A brief timeline of the Tribe’s 2018 playoffs:
- October 5 to 8: Cleveland gets swept out of the ALDS in three games, only putting the ball in play 13 times.
- October 8: In the aftermath of the game three loss, Jason Kipnis and Mike Clevinger directly blame a lack of preparation, specifically scouting and analytics, on the team’s performance.
- October 10: Terry Francona tells reporters that his coaching staff will remain the same.
As fans, we’ve been searching for a way to process all this for a bit now and I’m sorry to tell you I do not yet have an answer for the best way to do that. I am curious, however, how all the things that happened prior to October 10 led the Cleveland front office to the decision that the coaching staff would remain untouched.
After the 2017 season, Boston fired John Farrell and New York moved on from Joe Girardi; the former won 93 games and the later won 91 (same as Cleveland this year) and bounced the Indians from the playoffs. Of course, things are done differently in Boston and New York than they are in Cleveland, but not that differently. Accountability is higher than ever in sports, and heads roll when things do not go well, even when they’re actually not going poorly at all.
If you allow that things are done differently in Cleveland and believe team president Chris Antonetti was doing more than blowing hot air when he said “There is no better teammate than Tito,” you still cannot account for the job security of the other Indians coaches.
Consider for instance what happened in the Cubs organization. The Cubs and Brewers finished the regular season tied with 95 wins and were forced to play a tiebreaker. The Brewers won and the Cubs were relegated to the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, which they lost to the Rockies, ending their season. This disappointing turn of events did not lead to manager Joe Maddon’s firing (though there were whispers of such an event transpiring), but it did result in hitting coach Chili Davis being let go after only one season.
Now, I’m not here to say the Cubs firing of Davis was the right move, but it certainly fits current trends. Despite the Cubs finishing fifth in FanGraphs’ WAR for batters (and who knows how much better they might have been with a healthy Kris Bryant) and Davis being credited by many with assisting in Javy Baez’s ascent to MVP-level play, Davis was a good scapegoat for the Cubs and a more palatable dismissal than Joe Maddon, whose schtick maybe wearing thin on the north side but has not full lost its appeal.
Just behind the 2018 Cubs offense on the FanGraphs leaderboard are your Cleveland Indians. Would firing hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo be scapegoating him? Certainly. But it might be more logical than the Cubs firing Davis. (FWIW: in Davis’s second year as hitting coach with the A’s in 2013 and Red Sox in 2016 average increased 16 and 17 points, OBP increased 17 and 23 points, slugging increased 15 and 46 points, and wRC+ increased 11 and 14 points, respectively).
Van Burkleo has been the hitting coach for Cleveland as long as Francona has been manager, and he has built up the Indians’ offense to a top-6 team in terms of FanGraphs WAR each of the last three years. However, average, on-base, and slugging were all down in 2018 and wRC+ and offensive WAR ranking remained unchanged despite a worse run-scoring environment in 2018 compared to ‘17 and ‘16.
The numbers paint Van Burkleo as a good coach, but the Tribe offense stalled out at best and just stopped performing at worst. Hell, you can even throw out the players’ comments about preparation and analytics, as someone who is close to the team, Andre Knott, said on the A to Z Podcast that the players were likely referring to Houston using perhaps extralegal means of preparation rather than their own insights. Even without considering those statements, the fact that Cleveland couldn’t get right and Jose Ramirez, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Yonder Alonso combined for two hits in the ALDS might make moving on to a new hitting coach a sensible move for Cleveland. Would someone like Davis becoming available spur such a move from the front office?
It’s not so crazy of an idea. His availability has made clubs move fast to get him before. I can’t speak to Davis’s analytical ability, but by looking at the teams he has coached for — the A’s, the Red Sox, the Epstein-era Cubs — it’s a near certainty that he values and uses the information provided by the front office. And even if he is delivering the same information as Van Burkleo, he’d be delivering it in a fresh way, with a fresh approach, something that might appeal differently to the players.
If the Indians decide to go get Davis, it might be a somewhat lateral move; when you simplify offense to the slash line, Davis’s teams average .257/.327/.414 and Van Burkleo’s average .258/.328/.419. But a change of this nature would get to the psychological, not analytical nature of the Indians problems. This sort of change did not work for the Cubs in 2018, but Davis would likely still be there if not for bad luck in two winner-take-all games.
Even though Francona vowed no changes on the coaching staff, change could still come. Edwin Encarnacion might not be a member of the Tribe if the team never wavered from its public stances. Pinning the blame on Van Burkleo, scapegoating him for the team’s failures, is a knee-jerk move. It’s reactionary. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be beneficial, too.