World Series contender. The Indians missed out on a playoff spot by 5.5 games in 2015 and 4.0 games in 2014, but what is necessary to bridge that gap?

Over the last month, I’ve been trying to answer some of those questions by comparing the 2013-2015 Cleveland Indians to the playoff teams of the last ten seasons, a sample size of 88 teams overall. The results, and the message from the organization, seem mixed and potentially not as accurate as they lead fans to believe.

Playoff teams and World Series winning teams have been built in many ways. There is no exact formula, obviously. Some teams are built around strong offenses, while others are built with pitching and defense. Even teams built around pitching are built differently, some concentrated on starting pitching, while others are focused on the bullpen. A World Series-winning team can take shape in many ways.

And since a playoff team, or World Series-winning team, can be built in many ways, the best way to attempt to evaluate each team was using WAR (Wins Above Replacement). WAR is an attempt by the sabermetric community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. In essence, it tries to take players who may have totally different roles, like Francisco Lindor and Cody Allen, and give each a value to determine who has a greater value and impact upon the team’s success. Winning teams are built in many ways, but all winning teams have good WARs. Using WAR and the 88 playoff teams since 2006, I attempt to answer some of the questions we just assume to be true when the Cleveland Indians tell us they are close.

 

What does it take to be a playoff team?

Over the last 10 seasons, the average playoff team has had an overall WAR of 44.2 to make the playoffs. The 2007 Boston Red Sox had the best overall WAR of any team in the last decade at 60.2. They, along with the 2009 New York Yankees (56.7) and 2013 Boston Red Sox (55.2), comprise three of the four best teams, evaluated by WAR, over the last ten years. All three won the World Series. The 2011 New York Yankees (59.0) and the 2011 Texas Rangers (54.9), were the second and fifth best teams, respectively. The Yankees lost to the Rangers in the American League Championship Series and the Rangers lost to the Cardinals in the World Series.

Top Five Playoff WARs (2006-2015)

Year Team Core WAR Overall WAR Core Avg Age Overall Avg Age Top 4 SP WAR Result
2007 Boston Red Sox 43.9 60.2 29.2 30.2 16.8 96-66, Won World Series
2011 New York Yankees 44.2 59.0 30.6 30.7 16.5 97-65, Lost in ALDS
2009 New York Yankees 45.0 56.7 32.9 30.8 15.3 103-59, Won World Series
2013 Boston Red Sox 43.2 55.2 31.1 29.8 11.0 97-65, Won World Series
2011 Texas Rangers 43.9 54.9 28.2 29.2 15.2 96-66, Lost World Series

Playoff Averages


36.4


44.2


28.6


29.1


12.1

The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (36.0) actually pulled a pretty major upset in winning the World Series and defeating the Rangers that season. The 2011 Cardinals and the 2006 Cardinals (31.0) had the two lowest team WARs that still won the World Series.

The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks (29.9) are statistically the worst team to make the playoffs in the last 10 seasons. The Diamondbacks are the only team to have a team WAR of less than 30.0 and make the playoffs. Only four teams—the 2007 Diamondbacks, 2006 Cardinals (31.0), 2014 Cardinals (33.0), and 2011 Diamondbacks (35.0)—have made the playoffs with a team WAR of 35.0 or less.

Bottom Five Playoff WARs (2006-2015)

Year Team Core WAR Overall WAR Core Avg Age Overall Avg Age Top 4 SP WAR Result
2007 Arizona Diamondbacks 28.1 29.9 28.2 26.6 11.9 90-72, Lost in NLCS
2006 St. Louis Cardinals 29.8 31.0 29.8 29.7 5.0 83-78, Won World Series
2014 St. Louis Cardinals 33.8 33.0 29.4 28.8 12.8 90-72, Lost in NLCS
2011 Arizona Diamondbacks 33.3 35.0 26.4 28.3 9.7 94-68, Lost in NLDS
2011 St. Louis Cardinals 30.5 36.0 29.9 29.4 6.2 90-72, Won World Series

Playoff Averages


36.4


44.2


28.6


29.1


12.1

The 2007 Cleveland Indians—who had the best team of the last decade down three games to one in the American League Championship Series—had a team WAR of 46.7. The 2007 team was better than an average playoff team, actually 28th of 88 playoff teams.

But the Terry Francona-led 2013 Cleveland Indians were 76th of 88 playoff teams in total WAR at 38.1, considerably lower than the average. The 2013 Indians, to no surprise, are the best team of the Francona era. The 2014 Indians had a team WAR of 36.5, and despite being 3.5 games worse in the standings, the 2015 Indians had a team WAR of 39.3, almost three full wins better and closer to the average playoff team. However, in terms of being a playoff team, all three were below average models, but indeed potentially playoff caliber quality. All three teams were better than the bottom tier of playoff teams.

The Indians are a playoff caliber quality team, but barely.

Click here for: Ten Years of Playoff WAR Data

 

So, even if the Indians got into the playoffs, they wouldn’t last very long, right?

Not exactly! When teams and organizations feel like all things are equal once they get in the playoffs, they might be right. Three of the top four teams in the last ten years won the World Series, but three of the worst six playoff teams over the last decade have also won the World Series. The 2014 San Francisco Giants (36.1), 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (36.0) and 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (31.0) each won the World Series with—by playoff team’s standards—poor squads.

Last Ten World Series Winners vs. 2013 – 2015 Cleveland Indians (by WAR)

Year Team Core WAR Overall WAR Core Avg Age Overall Avg Age Top 4 SP WAR Result
2007 Boston Red Sox 43.9 60.2 29.2 30.2 16.8 96-66, Won World Series
2009 New York Yankees 45.0 56.7 32.9 30.8 15.3 103-59, Won World Series
2013 Boston Red Sox 43.2 55.2 31.1 29.8 11.0 97-65, Won World Series
2010 San Francisco Giants 36.1 46.7 27.4 29.8 14.6 92-70, Won World Series
2008 Philadelphia Phillies 38.3 42.3 30.5 30.0 6.3 92-70, Won World Series
2015 Kansas City Royals 33.2 42.0 29.4 29.2 8.4 95-67, Won World Series
2015 Cleveland Indians 32.3 39.3 26.9 28.0 13.7 81-80, 3rd place in AL Central
2013 Cleveland Indians 32.4 38.1 28.4 28.7 8.6 92-70, Lost in ALWC
2012 San Francisco Giants 34.6 37.9 26.9 27.7 8.2 94-6,8 Won World Series
2014 Cleveland Indians 34.3 36.5 29.3 28.6 14.6 85-77, 3rd place in AL Central
2014 San Francisco Giants 29.5 36.1 30.1 28.5 8.8 88-74, Won World Series
2011 St. Louis Cardinals 30.5 36.0 29.9 29.4 6.2 90-72, Won World Series
2006 St. Louis Cardinals 29.8 31.0 29.8 29.7 5.0 83-78, Won World Series

Playoff Averages


36.4


44.2


28.6


29.1


12.1

All three Francona teams were better than the three lowest-WAR World Series winners.

The 2012 San Francisco Giants (37.9) were just slightly better, but still not as good as the 2013 Wild Card Indians. So, maybe once a team gets into the playoffs, anything truly can happen, or maybe the Giants and the Cardinals seem to have a formula to success the other 28 teams have yet to uncover.

Regardless, if the Indians can get in they have a chance as, with the Royals’ win the World Series this year, no non-Giant or non-Cardinal team will have won the World Series without a team WAR of at least 42.0 in the last decade.

 

But the Indians’ young core is really good and they have a chance to grow and improve!

Again, not exactly! For the sake of the study, I identified a team’s “core” as the 10 players with the best individual WARs for that season. The average core WAR of a playoff team over the last ten years is 36.4.

The 2013 Indians had a below average core WAR of 32.4. Strangely, the 2014 Indians had a 34.3 core WAR before slipping back down to 32.3 again in 2015.

Comparing Core WAR of 2013 – 2015 Indians to 2006 – 2015 Playoff Teams

Rank Year Team Core WAR Overall WAR Result
1 2011 Philadelphia Phillies 47.0 53.9 102-60, Lost in NLDS
10 2010 New York Yankees 43.4 49.7 95-67, Lost in ALCS
20 2015 Toronto Blue Jays 40.5 50.5 93-69, Lost in ALCS
30 2012 Atlanta Braves 38.3 38.9 94-68, Lost in NLWC
40 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers 36.7 43.4 92-70, Lost in NLDS
Playoff Averages 36.4 44.2
50 2011 Milwaukee Brewers 35.6 41.3 96-66, Lost in NLCS
60 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates 34.5 41.4 94-68, Lost in NLDS
61 2014 Cleveland Indians 34.3 36.5 85-77, 3rd place in AL Central
70 2013 Cleveland Indians 32.4 38.1 92-70, Lost in ALWC
73 2015 Cleveland Indians 32.3 39.3 81-80, 3rd place in AL Central
80 2006 San Diego Padres 30.0 42.0 88-74, Lost in NLDS
90 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers 27.9 36.5 84-78, Lost in NLCS

 

In terms of quality of core for a playoff team, each of the last three Francona teams do not meet the average standard. Possibly even more upsetting is that in 2014, it took a Cy Young performance from Corey Kluber and a top-3 MVP performance for Michael Brantley to improve two wins over the 2013 and 2015 teams. It would take another two wins to get to be an average playoff core, so despite having two players that were near the best in the American League, the Indians’ core—by playoff standards—is below average. It also seems to have plateaued in terms of growth and development.

Also, while the Indians’ core WAR has remained the same, the players have changed that have comprised the ten best WARs from season to season. Again, looking at the 2013-2015 Indians as a whole, you can easily accept each of the following players as perceived or expected core players at some point over the last three seasons:

Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Cody Anderson, Cody Allen, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Bourn, David Murphy, Nick Swisher, Trevor Bauer, Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez

Unfortunately, core players don’t always achieve core performance. In 2013, only eight of ten core spots were occupied by players on that list. In 2014, it dipped to just six and in 2015, it was seven. Players like Ryan Raburn, T.J. House, Scott Atchison, Jose Ramirez, Lonnie Chisenhall, Josh Tomlin and Jeff Manship have occupied spots in top ten’s. When core players have injuries or below average seasons, like Gomes did in 2015 and Kipnis in 2014, the overall product suffers.

Injuries and down years are part of the game. Not everyone peaks at the same time. However, the line is always very fine and depth is always a challenge for the financially-strapped Tribe. When core players underperform, there isn’t always someone near the same level to step in and replace them, and expecting all core players to peak at the same time is a bit unfair. Indians team president Chris Antonetti often reminds fans and media that development is not linear.

 

The good thing though is that this core is young and can keep growing though, so doesn’t that core WAR number have potential to rise in 2016?

Maybe, but the core is not as young as you might think. The average age of core players on playoff teams for the last ten seasons has been 28.3 years. The 2013 Atlanta Braves (24.5 years) were the youngest core playoff team, followed by the 2015 Houston Astros (25.7 years) and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays (25.9 years).

The Indians, however, are rather average in terms of the age of their core players. The 2013 Indians had a core average age of 28.4, almost hitting the overall average. Meanwhile, the 2014 core Indians were a little long in the tooth at 29.3 years. When you have 38-year-old Atchison as a core player, that number will rise. The 2015 core Indians are a little closer to young at 26.9 years old. That number was pulled down this year by 21-year-old Lindor, 24-year-old Anderson and 25-year-old Salazar.

But looking to 2016 and the age of the Indians’ core, most players are in the prime of their career and past what most would consider their development stages. Kipnis will enter his 29-year-old season in 2016, while Kluber will be 30, Carrasco 29, and Brantley 29. Gomes had an injury-plagued season, but enters his 28-year-old season and, coming off a poor season, Santana will be in his 30-year-old season. The most consistent, reliable core Indians players are currently in the prime of their career. If anything, these players are giving the Indians the best their career likely has to offer between their year 27-30 seasons, before beginning to decline. It’s possible Santana’s decline has already begun.

The Indians aren’t as young as they pretend to be. If they intend to cash in on Brantley, Kipnis, Kluber, Carrasco and Gomes’ prime, they need to bolster the roster around them quickly. If they’re hoping their own core improves through development, it isn’t likely going to be from this group, but instead from Lindor, Anderson, Salazar, Giovanny Urshela, Jose Ramirez, Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier. It remains to be seen if the younger group can develop in time, before the older group passes their prime.

 

Do the Indians do anything at or above playoff level?

Yes! Actually, the thing they’ve built this team upon, they do very well. The Indians have built this team on starting pitching and told fans they have a playoff-caliber staff, and they’re right. It takes four starting pitchers to succeed in the playoffs, so I compiled the WARs of each of the 88 playoff team’s top four starters and the Indians come out rather favorably.

Notable Top 4 Starting Pitcher Combined WARs of Recent Playoff Teams vs. 2013 – 2015 Indians

Rank Year Team Overall WAR Top 4 SP WAR Result
1 2011 Philadelphia Phillies 53.9 27.5 102-60, Lost in NLDS
10 2007 Boston Red Sox 60.2 16.8 96-66, Won World Series
12 2007 Cleveland Indians 46.7 16.3 96-66, Lost in ALCS
20 2015 Chicago Cubs 41.7 15.3 97-65, Lost in NLCS
26 2014 Cleveland Indians 36.5 14.6 85-77, 3rd place in AL Central
33 2015 Cleveland Indians 39.3 13.7 81-80, 3rd place in AL Central
46 2015 New York Mets 36.9 12.3 90-72, Lost World Series
Playoff Averages 44.2 12.1
53 2013 Boston Red Sox 55.2 11.0 97-65, Won World Series
64 2015 Toronto Blue Jays 50.5 9.6 93-69, Lost in ALCS
69 2014 San Francisco Giants 36.1 8.8 88-74, Won World Series
73 2013 Cleveland Indians 38.1 8.6 92-70, Lost in ALWC
76 2015 Kansas City Royals 42.0 8.4 95-67, Won World Series

 

The average playoff team has a top four starting pitchers’ WAR of 12.1. Believe it or not, the 2013 Indians defied the odds and made the playoffs with just 8.6 WAR from their top four starting pitchers. That will happen when Masterson and Kluber get hurt late in the season and Jimenez had a very lukewarm first four and a half months of the season before becoming the best pitcher in the American League in September.

But since the emergence of Kluber in 2014, the Indians have had an above average playoff starting staff. A year ago, during Kluber’s Cy Young season, the Indians’ top four starters had a WAR of 14.6 and followed it up this season with a WAR of 13.7. That’s an encouraging sign because it lends belief that the Indians are an above average starting rotation, even in the playoffs. By comparison, they’re better than this season’s New York Mets of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, who managed to put up 12.3 WAR.

The Indians’ top four starters in 2015 (Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Anderson) are a rotation to build around moving forward. Tomlin was a member of the team’s core of ten players in 2015 and Bauer was eleventh on the team in WAR. What’s concerning are the strong rumors that the Indians will trade one of their starting pitchers this winter to acquire additional offense.

If the Indians were to make a trade, it isn’t going to be Tomlin, who has had stints of success but can never be counted on for consistency. Bauer, still has potential to develop, but also has a track record of not working well with coaches and may be slowly alienating his second organization before turning 25 years old. If the Indians are to make a trade to bring a serious bat to the lineup, they’ll likely have to trade Carrasco or Salazar. That means their largest strength, and one above average playoff attribute, would take a serious hit moving forward. The Indians would be left to hope Anderson’s development continues and does not relapse, Bauer matures and Tomlin finally becomes stable at 31 years old. All three happening seems unlikely, and the organization’s one strength would be light on depth moving forward.

 

What do the Indians need to bridge the gap to being a legitimate playoff and World Series contender?

If you believe the Indians are just one player away, then that player needs to be a 3-4 win player that becomes a part of their core and needs to be acquired without damaging the strength of their starting pitching. Since the Indians have a solid starting rotation and back end of the bullpen, it’s pretty obvious that player should be a part of the offensive side of the roster. With Lindor, Kipnis and Brantley entrenched as core players and Gomes and Santana believed to have bounce back seasons in 2016, the most logical positions would be center field, right field or third base.

Adding valuable core players isn’t easy though, and it is even tougher if you are unwilling to trade from your core. If Cleveland wants to add a player of that caliber, they’ll have to do it either through free agency, or by trading prospects to strengthen their roster and take advantage of their current core player’s prime years.

The Indians attempted to sign free agents to bridge the gap before the 2013 season when they signed Swisher and Bourn. Unfortunately, that did not work out and signing players already in their 30s is a high-risk gamble, especially for a team that is financially strapped. And if the Indians elect to trade from their farm system to strengthen their current roster, it will be the first time in a very long time. The farm system does have improved depth, but is not working at a surplus by any stretch.

So, the Indians may be just one player away from serious contention—but it is one very good player. And if they don’t acquire that one player, and instead hope resurgences from Gomes and Santana will happen and Urshela, Chisenhall and Abraham Almonte will continue to grow, the Indians will likely find themselves three to five games short of a Wild Card spot again.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

Comments

  1. joe K

    We were a playoff team, but the lack of a front office that is inept an continues to disregard the main shortfalls hurts them.

  2. I personally feel that the tribe could make 2 trades and be a favorite in the American League. Trading Santana, Salazar, Bauer and a couple of prospects can possibly bring in Ozuna, Midland, and Lamb and give the offensive production the pitching staff needs.

  3. I’m a lifelong Tigers fan who has wished the Indians well when they made the playoffs in the last two decades or so. I honestly think there’s talent in Cleveland that could turn into a solid playoff contender, but there’s something missing here: commitment. I think of two particular instances which just made me shake my head. When the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a big contract, Dolan whined, “Why did Mike Ilitch do that?” The answer is simple. Ilitch TRIED to win. That he didn’t win really isn’t the point. At least he tried. All Dolan does is sit back and pinch pennies while what fans he has grumble.That brings me to the other point. The Tigers came to Progressive Field for a four-game series in early September and, while the Indians were a long shot to make the playoffs at that point, they still had a shot. The series drew on an average of almost 30,000 EMPTY seats for every game. The Indians have ranked last or next to last in league attendance for most of the last decade. It’s no wonder that Indians players have grumbled with justification at the lack of support. The Tribe has, potentially, a good young team and really a nice ballpark (as compared to the old days at dreadful Municipal Stadium), but until both Management and the fans act like they want a winner, there won’t be a winner in Cleveland.

  4. I don’t see any free agent that is worth signing for the money that it would take. Every free agent that the Indians has signed has gotten injured anyways. Without PED’s to keep players on the field it is a gamble even for big market teams.