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Fluky aspects of the Cleveland Indians’ slow start

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On a scale of one to Jose Ramirez, how likely is Francisco Lindor to finish the season with a higher WAR than Mike Trout?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s a small sample size,” is a phrase that is both completely correct and extremely annoying to hear dozens of times every April.

I know it’s a small sample size, you know it’s a small sample size, everyone knows that baseball in April is a small sample size. Yet everything said about a team, especially one starting as slow as the Cleveland Indians, needs to be prefaced with “now I know it’s a small sample size...” or it gets needlessly ripped apart.

ME: Hey Francisco Lindor looks amazing so far.
YOU: Small sample size.

ME: Josh Tomlin has really struggled in his first few starts.
YOU: Small sample size.

ME: Lonnie Chisenhall looks good so far.
YOU: Small sample size.

ME: Tyler Naquin can’t hit high fastballs.
YOU: Small sample size.
ME: Actually...

ME: My cat thinks I’m great
YOU: Small sample size.

I’m not saying the reminder is bad altogether — a lot of people (myself included) might need talked off some early-season ledges. Merritt did a great job of it last week talking about Edwin Encarnacion’s struggles and how the slugger is starting to come out of them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look back on a couple weeks worth of games and say “x player has looked bad.” Even if said player probably won’t look bad in the future, he did in that couple weeks — it’s okay to acknowledge it.

The Jose Ramirez factor

Now, hopefully that is enough of a preface for the peat and motatoes of this article: Jose Ramirez and flukiness.

While not necessarily always at the beginning of the season, The Angry Hamster has exemplified what it means to take a fluky ability and turn it into a marketable skill.

There were a couple months at the end of 2014 where Ramirez’s success could have easily been dismissed as a fluke.

“Yeah, sure the .304/.370/.348 and .301/.348/.398 slash lines in July and August were great,” says the imaginary voice in my head I’m using to flesh out this point, “But his BABIP was .350 in July and as it decreased throughout the rest of the year so did everything else while his strikeout rate went up.”

Okay, fine. Then 2015 rolled around, he was bad to start the season and again he came back for an oustanding month of September where he slashed .280/.341/.547 and only struck out in 6.1 percent of his at-bats.

“Another fluke,” says the imaginary you. You’re so pessimistic.

Even last season, when Ramirez put everything together, he did so in a fluky-looking way — he was his best when it mattered most. In high-leverage situations, as defined by FanGraphs, Ramirez had a .992 on-base plus slugging and he walked (10%) more than he struck out (8.3%). That’s insane.

Expanding that to batting with runners in scoring position, regardless of the actual leverage of the situation (batting with a runner on second but down by eight runs, for example), Ramirez slashed .355/.406/.475. Nearly half of his 11 home runs last season came with at least one runner on base.

Ramirez is clutch as all hell, but clutch isn’t necessarily a skill, at least not over one single season. Yet here we are, and Ramirez received an extension from the Indians and he’s still amazing this season. Ramirez is not a player built like a typical power hitter at rough 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, but he has a .654 slugging this season and finished last season slugging .462. Basically, he’s weaponized fluke. And as long as he keeps making peak Michael Brantley-esque contact, I don’t see him slowing down anytime this season.

With that in mind, and the preface given above, now seems like a good time to review some of the fluky aspects of the Indians young season and rate them on the Jose Ramirez Scale of Flukosity, where a one means the event is likely just a small sample size curiosity, and a five means it might stick around for a while.

A realness scale, if you will.

Michael Brantley has struck out in almost a quarter of his at-bats

Entering play today, Michael Brantley has struck out in 23.5 percent of his at-bats. For a player who has made his name on great contact and flashes of power, that isn’t great.

Digging a little deeper, Brantley is having a lot of trouble making contact compared to previous years. His contact rate is 83.3 so far this season, down from his career average of 91.4 percent. His contact outside of the zone is especially troubling as he’s made contact just 59.1 percent of the time, down from a 81.7 percent rate.

It’s worrying, for sure, but Brantley was away from the game for more than a calendar year, after all. I’m willing to give it some more time before saying this small sample size finding will stick around. Two Jose Ramirezes out of five.

* * *

Indians starting pitchers have the worst ERA in the American League

Through the first three weeks of the season, the Indians starting rotation has been the worst in the AL and it’s not even that close. Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin have a combined 5.86 ERA; the next closest team’s starter ERA is 4.88. Indians starters also have the third-fewest innings among starters at 78.1 innings pitched.

This is absolutely a fluke. I don’t dare break the sacred rules of the Jose Ramirez Scale of Whatever I Called This Thing, but if I could I would give it a zero out of five. Twenty-six of runs given up by Indians starters, over half of them, have been at the hands of Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. Even with Tomlin’s decent last outing against the Minnesota Twins, he still carries an 11.86 ERA in 12.1 innings.

Meanwhile, do you actually think Corey Kluber will have a 6.38 ERA all season? I sure don’t. Carlos Carrasco has quietly had a dominant couple of outings, despite some home run troubles. Danny Salazar has been the complete opposite — walking batters and giving up hits but doing just enough to keep everything contained.

And if the bottom half doesn’t recover soon, Michael Clevinger looms in the minors. One Jose Ramirez out of five.

* * *

Edwin Encarnacion is a Three True Outcome player

The three true outcomes of baseball — a walk, strikeout, or home run — might not be the most exciting things to watch in the world, but it’s the direction baseball seems to be heading with more players focusing on swinging more often and swinging up to generate more power.

Edwin Encarnacion either firmly believes in this philosophy, or his swing isn’t where it should be yet. The 34-year-old slugger has 63 plate appearances this season, he has either struck out, walked, or hit a home run in 32 of them, or roughly 51 percent. Keep in mind only two of those have been home runs, so it’s not three true outcomes in a good way yet.

For some context, of the most prominent “True Outcome Players,” Ryan Howard, had one of the TTO occur in 45 percent of his career plate appearances.

While I’m sure Edwin will slow down on the strikeouts, and maybe even the walks, I could pretty easily see his home runs making up some of that gap — at least enough to put him in the 30-40 percent range. Three-and-a-half Jose Ramirezes out of five.

* * *

Francisco Lindor has a higher fWAR than Mike Trout

Is this it? Is the post where I jump the analytical shark and say that Francisco Lindor is going to have a better season than Mike Trout based on his Wins Above Replacement.

MAYBE.

Probably not.

But MAYBE.

Currently Lindor has been worth 1.1 wins over replacement, while Trout has been worth 1.0. It’s the slimmest of margins, but a margin nonetheless. They have very similar slash lines, but Lindor has hit for more power and has a higher average, despite a lower BABIP. Trout has walked in exactly three percent more of his at bats, but also struck out nearly twice as much as Lindor.

Lindor: 66 PA, .351/.415/.684, 4 HR, 10.6 BB%, 12.1 K%, 1.1 fWAR
Trout: 66 PA, .339/.424/.625, 3 HR, 13.6 BB%, 22.7 K%, 1.0 fWAR

I’m certainly not saying, with all things equal, Lindor is a better all-around player than Mike Trout. But things happen. Heaven forbid Mike Trout gets injured, or maybe his defense takes a step back, or maybe he keeps striking out (while being amazing at everything else, mind you). And maybe that all happens while Lindor continues to have one of the best seasons in Cleveland Indians history. If all that remains true, who knows?

I guess it’s best to put this way: If Lindor does finish with a higher WAR than Mike Trout, he won’t be the only one. It will be because Trout has a down year and a couple other players take over a for a year. Then he’ll be back to double-digit wins in 2018 and the world will resume spinning. Two-and-a-half Jose Ramirezes out of five.