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When does the Indians offense get better?

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A team that played the Blue Jays and White Sox six times should have better numbers

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Indians may have fired off their best record to start a season under Terry Francona, but the offense is, ahem, not very good right now. There are a number of reasons for this — injuries and weather and new players and so on — but no one really cares for excuses and just wants to see when things will look like what we expect.

What we expect and what happens are not the same thing, of course; I don’t need to tell you that projections are not always accurate (though you should read about their utility even when not incredibly accurate). But the difference between the projected 4.66 runs per game and the actual 3.33 runs per game seems wide, especially considering the opposition.

Nine games into the season, Cleveland ranks 28th in batting average (.182), 28th in on-base percentage (.262), 30th in slugging (.273), 1st in strikeout rate (31.3%), and 13th in walk rate (10%). Last year, the team ranked 2nd, 6th, 6th, 30th, and 12th in those categories, respectively.

We all know how sample sizes work, and that you cannot judge a player on a sample size of a few weeks’ worth of games, let alone nine games. But when you sum all the results together, you get a lot more data, a lot larger of a sample, and a lot more useful information.

As Eno Sarris detailed during the first week of the season, there are meaningful conclusions that can be drawn early on in the season when using large data sets. Specifically, Sarris concluded that league-wide walk and strikeout rates start to stabilize and stop changing significantly after about 10 games (roughly 10,000 plate appearances). Zooming in on just data from the Indians means selecting a smaller sample, and that it may take longer to stabilize, but how long are we talking?

I pulled the data for each of the last five seasons from Baseball Reference to figure out when strikeout and walk rates stabilize for the Indians, evident by a smoothing of the trend line. By eyeballing where the rates reach equilibrium, in 2018 it seems walk rate smoothed out first, steadying itself about 20 games into the season, whereas strikeout rate fluctuated a little longer, finally reaching relative stability about 35 games in. In 2017, walk rate smoothed around 15 games in and strikeout rate did so at about 40 games; the approximate games when the walk and strikeout rate stabilized were 10 and 20, 45 and 45, and 20 and 30 for the 2016, 2015, and 2014 seasons respectively. Because these varied pretty widely, taking the five-year average of walk and strikeout rate per games played, as Sarris did, seemed to be the wise move. When I did that that, walk rate smoothed rather early on, in line with the league-wide rates Sarris found, about the 10th game, but strikeout rate continued to fluctuate until the 30th game or so.

So we can’t say the Tribe will keep striking out nearly twice as often as last year, but we’re getting close to equilibrium for walk rate. Were the Indians maintain a rate around 10% for the rest of the season, well that would be alright.

Another thing we can look at and draw some conclusions from is exit velocity. Once again, Sarris has us covered:

[O]ne stat that can make a difference right now: exit velocity. That’s the beauty of exit velocity. Like pitch velocity, knowing a guy can hit the ball really hard can be important. Hit one ball hard enough, and you can actually make a case that your projection for the rest of the season should change.

When you search for average exit velocity, the Indians as a team fall right in the middle of the pack, 18th, at 88.0 mph. Narrowing the results, the Tribe has 49 batted ball events with an exit velocity of at least 98 mph; six of those balls have traveled faster than 110 mph, putting the team on pace for 108 such batted balls this year. In 2018, Cleveland had just 32 balls over 110 mph all season.

It’s easy to imagine improvements in the Indians’ offense simply based on looming changes in the lineup — in the form of an injury return from Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, the late arrival of Carlos Gonzalez (and maybe Cameron Maybin or Ryan Flaherty), or promotions for Oscar Mercado and Yu Chang (and maybe Bobby Bradley). In addition, based on the team’s good overall walk rate as well as the solid contact being made by some players, factors we know are likely to remain near their similar levels, it seems likely the rest of the offensive numbers will trend in a better direction as well.