If you were to analyze the 2015 Cleveland Indians season, you might as well divide the season into two parts: one part between Opening Day and June 13, 2015, and the second from June 14 through the end of the season. June 14 was the day Francisco Lindor made his Major League debut, and it's stunning how different a team the Indians were after he made his debut. The biggest change was the defense, which bottomed out in May but got steadily better throughout the year as documented by this Grantland piece. The Indians finished 3rd in the Majors in defensive runs above average, behind only the Royals and the Giants, but fancy sabermetrics aside, the defense just looked better in the second half of the season, thanks primarily to Francisco Lindor at shortstop but also aided by Giovanny Urshela at third and Lonnie Chisenhall in right field.
The Indians pitching staff benefited the most from this dramatic improvement, because while the Indians actually pitched slightly worse in the second half of the season, they allowed less runs. The Indians’ xFIP – a stat designed to measure a pitcher's performance independent of the defense behind him – ballooned slightly from 3.50 in the first half to 3.66 in the second, but their ERA decreased from 3.80 to 3.53. This is a big deal, because the Indians pitching staff is undoubtedly the team's biggest strength, and having a defense that improved that much over the course of the season just made it that much stronger.
It seems like the Indians haven't had a consistent offense since the days of Belle, Ramirez, and Thome, and last year came with its share of frustrations. But after starting slow, Francisco Lindor slashed .310/.353/.482 for the season while slugging 12 home runs. He may regress this year, particularly in the power department, but the fact that he started slow and got better as he got more time in the Majors suggests that the dropoff might not be as severe as other prospects the Indians have brought up. And with Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley hitting well all season, adding Lindor into the mix made the second half a lot more enjoyable to watch, even if the improvements were modest.
All of this added up to a team that was 42-46 before the All Star break, but finished the season at 81-80 (with a Pythagorean win expectation of 84-77) by going 39-34 the rest of the way despite a really young and wildly inexperienced roster. So I'm pretty excited about the 2016 season, because while every season comes with its share of unexpected twists and turns, the Indians are retaining most of their improved defense and just about all of their excellent pitching, meaning that we should expect the 2016 Indians to resemble the second half of 2015 more than the first half of 2015.
The 2015 Indians scored 669 runs, the exact same total they scored in 2014, but like the team as a whole, the offense was stronger in the second half. The Indians were 21st in the Majors in runs scored in the first half, slashing .248/.320/.384; in the second half, they were 16th and slashed .266/.329/.420. But despite that improvement, the offense was still pretty anemic due to a lack of clutch hitting: the Indians finished the season 21st in WPA (Win Probability Added) and 16th in Clutch. The Indians hit 141 home runs, but 85 of them were with the bases empty, and anecdotally it seemed like the Indians never had a hot hitter at the plate with anyone on base.
Some of this was just luck. Another part was the fact that the Indians lost Yan Gomes, a productive right-handed bat, for two months just five games into the season. But most of it was because the Indians had a lot of deadweight in the lineup, particularly early in the season: Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Jose Ramirez, and Lonnie Chisenhall were all non-factors early on. The latter two improved in the second half, while the former two were traded, and the Indians lineup is better for it.
Michael Brantley, the Indians’ most consistent hitter the last three seasons, is recovering from shoulder surgery and is still officially a maybe for Opening Day. But at one point there were estimates that put the timeline for Brantley's return in mid-June, so even if he's back halfway through April, the Indians will take it. I'm going to be optimistic and assume he's ready for Opening Day, so I'll include him in the lineup:
The three major additions are Rajai Davis, Mike Napoli, and Juan Uribe, all right-handed hitters with experience, all fitting the classic Indians free agent archetype of the “let's sign him for a year and see what happens”. I'm optimistic that Napoli will have a bounceback season, but I wouldn't be surprised if he started off strong in the first half before tapering off in the second. Same for Juan Uribe, who I think is just holding down the position until Giovanny Urshela is ready for the full-time job. Of the three, I like the Rajai Davis signing the most because he brings some good speed to the lineup and should be both a defensive and offensive upgrade in center field over Abraham Almonte.
Speaking of upgrading the outfield, Lonnie Chisenhall brought his career back to life by moving to right field last season. Not only did he hit significantly better once moving to the outfield, but defensively he was among the best in the league, and the Indians would be thrilled for him to repeat the second half success he found last season for the full year. The Indians will probably carry a fifth outfielder (or Jose Ramirez) in addition to the rookie, left-handed batting Tyler Naquin to spell Chisenhall against left-handed starters.
The Indians are counting on bounceback years from Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana as well. Yan Gomes was injured for the first two and a half months of the season and he never seemed to really get comfortable at the plate the rest of the season, but hopefully he'll stay healthy this season and can rediscover his groove. As for Carlos Santana, his season probably wasn't as bad as you think it was (he slashed .231/.357/.395, but had a BABIP well below the league average and well below his career average, while posting the second highest line drive rate in his career and drawing more walks than everyone else in the American League not named Jose Bautista). But Santana has frustrating at-bats at times and seems to get mired in slumps for far too long. As the full-time DH this year, he literally only has one job to do, so hopefully he'll be able to concentrate more on the craft of his hitting.
The Indians faced some pressure (and certainly some interest) in the offseason to trade one or more of their star young pitchers for offense, but I'm glad they stood pat and are bringing back their entire rotation intact.
Corey Kluber regressed somewhat from his 2014 Cy Young season, but he pitched much better than his 9-16 record indicates, and should be poised for a bounceback season. Carlos Carrasco had a great first full season in the rotation, and he'd be the number one starter in most rotations. Danny Salazar also went through his first full season in the rotation and he continues to improve and mature as a pitcher.
I'd put the top three of the Indians rotation against anyone, but there's definitely a slight dropoff after them. Cody Anderson showed signs of greatness last season, but he was only in the Majors for part of the season and also spent some time on the disabled list, so he has to prove he can do it for the full season. As for the enigmatic Trevor Bauer, it seems like he took a couple little steps back last season, but he still has the stuff and the mental makeup to be a dominant pitcher too.
The Indians bullpen is still up in the air, but you can count on Cody Allen coming back for his second full season as the closer with Bryan Shaw setting him up. As for the rest of the bullpen: Jeff Manship was really good last season, as was Austin Adams. Kyle Crockett was okay in stretches, and Zach McAllister should be better this year too. Bullpens are always kind of a crapshoot, but in the three seasons Terry Francona has been manager, he's always managed to build at least a decent bullpen, and I have faith that he'll do it again.
I talked a lot about the defense already, so I'll just recap it here: this is mostly the same defense that the Indians finished 2015 with, which is much improved over the defense the Indians began 2015 with. Mike Napoli over Carlos Santana at first should be a wash at worst, and maybe a slight upgrade. Rajai Davis should be a significant upgrade over the suspended Abraham Almonte, while Juan Uribe is probably going to be slightly worse at third base at the cost of hopefully some improved offense.
The Indians’ starting pitching has been so good in recent years that they've been able to cover up a lot of the Indians’ defensive shortcomings. This year, they should finally get some help, and that should be pretty scary for anyone who has to hit against these guys.
Prediction: Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees
The Blue Jays’ pitching staff is nothing to write home about, but their offense is so good that it probably won't matter and the Jays will win the division for the second straight year. Baseball Prospectus projects the Rays to win this division, and I won't go that far, but I'll take their hint and say the Rays will surprise some people this year. I think the Red Sox are still a year or so away, but David Price will help them win a lot of games and be a team contenders don't want to face down the stretch. The Yankees and Orioles are both aging teams, and I don't think you can count on A-Rod to repeat the success he found last season.
Prediction: Royals, Indians*, Tigers, White Sox, Twins
This is still a really competitive division, but don't expect the defending champions to give up their crown so easily. The Royals will win the division again this season. The Indians will also win a lot of games but will have to settle for the first Wild Card slot. I don't think the Tigers have done enough to improve their pitching staff and their hitters are only getting older, and they'll finish third. Same goes for the White Sox, who have Chris Sale but not much else. The Twins continue to improve, but they're not there yet.
Prediction: Astros, Angels*, Rangers, Mariners, Athletics
The Astros were close last year before running out of steam at the end, but this year they'll finish the job and win the division. The Angels will finally wake up and realize they have Mike Trout and narrowly squeak out a Wild Card slot over the Rangers. The Athletics and Mariners are rebuilding and should be selling pieces at the trade deadline.
Prediction: Mets, Nationals*, Marlins, Braves, Phillies
The Mets finally put it all together last season, reaching the World Series before losing to the Royals. They'll win the division again this season and make another run in the playoffs. The Nationals should be much improved this year (could they really get worse?) and they'll get the second Wild Card slot. The Marlins will play spoiler and win a lot more games than people expect. The Braves are in full “wait until 2017” mode, while the Phillies are in full “get off my lawn with your analytics” mode.
Prediction: Cubs, Pirates*, Cardinals, Brewers, Reds
The Cubs should finish with the best record in the National League, but they're the Cubs, so who knows. The Pirates will continue to contend and manage the first Wild Card slot for the fourth straight year. The Cardinals, as much as it pains me to say this, are running out of offense and are going to struggle in this really competitive division. The Brewers and the Reds, on the other hand, can't pitch, and they'll fight it out for fourth place.
Prediction: Giants, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies
What can I say? It's an even numbered year, so the Giants are going to be good this year. I like the Dodgers pitching more than the Giants, but I think the Giants will hit better. The other three all lack pitching, but the Diamondbacks should be first of the worst because of their offense.
ALCS: Astros over Blue Jays NLCS: Cubs over Giants World Series: Astros over Cubs, in 6
(And before you take those predictions to the bank, remember that I picked the Indians over the Nationals last season, so…)
The Indians lost Yan Gomes only five games into last season on a freak force play at the plate when Rajai Davis slid into Gomes’ leg. That was bad luck. And as last season ended, we learned that Michael Brantley had to have shoulder surgery, putting his 2016 season in doubt while the confetti was still falling in Kansas City. But this year, Rajai Davis is an Indian, and Michael Brantley – rebounding faster than anyone thought he would – just might be ready for Opening Day. It's still March, but those are two really good signs that this year, the Indians are making their own luck. Nine days left. Go Tribe.