The 2014 Cleveland Indians season has been over for about two-and-a-half weeks and the need for a “big bat” in the 2015 lineup has already been referenced approximately 4,721 times. While the “Big Bat Theory” would obviously be an upgrade to the lineup, a blanket statement like that suggests that highly-productive offensive players either grow on trees or a lot of them are available in free agency.
Let’s set parameters for what a “big bat” is. Some fans with unreasonable expectations would put the traditional counting stats at .300 AVG, 40 HR, and 120 RBI for the middle of the order hitter they desire. Among 146 qualified players (3.1 plate appearances per team game), sixteen players hit above .300. One player hit 40 home runs. Not a single player drove in 120 runs. Let’s get more conservative then. Let’s say .285/35/100. That seems reasonable, right? Among qualified players, 40 hit .285 or better. Seven hit 35 home runs. Twelve had 100 or more RBI. Four players achieved a .285/35/100 season. They are Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Jose Abreu, and Jose Bautista. None of those players will be Cleveland Indians this season or at any other point in time. Also, just to make it clear, 11 players hit 30 or more home runs.
This offseason’s “hindsight is 20/20” player is Nelson Cruz. Cruz put up a slash line of .271/.333/.525 with 40 HR and 108 RBI for the Baltimore Orioles. That’s a really good offensive season, especially for a guy that put up a slash line of .263/.319/.489 from 2011-13 in a hitter’s haven like Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. He hit 80 home runs and drove in 253 runs from 2011-13. He was paid $8 million for the 2014 season and wound up accumulating 3.9 fWAR, which is a great investment for the Orioles, who, by the way, were just swept in the American League Championship Series. To put Cruz’s season into context, out of the 146 qualified position players, his 3.9 fWAR ranked in a tie for 41st. Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes both ranked higher by a significant amount. Furthermore, Cruz was worth 3.0 fWAR from 2011-13. Nobody saw this productive of a season coming and the Indians already had a designated hitter at the time in Carlos Santana and wanted flexibility in that spot to use Nick Swisher, Jason Giambi, or to spell a position player.
With the past addressed, take a look at the present. Here’s your cast of characters in the mix for the top offensive position players in free agency: Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez, Yasmani Tomas, Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, and Aramis Ramirez. Taking Tomas, an international free agent from Cuba, out of the equation because he’d be a pipe dream for the Indians, the average age of the players on that list is 32.3 years old. Remember when the Indians signed 32-year-old Nick Swisher and 30-year-old Michael Bourn to multi-year contracts?
The game of baseball is shifting. Big bats, as people traditionally think of them, are not in high supply. Specialized pitching has limited offense to some of the lowest levels since the Dead Ball Era. wOBA, or weighted on-base average, is a sabermetric stat akin to on-base percentage, but it, correctly, rates ways of reaching base differently. Where on-base percentage assumes that all hits and walks are equal, wOBA assigns values to each method of reaching base. The 2014 league-wide wOBA was .310. Since 1970, a span of 45 seasons, the only season with a lower league wOBA was 1972. For the record, the 2012 and 2013 seasons are also in the top-10 for lowest wOBA in that span.
Consider this: The Indians were one of 10 teams that had a wRC+ above 100. wRC+ is another sabermetric stat that stands for weighted runs created plus. It’s an off-shoot of wOBA and it’s a way of saying how many runs a player created in relation to a league average player. For the purposes of evaluating wRC+, 100 is league average. The Indians had a wRC+ of 102, which ranked fifth in the American League and seventh overall. Of the six teams ahead of the Indians, five made the playoffs. If sabermetric numbers aren’t your thing, we’ll look, instead, at the traditional counting statistics. The Indians hit 142 home runs, which ranked 14th. Of the four teams that made the League Championship Series round, only the Orioles hit more home runs during the regular season. They are no longer playing. The Indians were seventh out of 15 teams in the AL in run scoring. Four of the six teams ahead of them made the playoffs. None of them are still playing.
Fans clamoring for a “big bat” need to realize three things: 1. They are in short supply; 2. What qualifies as a “big bat” is not what they think it is; 3. Offense is down across the board and the game has changed. The Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs because of their pitching and defense. The offense was six percent below league average with a wRC+ of 94. They hit the fewest home runs in the league by 16. They’re proving the old adage that you just have to get in and anything can happen.
This is the time of the year to face realities. That could be the Cleveland Indians in the postseason making a run to the World Series. They were better offensively, had a better FIP (fielder independent pitching), and only trailed the Royals by 0.06 runs in ERA. The Indians were 10-9 in the regular season against the Royals.
The reason it’s not has nothing to do with the lack of a “big bat”. It has nothing to do with an underperforming offense. It has everything to do with how awful the Indians defense was. Is the Indians offense inconsistent? Yes. Is every offense in the league inconsistent? Yes. It’s the era of specialized pitching. Seemingly every reliever throws mid-90s with a wipeout slider and every starter is conditioned to only have to go five or six innings and turn it over to the specialists. The offense could use an upgrade, but it’s not the problem.
Did you know that the Indians were 11.5 games worse in the standings than the Royals on defense alone? Going by the suggested ratio by Baseball Info Solutions, the creators of defensive runs saved, roughly every 10 defensive runs saved is equal to a win. The Indians and their Bad News Bears routine played to a soundtrack of Yakety Sax and The Price Is Right Losing Horn were -75 defensive runs saved. Going by the BIS calculations, the defense cost the Indians 7.5 wins this season. This is where it deserves to be mentioned that the Indians finished four games behind the Royals and three games behind Oakland. Oh, and they were five games behind the Tigers.
The Royals, to their credit, are a great fielding team. They were +40 in defensive runs saved, netting roughly four wins on defense alone. The Athletics were +32 in that category. Even with a skeptical point of view on the 10 runs-to-1 win ratio, with three or four games separating the Indians from the playoffs, it was their defense that sent them home for October.
The David Murphy signing didn’t really work out, but not for the reason most people think. Murphy was not an offensive juggernaut and he never really was with the Rangers either. He fell short of his career averages across the board, but not enough to be a huge detriment to the lineup. In fact, Murphy was right around league average for American League right fielders, which is another glaring example of how much offense has dropped off around the league.
The reason the Murphy signing didn’t work out is because he was atrocious defensively. From 2006-13, Murphy was average defensively as a right fielder, accumulating five defensive runs saved over that span. In 2014, Murphy ended with -16 defensive runs saved. It’s hard to put into words how bad that is, but he was the ninth-worst fielder in all of baseball in that metric.
Joining Murphy on that list is Lonnie Chisenhall, whose -14 defensive runs saved made him the 12th-worst fielder in MLB. Sitting in a tie for 19th is second baseman Jason Kipnis at -11 defensive runs saved. Asdrubal Cabrera was -7 in defensive runs saved, which tied for 55th. Michael Bourn, signed for the value that his legs provide defensively and on the basepaths ranked tied for 81st with -6 defensive runs saved. By position, Murphy was the second-worst right fielder, Chisenhall was the second-worst third baseman, Kipnis was tied for the second-worst second baseman, Cabrera was tied for the ninth-worst shortstop, and Bourn was tied for the 12th-worst center fielder. That’s -54 defensive runs saved in five players.
Those who say that a better offense would hide those problems are missing the point. The Indians offense was one of 10 teams above league average. That’s not the problem. It should, in theory, be easier and cheaper to fix the defense rather than shell out large amounts of cash for a free agent hitter on the wrong side of 30.
One creative solution would be to send Jason Kipnis back to the outfield. He was drafted as an outfielder and should be able to put up league average or better offensive numbers. As a second baseman, Kipnis is a defensive liability. As an outfielder, who knows, but with Francisco Lindor coming rapidly and Jose Ramirez’s defensive skill set clearly evident, turning Kipnis into a serviceable outfielder would help. It improves the present and the future if Kipnis can be a productive player out there.
Prospect Gio Urshela is widely-regarded as a good defensive third baseman that flashes great defensive potential at the hot corner. Like Lindor, the Indians are taking it slow with Urshela, so they simply need a stopgap. This is where a player like Emilio Bonifacio makes sense. He’s a super-utility player with experience at second, third, short, and all three outfield positions. He’s not going to kill you at any one of them and he’s useful as a super-utility guy when the youngsters make the jump to the Majors. And, most importantly, he’ll come cheap and without a long-term commitment.
The Indians are stuck with the Bourn contract, but Jose Ramirez as the Opening Day shortstop already makes the team better up the middle. Mike Aviles, whose option is almost a lock to be picked up, was +4 defensive runs saved at second base in 266.1 innings. He’s useful enough there to be a stopgap until Lindor shows up and pushes Ramirez either to a super utility role or, ideally, the everyday second baseman with the Kipnis outfield experiment.
Keep an eye out for James Ramsey to get strong consideration in right field. He’s got a great arm and has mostly played center field in the minors, so right field shouldn’t be a hard transition for him. He was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Justin Masterson deal and posted a .284/.365/.468 slash line in Columbus.
For all of this to make sense, it needs to be clear that a team of league average offensive performers is better than what most teams have. The lineup isn’t full of 100 RBI guys and has one guy, Carlos Santana, capable of hitting 30 home runs. It doesn’t have to be in today’s game. Most teams win with pitching and defense, especially in markets like the Indians. The Indians don’t have the money to go and get a big bat, even if one to their liking existed on the market. The economical, and smart, way to get back to the playoffs is to fix the defense.