Take one team in an easy-to-win division, strip away a few parts, add a few moonshots, and you have the 2019 Cleveland Indians. Dig a little deeper, and you see one of the best starting rotations in a long time with more than a few bats that can contribute to an above-average offense over 162 games (and hopefully more). There’s a lot to learn and digest about this team, maybe more than any Indians team in the current string of winning seasons.
As they do every year, Baseball Prospectus released their annual guide to the MLB season, which includes a ton of stats and projections, in-depth essays on sabermetric principals, and individual team breakdowns.
If you have not picked up the 2019 Annual yet, I highly suggest you do. My intent here is not to spoil the entire book for you, or to give you a way to know about the Indians without putting up the money for your own copy, because the entire thing is worth a read every year. This isn’t even a review of the book — because of course you should get it — it’s more of interesting factoids found about the Indians that might not be floating out on the internet yet.
This year it was Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri handling the essay duties for the Indians. Baccellieri, a former Deadspin writer and noted Indians fan, did a deep-dive into the Indians’ mindset of the offseason — at least how it’s perceived from the outside. The gist of her essay (which, of course, is worth reading in its entirety yourself) is that the Indians are going to win the division, and winning the division means you get to enter the random number generator of the playoffs — so why bother trying to do more than that? She notes it’s not the only strategy, and it may not be the best one, but it appears to be the one the Indians are riding into the season with their stripping away of contracts like Yan Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion.
By far, my favorite thing about reading the Annuals is looking at the comps for each player, which match a player’s current production to other players in the league, past or present. This year, the best comps ever goes to Bobby Bradley.
Some of Bradley’s notoriety faded in 2018 when “only” hit 27 home runs as a 22-year-old in Double-A and Triple-A — he also struck out a lot and didn’t get on base at a very encouraging clip. Still, the power potential is certainly there with 114 home runs in his five years in the minors, if only he could stop striking out in a third of his at-bats.
So, what does Baseball Prospectus make out of all of this? Page 122, last player on the page, right under Bradley’s projected .223/.285/.425 slash (if he was in the majors):
Comparables: Ryan O’Hearn, Paul Goldschmidt, Jerry Sands
Bradley is either on pace to be the best first baseman in baseball, or... Jerry Sands. That should tell you how difficult it is to project players, especially ones with a huge gap between tools like Bradley. He could hit a gazillion home runs for the Tribe one day, but if he can’t make contact and doesn’t draw many walks, he’s Jerry Sands — and they probably don’t mean that one week in 2015 when he was a superhero, either.
This year’s guide also includes a new pitching metric, Called Strike Probability, that measures how likely it is that all of a pitcher’s pitches will be called strikes. Here’s how it’s done, straight from the Annual:
...on each pitch, our model determines how many times (out of 100) that a similar pitch was called for a strike given those factors mentioned above [location, pitcher, batter handedness, umpires, count], and when normalized for each batter’s strike zone.
So a pitcher like, say, Shane Beiber — who rarely misses the strike zone — should have a pretty good CSP, in theory. If he’s not missing a whole lot and can paint the corners, that’s a pretty good indicator he’s putting the ball in the right spots (it also probably indicates he has a good framing catcher, but it’s not mentioned). Bieber, as predicted, has the highest CSP among Indians pitchers with 52.8.
There are not many surprises in the Indians’ individual projections, save for one.
Roberto Perez — who is now the starting catcher with Gomes’ departure — is projected to have a WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ take on WAR) of 3.2. That’s higher than the projected WARP of Jason Kipnis (1.8), Leonys Martin (2.1), Tyler Naquin (1.0), Carlos Santana (2.4), and yes, even Yan Gomes (1.4). To take it even further, Perez is projected as the sixth best catcher in all of baseball.
The bulk of Perez’s value comes from his defense, including a league-leading projection of 25.7 field runs above average. He’s only 2.5 FRAA ahead of the next best defensive catcher (Jeff Mathis, 23.2), but quality drops off quickly down to Mike Zunino as the 10th best with a FRAA of 7.4. We’ve heard rumblings of Perez’s defense being even better than it looks from the outside, and a glimpse into Baseball Prospectus’ numbers is showing it to be true.
Dare I say the Indians front office actually know what they’re doing?
One final note on the 2019 Baseball Prospectus Annual is a positive one of sorts for Jason Kipnis. The blurb for Kip’s projection states that he was “mostly healthy” in 2018, and his decline can mostly just be attributed to plain old aging. We know now that probably isn’t true, but the revelation that Kipnis may have played parts of last season with a torn labrum in his hip came well after the Annual was finalized and hit print. His projected numbers still look like a guy declining due to age, though — he’s projected to finish 2019 with a .248/.318/.403 slash with 13 home runs and a WARP of 1.8. But there’s still hope his declining play last season was attributed to a bum hip and he can bounce back as the 32-year-old second baseman the Indians desperately need in their lineup.