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Indians Indians Archive Setting the Bar on a Lazy Sunday
Written by Paul Cousineau

Paul Cousineau


While the rationalization over the hiring of Pat Shurmur occupies most minds across the North Coast, now that pitchers and catchers officially report in less than a month, a quiet off-season will finally give way to the crack of the bat and the smack of the ball into the glove, albeit in Arizona. Given that most Indians’ fans have been waiting for this time since the final out of 2010 and given that little has changed regarding the make-up of the team from that final out to today, perhaps it’s time to take a look at expectations for the 2011 Indians.

Thus, now that the ceilings have been painted throughout my house and with the driveway as clear as anyone could ever imagine with the amount of accumulated snow around said driveway, let’s get loose a Lazy Sunday attempting to determine what can realistically be expected from the 2011 Tribe and what the performance of the team, in relation to those expectations, mean to the overall health of the franchise…

You’ll remember (or maybe you won’t) how this past week’s Tomahawks closed out, scratching the surface on the idea that “if the Indians were to even stick around .500 for the first couple of months of the season…there may be some seeds of interest sewn around a building team that (quite suddenly) doesn’t look as far away or seems to be on par with the other major sports franchises of the town”.

If that arbitrary thought planted any kind of seed, leave it to Anthony Castrovince to grab his gardening gloves and watering can as he took great care in nurturing that “seed” of an idea to fruition in a fantastic piece taking that idea and running with it. If you haven’t yet seen it, I would encourage you to go and read the whole missive as snippets aren’t going to do it justice.

That being said, these would be the two most pertinent thoughts as it relates to where this Sunday is heading in this space:
Never mind that the Indians’ last rebuild, tenuous as the end result might have been, saw the club win 93 games and barely miss the postseason just three years removed from the initiation of the process. And never mind that such a turnaround looks like -- wait for it, “Spaceballs” fans -- “ludicrous speed” when compared to the ongoing and longstanding droughts in places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Cleveland possesses a bit of an impatient fan base. A nearly 50-year wait between titles will do that to a town.
While 2011 is not projected to see the Tribe take that grand leap into contention, it is most definitely a time when this team, which attracted the lowest attendance total in the Majors last season, has a chance to win back the hearts of -- or, at the least, generate some interest from -- even the most fickle fans.

With that groundwork laid, AC then itemizes the major determining factors for the season that I’m not going to cherry-pick from as (again) the whole piece is worth a read as a reminder as to where the Indians currently stand and what needs to go right for them to make 2011 a “success”.

But that idea led me to wonder, what would it take – in terms of on-the-field-performance – to consider 2011 a successful season?

Are there benchmarks that would push it one way or another?
Certainly, individual development of particular players plays a major role here as certain players (LaPorta, Masterson, and Brantley) need to take leaps to consistency while other players need to re-capture consistency (Carmona, Sizemore, and Hafner) while still more players need to build upon the lessons, and limited success, learned in their brief time in MLB (Santana and Carrasco, most notably).

But those individual’s performances are easily quantifiable and will start to reveal themselves in the first few months of the season and, while those individual performances are going to go a long way in determining the success or outlook for the team, what would constitute “success” or a sunny “outlook” for the team in a big picture view in terms of a win total?

indians_2004Just to introduce some context, the 2003 Indians were 68-94 (lest you’ve blocked it out of your synapses, the 2010 Tribe was 69-93) and the following year, that young group of players at the beginning of the last decade took a CONSIDERABLE step forward in their development, winning 12 more games in 2004, going 80-82. Players like Victor, Hafner, and Westbrook asserted themselves very firmly as “core” players and while others showed flickers that would never catch fire (Broussard, Coco, Matt Miller…no seriously, look at that team) and others failed to achieve consistency (two particular LHP come to mind…again, look at that team) or began their fade into oblivion, the building blocks started to fall into place. Of course, that same group would make another SERIOUS jump of 13 wins the next year, in their 93-win campaign in 2005 with more success ahead of them.

Regardless, at a certain point in that 2004 season, the Indians’ “Plan” turned into something that fans could very easily see and perhaps even buy into as a young group of unproven talent began to prove themselves. After a slow start (the 2004 Tribe was 18-26 on May 26th), the young Indians would never go further than 8 games under .500, actually reaching the .500 mark for the 1st time on June 21st at 34-34. In a weak AL Central, the Indians climbed their way out of an early hole and started to show that they were capable of at least playing .500 baseball or better, despite the obvious youth of the team and the question marks on the team.

Interestingly, the 2004 team (after reaching the .500 mark towards the end of June) would not actually break past the .500 mark until July 25th, as they spent over a month hovering around .500, bouncing between 3rd and 4th place in the division. After putting an impressive run together to start August, the Indians found themselves at 63-55 on August 14th, just 1 GB of the division-leading Twins. From that point until the end of the season, the Indians dropped in the standings, going below .500 a mere two weeks later, with a late-season bid to finish 81-81 coming up just short.

Why is it instructive to look at that timeline of the 2004 season?
Realistically, it likely represents what would be considered a best-case scenario (or at least and “awfully-good-case” scenario) for the Indians of 2011. While I’d love to say that “if everything broke right for the 2011 Indians, they might sniff some contention in what is a stronger, if still flawed, division”, the more pragmatic approach to what to expect from the Indians has them finishing somewhere between the low-70’s and the low-to-mid-80’s in wins.

While that’s a pretty wide range of victories, it’s an idea that is delved into pretty deeply by Adam Van Arsdale at LGT, who attempts to legitimately find a range of finishes for the 2011 Tribe based on two sets of projected WAR (optimistic and pessimistic…or “good” and “bad”) for the principals of the 2011 Tribe. The entire piece is fascinating to read, though beware if you’re unsure about how WAR works and how Adam uses it to come up with his predictions – which, truth be told, is mid-60’s in wins as a low end and the low-80’s at the high end – you might find yourself confused due to the vagaries of WAR and through no fault of the author. That being said, the process is well-done and the conclusions hold up in terms of realistic “guesses” for 2011 records.

Of course, if you’re looking for a comprehensive “guess” as to what the entire MLB standings might look like this Fall, RLYW has their projections based on the CAIRO projection numbers and, in case you’re wondering (and I’m guessing you are), the CAIRO projections have the Indians finishing with a 74-88, “good” for 4th in AL Central.

If you’re wondering how accurate this system has been in the past at correctly predicting records, here are the 2010 CAIRO projections for the AL Central, rounded off to the nearest number with the actual records in parentheses shown after:
White Sox: 88-74 Projected (88-74 Actual)
Twins: 82-80 Projected (94-68 Actual)
Indians: 76-86 Projected (69-93 Actual)
Tigers: 75-87 Projected (81-81 Actual)
Royals: 71-91 Projected (67-95 Actual)
With the exception of the Twins, there’s about a win disparity of between 4 and 7 wins from the projections to actual records. If that disparity still existed for 2011, that would put the Indians’ possible records between 67 and 81 wins…or about what Adam’s piece at LGT came up with in terms of mainly negative and mainly negative performances.

Let’s say that’s the range then, in terms of projected wins at the high end, with the Indians potentially hitting the .500 mark or (in the most optimistic of projections) just eking over it. Would a season like that do enough to capture the attention of the city or would it be termed a “success”?

As AC adroitly pointed out in his aforementioned piece, “fans here were slow to warm to even the 2007 team that won an AL Central title and finished a win shy of the World Series, and they’ll be slow to adopt this latest incarnation of the Indians, too” coming up with the same conclusion that the Indians would have to “hover around .500 to register on the radar again” in terms of compelling the fanbase to take notice.

However, a large part of whether they are able to generate any kind of excitement will come from the manner in which the team reaches that final record. If they’re able to make a run at some point in the season and spend some time above .500 as the 2004 team did, even if they fall back beneath that watermark (again, as the 2004 team did), the sense that success is feasible will become plausible.

But is success feasible, or is even thinking that the Tribe can be a .500 team outrageously optimistic?
One of the most interesting aspects of the CAIRO projections to me is how it uses Runs Scored and Runs Allowed projected for each team, plugs it into the Pythagorean Expectation and spits out a projected record. That aspect is interesting because of the way that the 2010 teams was projected to perform, resulting in the 76-86 projection for last year, which the Indians obviously never reached.

Here are the 2010 CAIRO projections and the 2010 Results for the Tribe, with ranking in the context of the rest of MLB as follows:
2010 CAIRO Projections
778 Runs Scored - 8th highest projected total for all of MLB
833 Runs Allowed - 5th most as a projected total for all of MLB

2010 Results
646 Runs Scored - 5th lowest in MLB
752 Runs Allowed - 7th most in MLB
grady_travisWhile the Indians’ pitching staff didn’t allow nearly the amount of runs projected for them, their final ranking in the bottom quarter of MLB is on par with what was projected, the big difference from what CAIRO projected in 2010 and what actually happened comes on the Runs Scored side of the ledger. Of course, Terry Pluto wrote prior to the 2010 season that he “knew the Indians would hit”, something he ended up writing about 4 more columns backtracking off of or attempting to explain his rationale, but it speaks to the level of ineptitude of the hitters in 2010, particularly after what was expected from them.

Obviously, many factors contributed to the underwhelming final number (injuries to Sizemore, Cabrera, and Santana as well as poor performances by Sizemore, Cabrera, LaPorta, Brantley…do I need to go on…), but if you look at the 2011 CAIRO, you’ll see that the offense is again expected to outperform the pitching. In the 2011 CAIRO projections, the Indians are projected to score 728 runs (which projects to the 11th highest in the MLB) and allow 802 runs (which projects to the 4th most in all of MLB), which is how the 74-88 record comes about. That doesn’t look too far off, and maybe that overestimation of the offense is in the cards again and maybe the pitching will surprise to some extent, but it got me wondering in terms of some of the other projections out there, what kind of Runs Scored in particular could be expected from the other two projections that are readily available – ZiPS and Bill James, via the player pages at Fangraphs.

Using the Lineup Analysis tool at Baseball Musings (and not even allowing this to open up as a discussion for what the 2011 Batting Order should be…because that is baseball discourse at its lowest level), plugging in the ZiPS projections for the 9 assumed starters on the Indians results in an offense that would average 4.87 runs per game, or about 790 Runs Scored on the season. Realizing, of course, that the Lineup Analysis tool assumes that the same 9 players will be in the lineup every day and…well, that just doesn’t happen (ahem, Hafner), it is interesting to note that the Bill James projections for the same players results in a team that would average 5.02 runs per game, or 844 Runs Scored on the season.

Those are pretty big numbers and both projections are extremely top-heavy, with the majority of the production coming from Santana and Choo, with complementary contributions by Sizemore, Cabrera, and Hafner, as the projections for the bottom half of the lineup border on nauseating. However, after the Indians’ offense fell on its collective face last year, there is reason for optimism with Choo, a presumably healthy Santana, a less-than-presumably healthy Sizemore, with Cabrera hopefully looking to get untracked once more as a dynamic young player who just turned 25 last November with 1,610 PA under his belt in MLB and with a 101 OPS+ in his career as a middle infielder.

Are there places in the lineup that you have to squint to see that glass as half-full?
Of course and as Pluto reports some disconcerting infield alignment news that it could be Donald at 3B (where he actually played LESS in the Minors than he did at 2B) and Nix at 2B with Cord Phelps starting in AAA as a 2B/3B/LF(?) being “a swingman between different positions, although he is expected to play every day -- somewhere “, it would certainly seem that the Indians are attempting to find the best “fit” among the square pegs for the round holes and continuing to ignore the idea that defense is…um, kind of important in the infield with a slew of groundball pitchers. Pluto goes on to predict that Valbuena or Everett looks like the Utility IF as it stands now (and it won’t be Louie V), and after reading all of that, let’s hope that this can change out in Arizona (although remember that Pluto gets his Sunday “Notes” from the organization) because the idea floated out there this morning actually makes the infield look worse than it did yesterday…which I didn’t think was possible. It could be that finding a spot for Nix strikes me as underwhelming and because I’m higher on Donald than most (so the Indians will make the obvious move to further his development by making him learn ANOTHER new position at the Big League level), but when a revelation like this has me wondering what Jack Hannahan could do at 3B…yeah, that’s not good news.

Regardless of what they do to start the season at 2B and 3B, the Indians have their top two hitting prospects (with Jordan Bastian laying out some of the question marks heading into Goodyear and possible answers) at those positions and, while that may not translate to a obvious over .500 season in 2011, it starts to lay the groundwork.

Perhaps that’s the progress that needs to be seen this season – seeing the cement poured and begin to dry over the infrastructure that’s been laid over the course of the last 2 ½ years.

masterson_shutoutFor the pitchers, we saw Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco (most notably) at their best and their worst throughout 2010. While neither the ZiPS projections nor the Bill James projections predict many good things from the rotation (and the Bill James ones are exceedingly more optimistic, with better projected ERA’s most notably for Masterson – 4.11, Carmona – 4.26, and Carrasco – 4.45), if a couple of them are able to show the consistency that eluded them in 2010, it becomes much easier to see how the Indians plan on attempting to contend in the coming years and how that poured cement leads to a smooth ride, rather than a bumpy one.

If Carmona is able to build on his reclaimed career by incorporating his new change-up into his arsenal to keep hitters more off-balance or if Masterson can limit damage done by LH hitters or if Carrasco is able to avoid the HR ball, the Indians start to boast more “known” quantities going forward, an absolute must in the rotation. Beyond that idea, if two or all three of those pitchers find consistency and success, the Indians begin to cobble together a rotation that, at its best, can be very good.

That being said, if the trio of Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco all continue to struggle to find that consistency, the rotation becomes more full of questions than answers and, as a result, the depth that is likely ill-prepared significantly in 2011 because of a lack of experience (White, Pomeranz, Gardner, among others) or because they possess back-end-of-the-rotation ceilings (Huff, Laffey, Tomlin, Gomez, among), the Indians will find themselves scuffling to get a lead to Chris F. Perez in the 9th inning.

Perhaps the Indians’ pitching staff surprises as it did in 2010 and the presence of C. Perez at the back end of the bullpen provides stability that hasn’t existed since…um, Mike Jackson, but the presumed struggles of the rotation may have to be offset by the projected increase in offense for the 2011 Indians to “hover around .500”, as a means to provide some optimism that this incarnation of the Indians is destined to follow the path of the mid-1990s Indians or, more accurately, the mid-2000s Indians instead of...say, the mid-1980s Indians or the mid-1970s Indians or the…well, you get the idea.

Certainly, a .500 record doesn’t capture the imagination the way that a division pennant does, but it shows growth and improvement for a team and, if I’m looking at the path by which the Indians need to take to get to that .500 mark, it’s not all that difficult to envision. A healthier offense with more consistent contributions from various spots up and down the lineup, a more settled bullpen with a stopper at the back end and some promising arms in the rotation make .500 a realistic end point for the 2011 Indians.

Whether they get there or not and whether they are able to get some breaks and some pleasant surprises that they haven’t gotten since 2007 (except for the emergence of Choo) will determine whether 78 wins or 84 wins is a pipe dream or a real possibility. But whether they get there or not in 2011 will be a huge determining factor as to where this organization goes past 2011.

walk_offTo say that this is an important year for the Indians is an understatement as the negative rhetoric surrounding them has become pervasive and the questions around the organization are constant. An ability by the 2011 Indians to show improvement (even incrementally) goes a long way to justifying the actions of the organization since the middle of 2008 and a failure to show improvement (again, even incrementally) provides more cannon fodder for the shots to the hull (some justified, some not so much) that this organization has taken since the middle of 2008.

The importance of 2011 certainly doesn’t mean that contention should be expected, but a team that is able to show signs of life or feature compelling young players (like Choo, Santana, Carrasco, and others) for a fanbase still licking their collective wounds after the last few Julys, would go a long way to changing the tone of the perception of this team going forward as the team could point to tangible improvement both in terms of individual players and overall record. As for that overall record, what level of “improvement” is necessary for that feeling that the Indians are, once again, heading up the mountain instead of continuing to travel downhill?

The baseline for noticeable improvement probably starts around 75 wins and realistically sits closer to that .500 mark in as much as it would take those totals to generate some interest in the Indians around town. That bar may not look all that high in the context of MLB, but whether this Indians’ team is able to achieve it (and if they are, how they go about doing it with captivating players leading the way) will determine whether contention in 2012 or 2013 is plausible or whether it is laughable.

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