The Art of Going For It

You’re in a bar. Of course you are. You’re an Indians fan. Across the bar is the most attractive member of the opposite (or same) sex you’ve ever seen. You want to talk to him or her. You want to find out if you have a chance. You’ve assessed the situation. You’re making direct eye connect. His or her friends are looking over and they’re not being very discreet about it. You think you’ve got a pretty good shot.

But, you don’t get up. You’re a conservative person. Risk-averse. If you don’t get up, you won’t be humiliated if you misread the situation. You might have had a shot, but you also might not have had a shot. You’ll never know. But, you’re okay with never knowing because it’s something you never had in the first place. Are you really okay with never knowing? Do you go home and wonder what could have been?

Same scenario, but this time you get up. You stroll over, beer in hand, aware that you’re taking a chance. Perhaps he or she is your soulmate. Perhaps you hook up once. Perhaps you hook up a few times, have some fun, and gradually stop talking to each other. Perhaps you are completely wrong and you’re going to be laughed at. Perhaps you become friends and nothing more. Perhaps you get a number and don’t call. Perhaps it’s the number to Cuyahoga Sheet Metal. Perhaps you trip and fall flat on your face on the way over there and wind up leaving the bar in an ambulance with a concussion and a broken face. No matter what the outcome is, you tried. You don’t have to live with the unknown. He or she is no longer “the guy/girl in the bar”. They have a different title. A description to go with the face. An identity. There’s a defined outcome. You were proactive. You found out the answer to the question you were asking.

Contrary to what people in the Indians organization have said about their 81-80 season, it’s unacceptable. They know it. We know it. Ignore the preseason press from people that were guessing just as much as anybody. Ignore the preseason press that pegged the Indians as a World Series contender while being horribly wrong about the Blue Jays, the Astros, the Cubs, the Mets, and the Rangers.

Internally, the Indians knew that they had a chance to be really good. Those of us that follow our beloved team as closely as anybody know that they had a chance to be really good. Those in the local and national media that follow baseball knew that they had a chance to be really good.

They weren’t really good. In fact, they were among the most disappointing teams in baseball.

There are a lot of possible answers as to what went wrong. To some degree, all of them are correct. From the #righthandedpowerbats crowd to the “Mikey does a good job in center” crowd, there are a lot of criticisms that are at least partially accurate. The Indians were over .500 three times this past season - after three games, after 153 games, and after the final game of the regular season. They were never more than one game above .500.

It won’t be a source of solace for most people that the Indians were 84-77 by Pythagorean Win-Loss, a win-loss metric determined using run differential. It won’t be a source of solace that the team’s +29 run differential ranked fifth in the American League. It won’t be a source of solace that the Indians won the Central Division in 2nd Order Win Percentage and 3rd Order Win Percentage, as listed by Baseball Prospectus, with 93 wins in both of those adjusted win-loss metrics.

I could sit here and lay out all of the statistical anomalies from last season. Most fans aren’t interested in hearing about how the Indians had the third-largest BABIP against gap with the bases empty (.269) and men on base (.318) since 1950. Most fans aren’t interested in hearing about how the Indians had a .194 BABIP with the bases loaded, the lowest in the league by 39 points behind Seattle and 88 points behind the third-lowest team, Kansas City.

I could point out how the Indians were 32-43 against the American League Central Division, despite a +4 run differential. To circle back to Pythagorean Win-Loss, a +4 run differential over 75 games would imply a 37.95-37.05 record in those games. With a 38-37 division record, the Indians would have been in the wild card game. The Indians, who were 5-2 against the Yankees on the season, would have hosted the AL Wild Card game for the second time in three seasons with an 87-74 record.

Does that hypothetical matter? No, not really. At least it shouldn’t. My worry, however, is that it will.

Everything I just told you is everything that the Indians would tell you if you gave a damn. This savvy, smart front office knows that statistical anomalies, among other things, had a lot to do with the 81-80 record this season. The 2013 version of the Indians was worth 35.9 wins above replacement player per Fangraphs calculations. That team won 93 games. The 2015 version of the Indians was worth 43.1 fWAR. That team was 12 games worse in the win column.

In a general sense, I trust Chris Antonetti. I think he’s an incredibly savvy baseball mind that has managed to build up the organization by putting people in positions to succeed. This is the strongest that the system has been in quite some time and that’s commendable. I’m not going to get into the Dolan debate, but there’s a lot of spending that you don’t see, in terms of international free agency, the draft, minor league infrastructure, and scouting. The Indians are in a good position for the future and may be adding more capital to the mix with a minority “investor”.

For the first time in a long time, however, I’m worried. I’m worried that the Indians will look at what went wrong, look at how it was projected to go, and give up a chance to drastically improve the team. We’ve seen this before. After getting eliminated from the playoffs in the 2013 AL Wild Card game, the big offseason moves were John Axford and David Murphy. Nice ideas, but not the impact that the team needed to sustain its new-found success. They failed to build off of 2007, by adding just Jamey Carroll, Craig Breslow, and Masahide Kobayashi.

The Indians, to me, find themselves in a bit of a pickle. This team, on paper and in projection, should be good enough to get into the playoffs next season. But, that doesn’t mean that they should wait back and hope that last season’s anomalies are simply that. It’s time to be proactive. It’s time for the “process” to be a little bit more aggressive. It’s time to fill holes.

On the other hand, what area of the ballclub do they weaken to strengthen another? Is now the time to trade a starting pitcher for a controlled slugger? Some say yes and some say no. Some have suggested trading complementary and supplementary pieces like Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez. Others are willing to part ways with a top arm like Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar. Many are ready to abandon ship on the Trevor Bauer experiment.

Ultimately, it’s a question of value. Is Jose Ramirez, with his 80 wRC+ and .286 wOBA, going to be viewed as an everyday player? Can the prospects of 20 stolen bases and above average defense get a team to buy in on JRam as an everyday second baseman or shortstop? Does he have enough value in a super utility role to net an impact return? If packaged with Roberto Perez, an ideal backup catcher with an excellent walk rate, decent pop, and good defensive skills, can those supplemental pieces become a core piece?

We know that Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are worth a lot. Other teams know that, too. Antonetti had a lot of discussion leading up to the trade deadline, so the groundwork is likely there for a deal with a handful of teams. Did the second half for Carrasco, in which opposing batters managed a .242 wOBA, increase his value? Was Danny Salazar’s second-half strikeout drop a detriment to his value? Are teams now worried about his durability? Are there certain organizations that think enough of Trevor Bauer to give up a controlled hitter?

I love stats. I’m not as adept at sabermetrics as other people, whose work and opinions I respect. I understand their value, both their predictive value, as well as their present value. I believe the Indians did get unlucky this past season. I believe that the Indians will improve in a lot of key areas because of how much better they got offensively with the Francisco Lindor call-up, the Giovanny Urshela call-up, and the Lonnie Chisenhall move to right field.

What I don’t believe in is automatically assuming that things will turn around because the numbers say that they will. Yes, there’s a greater chance of the Indians seeing positive regression than negative regression. There’s also a reasonable chance that the Indians don’t meet those projections. There’s also a reasonable chance that even after improving the ballclub, the Indians don’t meet those or updated projections.

If a manager’s chief goal is to put players in a position to succeed, a general manager’s chief goal should be to do everything he can to set the team up to have the opportunity to succeed. That framework is already in place. The next step is to put the team into a position where the chances of failing are as low as possible. It can never be foolproof. Things happen – injuries, slumps, personal problems, etc. All a GM can do is improve the areas of the team that need improvement and see what happens.

Circling back, let’s say the Indians trade some prospect depth and/or a starting pitcher to acquire a bat. Bats come with a price tag. Do those financial resources limit the team’s ability to upgrade the bullpen? If the Indians trade Jose Ramirez for a setup relief pitcher, do they have currency left to get a bat? If Jose Ramirez is too big of a price for a relief specialist, who do they trade? A prospect? What if that prospect would have been the last piece in a package to acquire a big bat?

I don’t know what the solution is. I know what my ideas are, and perhaps I’ll discuss them throughout the fall and winter. I know the areas of need, the ones everybody is focusing on and other ones that seem to be bigger concerns to me. I know that not all of them can be addressed, but, some should take high precedence. Unfortunately, in my mind, there are more than a few significant needs.

Those that have read my work, or hate me on Twitter, know that I am a front office supporter and a Dolan sympathizer. I understand the market conditions. I realize the hardships, financially and developmentally, that a small-market team faces. Missing on first-round picks is a cardinal sin. Missing on trades of impending free agents for prospects can set the organization back several years. I comprehend all of this. I understand it. It’s the reality of a professional sport that doesn’t cap spending. Why are the Astros and the Royals having success? Because they were fortunate to be awful for a long enough period of time to stock up on top prospects that happened to develop all at once. But, they were also proactive when those guys got to the big leagues and contention was a reality.

Being mediocre is the worst place to be in any sport. 81-80 is mediocre. 85-77 is mediocre. Anything that leaves you short of the playoffs and outside of the top five in the draft is mediocre. While the Indians have Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, and Jason Kipnis in the primes of their career, the Indians cannot afford to be mediocre. This is their window. This is what the process has created. This is when to pull the right levers. (I hit all the buzzwords, right?)

Mediocre is sitting in the bar, staring from afar, hypotheticals ranging from worst-case scenario to best-case scenario rolling through your mind. And that’s what you do. You wonder. You don’t go and find out. You play the “what if” game. You look at the information you have, which seems favorable, and you don’t act it on it. You hope he or she comes to you. It’s always been said that if you want something, go and get it.

The Indians want the playoffs. The playoffs aren’t going to come to them. 
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