Good or bad, the Indians are going to have a very different look in 2021.
We know that Francisco Lindor is likely to be dealt by Opening Day, and it’s unknown if Carlos Carrasco will suffer the same fate. Will the Indians reach out to bring César Hernández back on another short deal? What about Carlos Santana? Who takes Lindor’s spot at shortstop? A lot is still up in the air.
Point being, there are going to be a lot of changes next season. But that does not mean we won’t see some continuing trends among those players sticking around for another run at the playoffs and, hopefully, a World Series. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Rolling averages are going to be our friend here. Over a 60-game season, trends can become “trends” just because there was a spike in performance with a full season that would typically be the first two months of a normal season. We want to look at something that might have started in years prior to 2020, continued in the same direction even amidst the weirdness of the season, and could potentially go into 2021 and beyond.
We’ll start with the obvious.
Shane Bieber missing bats
Shane Bieber’s strikeouts per nine has trended positively at every level since he whiffed 8.12/9 in Double-A to his MLB-leading 14.20/9 in his Cy Young campaign this year. His ability to make people chase and miss bats really took off at the start of 2019 when he began tinkering with a “second” curveball to further keep hitters of balance.
There were multiple games this year where he used his curveball a third of the time, and it helped him ascend to the best pitcher in baseball. At the same time, and probably not coincidentally, opposing batters have slowly gotten worse at hitting pitches out of the zone against him. Most of those were buried curveballs or sliders as well as a devastating new cutter that he developed during the delayed start to the season.
Maybe Bieber won’t continue at the historic pace he’s on and win the Cy Young five times in a row, but I would fully expect him to continue to fool batters in and out of the zone. His pairing of a Bob Ross fastball on the edges and the cutter/curve combination he developed is going to be lethal for a long time.
James Karinchak gaining the trust of his manager
This one is a little more difficult to quantify, but the trend was clear throughout Karinchak’s rookie campaign: he gained the trust of Sandy Alomar. I wrote a couple weeks ago that Nick Wittgren was quietly the “fireman” of the Indians bullpen over the full 60-game season, but Karinchak began to stake his claim to that title.
Karinchak’s few September outings last season came in very low-leverage situations. The highest, according to FanGraphs’ gmLI where 1.00 is average and 2.00 is high-leverage, was a 0.24 outing against the Phillies where he entered the game down 4-7 in the top of the ninth inning, one out, and a runner on first. His other four appearances were with leverage indexes of 0.18, 0.05, 0.06, and 0.06 as he entered the game.
Right off the bat in 2020 he was thrown into the fire, entering a game with a 2.43 on the leverage index — opening the 10th inning of a tie game against the Royals. In all of Karinchak’s 27 appearances, he would be used in leverage situations below 1.00 only five times — normally when he hadn’t pitched a few days and just needed to get some work in.
This trend could be bucked if Karinchak is named the closer, seeing as entering a game with a lead and no outs is not typically considered high leverage. But if the Indians turn to Emmanuel Clase coming off a suspension or even someone like Nick Wittgren to be their closer, look for Karinchak to continue to earn the trust of his managers and pitch in high-leverage situations.
Franmil Reyes going opposite field
On the surface, Franmil Reyes is pretty close to typical slugging three-true-outcome player. The biggest difference is, when he’s at his best, he hits the ball to the opposite field more than not.
When Reyes was racking up big numbers in San Diego, he would go opposite field upwards of 40% of the time. When he came to the Indians midway through 2019, he started pressing and pulled the ball more than normal — his oppo rate dropped as low as 12-15% at times. He slashed just .237/.304/.468 in 51 games with the Tribe after slashing .255/.314/.536 with the Padres for the other half (and then some) of the season.
Reyes’ rate of going to the opposite field slowly drifted up toward the end of the season, and in 2020 he began trending upwards again.
Unless some kind of offensive collapse is inevitable for the big man, there’s no reason to think he’s not getting more comfortable and will continue slapping balls and big dingers to opposite field in 2021 and beyond.
José Ramírez pulling the ball
On the opposite end of the Franmil Reyes spectrum is the 2020 AL MVP runner-up, José Ramírez. Unlike Reyes, Ramírez thrives when he’s not worrying about the defense and just pulling the ball and hitting the snot out of it.
The depths of his struggles in late 2018 and early 2019 can be traced back to his sagging pull rate, when seeing shifted defenses and new approaches started to get to him. In a recent post on The Athletic, it was described by a close confidant of José’s that he was “losing his mind, but not his confidence.”
It was not until he was able to get away during the All-Star break and head home and clear his mind that he got his swagger — and power — back.
Since then, he surged for most of 2019 — although it took a while for his hitting numbers to catch back up to his growing pull rate — and suffered another minor dip in the first half of 2020’s shortened season. But that was the equivalent of a bad April in most year; he came back with such a force that he led the American League in FanGraphs WAR and finished just shy of taking home his first MVP award.
Maybe Ramírez has another slow start in 2020, but as long as he has learned that his comfort zone is pulling for the fences and not worrying about how he’s being attacked, he should be in the running for a couple more MVP Awards going forward.
If there is one thing we can glean from the Indians’ approach to building a baseball team, it’s that they believe pitching and defense wins championships. If that means carrying two catchers who can’t hit any better than a major-league pitcher, or a full outfield of questionable bats that can run really fast for the sake of defense — then so be it.
The Indians have been among the top-10 teams in baseball in terms of defensive runs saved every year since 2015 (with the exception of 2018, when they were 11th). Even with the questions in the infield — losing Gold Glover César Hernández, solid defensive first baseman Carlos Santana, and on the verge of trading Francisco Lindor — I would not bet against the Indians seeking replacements that can soak up any ground balls.
Besides, plus defense with a sub-par bat it always something that can be acquired for cheap on the open market. If the Indians intend to spend at all this offseason, which in itself seems doubtful, they have plenty of these defense-first options available.