View from the Porch: Your AL Central Division Champion Cleveland Indians

The #IndiansTwitter world was abuzz yesterday because Fangraphs had the Indians as the best team in the American League from Friday night through the end of the season with a .539 win percentage. Cynics will scoff at this prediction because a .539 win percentage over the final 125 games is only 62 more wins, which would put the Indians at 84-78, which is probably not enough to get into the playoffs. Fangraphs, however, has their playoff odds at 44 percent and 23 percent to win the division.

I, however, am going to paint an even prettier picture in this week’s View from the Porch. The Cleveland Indians are going to win the American League Central. The Indians entered play on Friday night at 22-25, after a disastrous 14-23 start that left them 9.5 games back in the AL Central standings.  Things turned around with an 8-2 run that knocked three games off of the deficit in the Central.

The nice thing about this somewhat bold prediction is that I can back it with lots of evidence (all stats through 5/28). Let’s start with the Indians and then explain why the teams ahead of the Indians are not going to be able to maintain their current pace. In looking at the Indians, the first thing that jumps off the page is that their starting rotation is elite. Even with a collection of terrible outings from the fifth starter, the Indians rotation leads the league in K/9 (by a lot), xFIP, SIERA, ERA-FIP, and K%. They are third in FIP and third in K/BB. The high ERA is due to the team’s terrible defense, which has yielded a .337 BABIP against. That’s the worst mark in the league by .008 over the Nationals and .021 over the next closest AL team, the Yankees.

To take it another step further, the Indians rotation is second in chase rate (hitters swinging at balls), first in swinging strike rate, and has the second-best mark in percentage of swings and misses on pitches inside the strike zone. This is with TJ House, Zach McAllister, Shaun Marcum, and Bruce Chen combining for nine starts. Depending on what version of TJ House comes back sometime in June, the Indians rotation could have five above average starters, just like we expected.

What about the bullpen? The bullpen has been a mess, as we all know. There are a lot of reasons to take a glass half full approach. There aren’t a whole lot of negative stats that really stand out about the group. They are 12th in ERA and closer Cody Allen has a 5.85 ERA. Scott Atchison has been the worst pitcher out of the pen and he will be a DFA candidate shortly after he returns from his sprained ankle. Of course, the ankle could have truly been a problem. His home run rate should positively regress and he’s still not walking people. There’s hope for him.

Zach McAllister has been used in more high-leverage situations lately and that’s a benefit to the bullpen because it keeps Bryan Shaw out of them. Shaw has fought with command, presumably from overuse over the last two seasons, and has also had a velocity drop. Like Atchison, some positive regression should come from his home run rate. He’s a wild card, but the swinging strike rate hasn’t dropped a ton. There are reinforcements in Columbus in Shawn Armstrong and Kyle Crockett, who will be back up sometime this season.

Offensively, the Indians started slow, but have come on strong. Entering play on Friday, the Indians ranked sixth in wOBA and have finally gotten their team slugging percentage up over .400. The concern for the offense will be what happens when Jason Kipnis cools off, but Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley have traded slumps in recent weeks and Yan Gomes is still shaking off the rust in his return. The Indians have the highest walk rate in the league and tied for the third-lowest strikeout rate in the league.

Fangraphs has a stat called BsR, which is essentially baserunning runs above average. Would you be shocked to find out that the Indians are second in that metric? It is a statistic that encapsulates all baserunning situations, from the obvious stolen bases and caught stealings, to taking extra bases on hits, to staying out of double plays. Only the Blue Jays rank higher. The Astros, who have 15 more stolen bases than the Indians, are third.

That leaves the elephant in the room – the defense. Apparently, defense doesn’t matter to since Jerry Sands was called up for the weekend instead of Tyler Holt or James Ramsey with Carlos Santana on the paternity list. Santana should be back for the series in Kansas City, but with games at Safeco Field and the spacious outfield of Kauffman Stadium, the Indians should have made a defense-oriented call-up. In any event, the defense has a chance to improve if the Indians use the more talented fielders in Triple-A over the course of the season. The glass half full approach with the current defense is that the Indians won 177 games from 2013-14 with the third-worst defense in MLB by defensive runs saved and worst defense in UZR. So, there’s that.

Because the Indians put themselves in a 9.5-game hole, it’s not only about them. It’s also about the teams that they are chasing. Guess what? None of them are all that good.

Let’s start with the Minnesota Twins, the trendiest team in the American League in the month of May. The Twins have a 93 wRC+ for the season, which means that they are seven percent below league average offensively (the Indians are at 110). The Twins are also a below average baserunning team and are only two defensive runs saved better than the Indians at -14.

The biggest thing for the Twins is that their starting rotation is terrible. On the season, the Twins have a 3.99 ERA with a 4.12 FIP and a 4.32 xFIP. No starting rotation in baseball strikes out fewer batters than the Twins. Because they don’t strike out a lot of hitters, their 73.9 LOB% is going to drop. Twins starters are 15-4 with a 3.55 ERA, 3.70 FIP, and a 4.07 xFIP in May. Their lone claim to fame is that they don’t walk many hitters.

But, let’s look a little bit deeper into the Twins. For one thing, their Pythagorean win-loss, which is expected record based on run differential, is three games worse than their actual 28-18 mark. The Twins are 15-5 against left-handed starters and just 13-13 against right-handed starters. Teams will face a right-handed starter about 75 percent of the time. The Twins are 19-7 against teams .500 or worse and just 9-11 against teams with a winning record. They have played one of the weakest schedules in baseball so far.

How about the Royals? The reigning AL champs are 28-18, despite the four-game losing streak that they carried into Friday’s game. If you want to talk about bad starting rotations, look no further than the Royals. Their 4.52 ERA ranks 24th. Their 4.46 FIP is tied for 26th. Their 4.62 xFIP is tied for 29th. Those numbers illustrate just how important Kansas City’s defense is to the starting rotation. Even with that defense, their rotation is terrible. There’s no help coming from below in the minors either.

Yordano Ventura, the de facto ace of the staff with James Shields out of the picture, has a 4.64 ERA with a 4.32 FIP and a 3.73 xFIP. Even if he lowers the home run rate and starts pitching to his capability, he’s a #2 starter at best with a projection like that. Edinson Volquez has carried this rotation with a 2.77 ERA, a 3.43 FIP, and a 4.40 xFIP. His .230 BABIP against is going to regress. He could very well post an ERA in the high 3s or even in the 4.00 range the rest of the way. Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are replacement-level or worse.

As the season drags on, the Royals bullpen is going to be spent. After pitching deep into October last season, the Royals pen has averaged 3.1 innings of work per game already. They also have a team ERA of 1.84, which is unsustainable. They have a .228 BABIP against and a 3.36 FIP, 3.81 xFIP. Regression is coming for that group. Greg Holland is injured yet again and last season’s workload will catch up with them.

Offensively, the Royals have a team BABIP of .316, which has gradually come down over the last week. They put a lot of balls in play and almost never walk, so a high batting average is just going to happen. But, after a power explosion early in the season, the Royals have hit just 16 of their 34 home runs this month. Keep in mind that the season started a few days into April, so May is a much larger sample size. This month, the Royals have been 10 percent below league average offensively. The Indians have the highest wRC+ in the American League in May at 124.

What about our hated rivals the Tigers? Well, Buck Farmer was shelled on Thursday night as the rotation replacement for Kyle Lobstein. Justin Verlander is still shelved with arm problems. The Tigers let 530.1 innings pitched walk away when they traded Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes, Drew Smyly for David Price, and let Max Scherzer go to free agency. Cespedes and Price have been good for the Tigers, but they did not trade from a position of strength. The Tigers have no starting pitching depth and they have been reliant on league average arms like Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon. The Tigers have a 4.15 starter ERA with a 3.84 FIP and a 4.07 xFIP. Unlike past seasons, the Tigers are actually pretty good in defensive runs saved this season, so they cannot use that crutch.

Shane Greene started on fire with 23 innings and one earned run allowed. Since then, Greene has allowed 27 earned runs in 36 innings. Alfredo Simon continues to spit in the face of advanced metrics with a 2.67 ERA, but a 3.60 FIP and a 4.22 xFIP. Simon did a similar thing in the first half with Cincinnati last season. His second half performance was a 4.52 ERA with a 4.34 FIP and a 4.27 xFIP. Oh, and lefties are batting .282/.336/.449 off of him, so the Indians should be excited to face him again.

The biggest change for the Tigers has been their bullpen, which went from one of the worst in the league to competent. They have a 3.00 ERA with a 3.76 FIP and a 4.10 xFIP. Regression should be coming for this group, though bullpen stats are a little bit less reliable in that regard.

The Tigers offense is still among the best in the league with a .328 wOBA and a .274/.340/.414 slash line. But, this is a team being carried by its April performance. The Tigers posted a .286/.354/.443 slash with a .344 wOBA in April. Their .343 BABIP in April has dropped to a .320 BABIP in May. Their slash has fallen to .264/.330/.388 and a .315 wOBA. The Tigers are actually below league average in May with a 99 wRC+. Victor Martinez has struggled all season, but he was one of the few productive left-handed sticks available to the Tigers and it looks like he could miss significant time.

The Tigers have 42 stolen bases, which ranks among the league leaders, but they also have the most caught stealings with 19 and they are actually tied for 29th in BsR at 6.8 runs below average. If they aren’t going to hit for power, Brad Ausmus’s aggressive style is going to be a detriment to this team. Their .330 BABIP should continue to regress, even though they have a lot of guys that hit the ball hard.

Statistically, everything seems to line up for the Indians and I don’t even have to mention the White Sox because, LOL. Every team goes through slumps and bad stretches throughout a season. It gets magnified when it happens early in the season as opposed to the middle. The Indians were 30-33 after 63 games in 2013. They started the season 26-17 and then lost 16 of 20. That’s about as bad of a stretch as a team can have. They still won 92 games and made the playoffs. Last season, the Indians were below .500 on August 10 at 58-59. They missed the playoffs by three games.

Sure, some things need to change and the defense has to improve. However, even with the problems, the bad start, and the frustrating losses, the statistics don’t lie. The Indians should be the best team in the AL Central Division the rest of the way. Whether that’s enough to get into the playoffs or not remains to be seen, but count me in the group that expects this team to finish atop the division when it’s all said and done.
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