Overall Record: 91-63 (0.591, with 8 games to go)
PythagenPat Record: 86-68 (0.558, 5 games below actual record)
5-yr Park Factor: 0.97 (moderate pitchers' park)
PFadj Runs Scored: 797 (5.2 r/g, 5th in AL)
PFadj Runs Allowed: 700 (4.5 r/g, 4th in AL)
Team OBP: 0.343 (5th in AL)
Team SLG: 0.429 (5th in AL)
Team FIP: 4.14 (1st in AL)
Team Fielding: 25 Plays Below Average (11th in AL)
The AL Central Race
What in April seemed like yet another four team race for the AL Central crown quickly dwindled to a five-month duel between the Indians and the Tigers. With a short-lived exception in early June, the two teams were consistently within just a few games of one another for the entire span of April through mid-August in a riveting and intense season-long race. But with a 9-4 victory against Kansas City on August 25, Cleveland began a surge in which they would win 11 of their next twelve, establishing what would prove to be a permanent buffer between themselves and the sputtering Tigers.
C Victor Martinez
C Kelly Shoppach
28-year old Victor Martinez may have been Cleveland's best position player, at least based on this season's performance. His power returned after dropping in previous years, while he maintained his excellent on base percentage of the prior two seasons. As a result, Martinez had the best year of his career, hitting 0.301/0.373/0.507 in 624 plate appearances as a catcher (though he did play 200 innings at 1B). Defensively, he seemed much improved from his struggles a year before, throwing out 29% of runners -- a rate sufficient to slow opposing running games to break-even levels. For a catcher with his kind of offensive abilities, that's more than adequate.
Kelly Stoppach had a decent season as a defensive replacement. He reminds me, in a lot of ways, of a poor man's David Ross -- poor on base skills, good power, and a decent throwing arm (33% CS rate).
1B Ryan Garko
2B Asdrubal Cabrera
3B Casey Blake
SS Jhonny Peralta
DH Travis Hafner
IF Josh Barfield
26-year old Ryan Garko's first full season in the major leagues resulted in fairly average production at first base. He's a good hitter, at hit for high enough average to maintain decent on base percentage while he was second only to Martinez in isolated power. His defensive numbers leave something to be desired, coming in about 8 runs below average--not great, but to be fair, not horrible either. Garko's no star, but it doesn't take a star at first base to provide a difference-making bat in the lineup.
The Indians waited out Josh Barfield's tremendously disappointing season as long as they could, but in the end they turned to 21-year old Asdrubal Cabrera at second base. In the past month+ of playing time, Cabrera has combined plus defense (3 runs above average in just 300 innings) with surprisingly good offensive production. Cabrera hit 0.285/0.335/0.445 over 150 AB's. PrOPS indicates that this might have been slightly better than expected given his batted ball profiles. But his AA line of 0.310/0.383/0.454 this year was a remarkable improvement over anything he'd done since A-ball. I wouldn't count on much offense from him in the playoffs, but at the same time, he is certainly capable of contributing from the 9-hole.
Veteran and late-bloomer Casey Blake took over at the hot corner for the Indians this season, but the 33-year old regressed following his comeback 2006 season, hitting just 0.267/0.334/0.435 and playing below-average defense (-10 runs). He still has some power (though his 18 home runs so far this season may turn out to be his lowest total since his rookie year in 2003), but his line drive rate dropped from 23% in '06 to 17% in '07, taking his batting average with it. Unfortunately, with Andy Marte continuing to regress each of the past two seasons at AAA, the Indians don't really have a better option.
Jhonny Peralta had a modest comeback season of his own following a miserable 2006 campaign, which he credits--based on the commercial I heard when listening to Sunday's Indians game--to laser eye surgery. His batting line of 0.270/0.339/0.435 is respectable enough for a shortstop, but it still falls far short of his very impressive 2005 season (0.292/0.366/0.520). One wonders whether he'll ever be that guy again. Still, if he played good defense, he could be quite valuable with this kind of production. Unfortunately, he doesn't. THT's fielding stats are highly critical of Peralta's defense, pegging him at -13 runs vs. average (this is consistent with his mid-season UZR rating of -8 runs). That adjustment on top of his VORP cuts his already modest value nearly in half to just 14 runs over an average replacement player.
Travis Hafner, now 30 years old, had among the most disappointing seasons on this Indians team. This man was an unbelievable force in 2006 (0.308/0.439/0.659), and one can't reasonably expect a hitter to repeat those kinds of numbers year after year. But he was downright mortal in '07, hitting just 0.256/0.377/0.442. Hafner's isolated power dropped from 0.351 in '06 to "just" 0.187 this season, a drop of nearly 50%. Furthermore, his batting average declined by 50 points, taking his OBP with it. PrOPS indicates that he may have been a tad unlucky, but even adjusting for that, he still produced at a level worse than any season since his rookie campaign in '03. Is this another case of a player with predominantly "old player skills" losing effectiveness faster than otherwise would be expected? Or will this late bloomer rebound to something closer to his brilliant production from '04-'06? Time will tell. I'd still be really scared if I were facing him this October.
Speaking of disappointments, what the heck happened with Josh Barfield? He was a decent hitter in his rookie season...not great, but good enough for an average middle infielder at 0.280/0.318/0.423, especially given that he was hitting in San Diego. Cleveland tried to wait out his season-long slump, but as of 22 September, VORP estimates that his insanely bad line of 0.246/0.271/0.326 cost the Indians over 12 runs below replacement level. Adding insult to injury, THT's fielding stats put him at 9 runs below average this season, pushing his overall value at roughly 21 runs below replacement. You'll be hard pressed to find many players that did more to hurt damage their team's chances at a playoff berth than Barfield. Good thing that they made it despite him--it's one of the reasons that I think the Indians are likely a touch better than their Pythagorean record indicates.
LF Kenny Lofton
CF Grady Sizemore
RF Franklin Gutierrez
OF Jason Michaels, David Dellucci, & Trot Nixon
After a platoon of Michaels and Dellucci failed to produce in left field, and Nixon failed to produce in right field, the Indians reacquired their former should-have-been Rookie of the Year in July. Once joining the Indians, Kenny Lofton really didn't hit much better than the guys he was replacing. But at least he maintained a solid 0.350 OBP, which allowed him to take his customary position at the top of the lineup when Grady Sizemore was moved down to take more advantage of his power. Defensively, Lofton is now merely about average in center field, but that's still good enough that it means that his sub-par defensive numbers in left are probably just the result of small sample size.
Grady Sizemore was anointed the Indians' "franchise player" by BPro after his amazing '06 campaign. And he probably still is. But he did suffer from a noticeable slip in his power production this year, most noticeably in his doubles output. I don't think many teams will balk at getting an 0.852 OPS from their center fielder in a moderate pitcher's park, but it seems a bit disappointing after what he did the previous year. Defensively, THT's ZR stats are highly critical of Sizemore's defense (-19 runs)--something that came up in the BBTF thread about the first half stats I posted at the all-star break. However, first half UZR is at complete odds with those numbers, indicating that he was well above average (+12 runs), consistent with his plus UZR ratings from prior seasons. I'm not sure the cause of the disagreement, but at this point I'm just going to punt and assume that he's an average defender.
Finally, we come to Franklin Gutierrez in right field. When Nixon failed to produce, this 24-year old came up big for the Indians, finally seeming to put it all together into a productive half-season. PrOPS indicates that he may have been a bit lucky (0.776 PrOPS vs. 0.817 OPS), and his rather absurd strikeout rate (27%) shows that he's still rather raw. But power is kind of hard to fake, and it's not like the guy doesn't have the talent to perform at this level. Defensively, he was a net +3 runs across all outfield positions, though he was rated +7 runs in right field where he played most often.
Jason Michaels continued to get a lot of playing time this season. More of a 4th or 5th outfielder, his PA's this season seem related more to underperformance by his teammates than legitimate productivity. At the least, he was an asset defensively in left field, even though his bat was pretty much right at replacement level.
Trot Nixon (32 yrs) and David Dellucci (33 yrs), both free agent acquisitions from the offseason, were complete duds. With Nixon, at least you can say that his '06 numbers portended things to come. But Dellucci was a big disappointment after his previous two seasons with Texas and Philadelphia, both offensively and defensively. PrOPS doesn't show much reason for optimisim based on either of their batted ball profiles, unfortunately. But at the least, they do present two left-handed bench players who have both experience and power potential, even if their performance was sub-par this season. Not a bad thing to have.
C.C. Sabathia is among the top candidates for this year's Cy Young Award, and looking at his numbers, it's no wonder. Excellent strikeout rates, minuscule walk rates, and a low home run allowed rate...he's the definition of an ace. His FIP is actually a touch lower than his ERA, which rarely happens among pitchers with ERA's in this range. And my goodness, he's still just 27 years old! I figured he had to at least be pushing 30 by now given how long I've been hearing his name. He might be the best pitcher in the playoffs, at least on the American League side.
Fausto Carmona, 23, actually has an ERA just a tad lower than Sabathia's as I write this, but that's not necessarily reflective of comparable abilities. Carmona has good control, and is an extreme ground ball pitcher (64%), which explains the low home run allowed totals. But his strikeout rate is actually a touch below average, which results in an FIP 3.83, an 0.8 run increase over his actual ERA. Don't get me wrong, he's a good pitcher and would be an asset on almost anyone's pitching staff. The Indians have quite a find in this kid, and they get to control him for at least four more seasons. But he's not on the level of Sabathia.
Jake Westbrook, 29, is known as an extreme ground ball pitcher, but his ground ball rate took a big hit this season, while at the same time his walk rate peaked to its highest level since his breakout year in 2003. His ERA didn't respond much, but his FIP surged up by about 0.5 runs/9 innings. Westbrook had a rough start to this season, and has seemingly been improved since his return from the DL in June. The Indians need him to pitch in the fashion that he did the previous three seasons if they're going to win his post-season starts.
Paul Byrd, now 36, is the consummate control pitcher. He gets by with a 4.2 k/9 and a 38% ground ball rate by being extremely good at avoiding the walk. But he really does just barely get by, and one has to worry about a pitcher of his sort going up against some of the offenses that teams are likely to throw at him in the playoffs. I'd be really tempted to pitch the prior trio on three days rest rather than throw Byrd out there, unless I had a comfortable lead in the playoff series.
And that's about it. There are three other starters that the Indians have run out there this season (Lee, Sowers, and Laffey), but I honestly can't see any of them getting much playing time in the postseason given the results of those outings. Lee and Sowers, at least, have shown productivity in the past, but they were really hit hard this year.
Joe Borowski, now 36, looks to be this postseason's Todd Jones. He's probably not the best reliever in this bullpen, but he's a dependable, experienced reliever who had an outstanding season as the Indians' closer. He actually has excellent strikeout rates (8 k/9), even if they fall shy of some of the other members of his staff, and he maintains excellent control. He can get burned with the longball, as he is a fairly extreme fly ball pitcher (35% gb%). But generally, you can give him the ball in the 9th and be confident that he'll get you the win.
Getting the ball to Borowski, the Indians have two outstanding relievers, right-hander Rafael Betancourt and left-hander Rafael Perez. Their strikeout rates are both outstanding, and both have good control. In Betancourt's case, his walk rate is as low as I've seen in a pitcher (1.1 bb/9). However, he's also one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers I've ever seen (26% GB%), and has been that way throughout his career. That's unlikely to be an issue in the ALCS, but if the Indians go to the world series, it might be something to keep an eye on, as many of the likely NL playoff teams have fairly extreme home run parks (COL, PHI, CHN, & ARI in particular). Perez looks to just be all-around nasty, and as a left-hander, he represents one heck of an asset.
The remaining two in the probable playoff bullpen, lefty Fultz and righty Mastny, seem like fairly average relievers. Fultz's FIP (4.02) is much higher than his ERA (2.91), reflecting his extremely high walk rate and unusually low BABIP. Mastny also has been plagued by control problems, though at least in his case his peripherals are in agreement with his ERA. I doubt we'll see much of them unless the Indians' starters run into trouble early in the game.
The Indians have a nice balance of pitching and offense, while at the same time having some liabilities on defense, and in this way they are fairly comparable with the Angels. Their offense has more punch than the Angels' overall, but, unless Hafner regains his form, they lack an impact hitter on the level of a Vladimir Guerrero. Still, they have five hitters with OPS's in excess of 0.800 (one of which is their outstanding catcher), and along with a decent supporting cast of players.
Their rotation seems a bit more "sharp" than the Angels. Sabathia can take on anyone, and Carmona is capable, but after that they get thin fairly quickly. If Westbrook can get his ground ball rate up they should be ok, but if not they're essentially entering the playoffs with just two quality starters.
I really like their bullpen, and it reminds me a lot of the Tigers' from last season. Betancourt might be their best reliever, but by having Borowski in the closer role, they can reserve Betancourt (and Perez for that matter) for high leverage situations in earlier innings. Borowski is more than capable of starting and finishing an inning, and they can leverage the Rafael brothers' strikeout rates when they need to bring someone on with runners on base.
In terms of fielding, I think they're actually better than their team totals indicate. The reason is that three of their opening day starters (Barfield, Dellucci, & Nixon), all sub-par defenders, lost their jobs over the course of the season and have been replaced by guys who are plus defenders at those positions (Cabrera, Lofton, & Gutierrez). The result is a team that, while still not outstanding defensively, is probably roughly average. Their pitching staff, one the other hand, lead the league in FIP, making their team among the best in baseball at preventing runs.
Overall, this is a strong team. In fact, I think it's remarkably strong given how much they had to overcome this season. Think about it. Their probable closer, Keith Foulke, announced his retirement in spring training just after signing a 1-year deal. One third of the Indian's starting lineup at the start of the season fizzled out and had to be replaced from within (Cabrera & Gutierrez) or via trade (Lofton). Perhaps even worse, their best hitter of the last three years (Hafner) regressed dramatically. And Lee and Sowers, two fifths of their rotation, completely imploded, both posting 6+ ERA's. And yet here they are, AL Central champions, and vying for the best record in the American League. Pretty remarkable team.