Five Questions: Cleveland Indians

When Mark Shapiro took over the stewardship of the Tribe in 2001, he inherited an aging club that had amassed a string of division titles and significant post-season success. What to do? Keep the team together with duct tape and hope for one more glorious run?

After a brief period of confusion, Shapiro has charted the course to a new era. The farm system has been rebuilt and many inexperienced players were given a chance to show what they could do at the big league level. In part due to injuries to several veterans, the 2003 Indians were filled with first- and second-year players. That rebuilding project now enters its second year, with the fruit-bearing set to commence in 2005.

1) Which weaknesses do the Indians need to address in preparation for 2005?

Second Base: This was supposed to be an organizational strength, as Brandon Phillips was expected to hold the job for years to come. Phillips had as bad a year as any prospect in baseball – he didn’t hit (.208 avg/.242 obp/.311 slg), played poor defense and was criticized for having a poor attitude. That earned him a demotion to AAA in July. The top middle infield prospect in the organization, Jhonny Peralta, is slated to take over for Omar Vizquel next year.

Starting Pitching: C.C. Sabathia has been tremendously consistent in his three big league seasons. But one proven starter and a bunch of guys who might make it isn’t enough to allay fears about the starting rotation. Among other young pitchers, Cliff Lee is the most promising (more on him in question three). The current #3 starter, Jason Davis, has a lowish strikeout rate (4.63 K per 9 IP in 2003), but the organization likes his stuff and he’ll be given every chance to succeed as a starter. Jeremy Guthrie is Cleveland’s top minor league pitching prosect. 2003 was his first pro season, so I’m willing to chalk his struggles in AAA up to inexperience. Look for Guthrie to join the Indians’ rotation mid-season. Most of the other starting pitching prospects are a couple of years away.

2) What’s the deal with Alex Escobar?

Before his injury in 2002, Escobar was the type of player scouts drool over: He could run, had a cannon arm and could hit with power. He was rated the #18 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America in the spring of 2001, with only four outfielders ranked ahead of him (super-bust Josh Hamilton, Corey Patterson, Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells).

Escobar’s first taste of AAA (in 2001) brought mixed results; he struck out 146 times in 441 PA but showed good power and above average speed (swiping 18 bags in 21 attempts). Following the trade of Roberto Alomar to the Mets, in which the Indians received Escobar and lefthanded pitching prospect Billy Traber (among others), Escobar was struck down with a serious knee injury during spring training. He was forced to sit out all of 2002, missing a critical year of development time. When he returned, his speed had diminished but his power had not. We’re still waiting for progress on strikezone judgment.

Alex Escobar, 2001-03
Year Team Level PA W K XBH W+(%) K+(%) xbh/ab(%)
2001 Norfolk AAA 441 35 146 37 7.6 33.3 9.3
2003 Buffalo AAA 476 24 133 47 4.5 28.1 10.7
2001,03 Mets/Indians Majors 161 10 52 11 5.7 32.5 7.4
key: W+(%) is non-intentional walks per opportunity expressed as a percent; K+(%) is strikeouts per opportunity expressed as a percent; xbh/ab(%) is extra base hits per at-bats expressed as a percent

The Indians were granted an extra option on Escobar, which means he could be optioned to AAA without having to clear waivers. I think it would be a mistake to keep Escobar on the major league roster as a fourth outfielder at the expense of playing him every day, particularly since the Indians have Ryan Ludwick and non-roster invitee Adam Piatt as a potential fourth outfielder.

3) Apart from C.C. Sabathia, which Indians pitcher has the best chance of becoming a dominant starter?

Cliff Lee. Together with C.C. Sabathia and Jason Davis, Lee forms one the youngest rotation front threes in baseball. What makes me bullish about him is his impressive performance at AA over the past two years, where he struck out 30% of the batters he faced.

Cliff Lee, 2002-2003
Team Level IP BF HR W K W+(%) K+(%) ERA
Harrisburg/Akron AA 115.0 454 14 37 136 8.2 30.0 3.37
Buffalo AAA 106.3 459 11 53 91 11.7 19.8 3.47
Indians Majors 62.7 254 7 28 50 10.4 19.8 3.30
key: W+(%) is non-intentional walks per opportunity expressed as a percent; K+(%) is strikeouts per opportunity expressed as a percent

Lee needs to sharpen his control, but he’s not Bobby Jenks wild. Even if he settles in at about a 20% strikeout rate, that would put him among the American League leaders among starting pitchers in that category. Lee is well-spoken and seems bright, the latter being an important trait for a successful major league pitcher.

4) Is the next Indians contender likely to be pitching or hitting dominated?

Neither. There doesn’t seem to be a preponderence of one or the other in the farm system. There’s no one in the organization who looks like he might develop into the next Thome, Belle or Ramirez, although 2003 first rounder Michael Aubrey is talented enough to vault himself into consideration. At the same time, there aren’t any “can’t miss” pitchers working their way through the minors.

There’s quite a bit of depth in the Indians’ minor league system (their farm teams won a combined 57.6% of their games in 2003, ranking second behind the Pittsburgh farm system), but few crown jewels. The Tribe will have to trade quantity for quality, or wade into the free-agent market to keep up with the Twins over the rest of the decade.

5) Historically, have most great teams been hitting or pitching/defense dominated (and where do the John Hart Indians fit in)?

The first step in addressing this question is to define a population of “great” teams. Using a somewhat liberal definition, I selected teams that won at least 56% of their games in a given year over the past 50 years. There were 252 teams in all, about five per season. I then calculated how much above or below average they were on offense and pitching-defense after adjusting for park and league. I subdivided the teams into three groups of relatively equal size according to winning percentage:

Group #(teams) offence+ pitch/def+ Most extreme Most balanced
A (.600+) 96 +12.5 +10.1 ’76 Reds ’57 Yankees
B (.580-.599) 73 +8.1 +8.1 ’82 Brewers ’86 Red Sox
C (.560-.579) 83 +6.2 +6.3 ’81 Brewers ’81 Orioles

The John Hart Indians were offense oriented: From 1994 to 2001, Cleveland was 10.8% above average on offense (+4.7% pitching-defense). Most of those teams had average pitching and defense (the exceptions being 1995 and 1996). In the Mark Shapiro era (2002-2003), the Tribe has been about 6% below average on both sides of the ball.

One year of data contains a fair bit of noise. I created a second pool of teams using three-year blocks of data, eliminating “overlap” teams. There had to be at least a two-year gap between entries from same franchise; for example, the 1994-96 Indians (wpct=.634) and the 1999-01 Indians (wpct=.572) were included in the study, but none from three-year periods in between. In cases where there was a concentration of candidate teams of the same franchise, the three-year period with the highest winning percentage was chosen first.

Group #(teams) offence+ pitch/def+ Most extreme Most balanced
A (.600+) 18 +13.1 +10.0   ’93-’95 Braves ’88-’90 Athletics
B (.580-.599) 17 +7.6 +9.0   ’90-’92 Pirates ’64-’66 Orioles
C (.560-.579) 18 +7.1 +5.7   ’68-’70 Reds ’92-’94 White Sox

Once again the .600+ teams possessed better offensive ballclubs. Teams between .560 and .600 (groups B and C) did not share that tendency. The correlation between offensive prowess and winning percentage was stronger in the single-year study (0.44 versus 0.31) and the three-year study (0.49 versus 0.45) than pitching-defense and winning percentage. What does this tell us?

First, that over this 50-year period, the best teams in baseball have found it easier to build their success upon a great offense than great pitching/defense. Why? It might be because they’ve poured more resources into building up their offenses, or perhaps, that at a certain point, it becomes comparatively more difficult to shave off runs allowed. It may be that pitchers who are significantly better than average are a rarer commodity than hitters who are significantly better than average.

Sources for this article: If you are interested in analysis of Indians players and prospects please check out Matthew Rich’s excellent work at Baseball Primer (as well as my more modest piece at Batter’s Box). For near daily information on the Tribe, the Cleveland Indians Report is a great place to start. Indians Insiders is a clearinghouse of Tribe news links – for my money the best being the Akron Beacon Journal.

The mini-study in answer to Question #5 would not have been possible without the work of Sean Lahman and friends at the Baseball Archive. Kudos to them for years of hard work.

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