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Finding the Indians a Hand for the Pen

It’s no secret that the American League has been incredibly top heavy this year, with the playoff race having essentially been decided by the All-Star break (insert crying emoji for Angels’ fans). The Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox have been incredible, ranking first, second, and third respectively in total team WAR. The Mariners have been a pleasant surprise, parlaying a breakout season from Mitch Haniger and dominant pitching from Edwin Diaz and James Paxton with a ludicrous record in one run games (that almost certainly won’t be sustained over the course of a full season). Lurking just outside of the playoff picture are the exciting, young Oakland A’s, who have an interesting mix of young blossoming stars and seasoned vets, all who seem to be clicking at the right time.

Forgotten in all of the competitiveness that defines the AL West and AL East is the mediocrity of the AL Central. Much has been written about how historically bad the division is this year, which houses three rebuilding teams—the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals—and a vastly underperforming/fringy pre-season playoff contender in the Twins. As it currently stands, those four teams all project to finish below .500, with the White Sox and Royals both on pace to lose over 100 games. There is one bright spot, though; this team won 102 games in 2017, lost in extra innings of game 7 of the World Series in 2016, and is home to a two-time Cy Young award winner and the best SS/3B combo in the MLB. That team is the Cleveland Indians.

(Note: All statistics are current as of 07/02/18)

The Tribe have flown under the radar this year in terms of AL World Series contenders, partly because the Astros/Yankee/Red Sox have been so great, and partly because the Indians… well, haven’t been. Early on in the season, the lineup struggled mightily to score runs, couldn’t get reliable starts out of their 5th rotation spot (re: Josh Tomlin), and had a revolving door in the bullpen. As many expected, the offense snapped out of its funk, and now rank 6th in the MLB in total team batter WAR with 14.8, thanks to monster first halves from Francisco Lindor (.936 OPS, 153 wRC+, 21 HRs), and Jose Ramirez (1.007 OPS, 169 wRC+, 24 HRs). The rotation is now as formidable as ever, ranking 2nd in total SP WAR with 11.0, and replacing Tomlin with a combination of a serviceable Adam Plutko and top prospect Shane Bieber. Not to mention, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger have taken massive steps forward, Corey Kluber has maintained his ace status, and 2017 4th place Cy Young finisher Carlos Carrasco hasn’t even found his stride yet. The team is positioned as well as anyone to make a deep postseason run… if their bullpen wasn’t still an atrocity. Take a look at this chart from Sunday’s game against Oakland.

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Going down the list, everything looks pretty good until… WOW. A bullpen ERA over 5, up almost 2.5 runs from a season ago. The bullpen might not be quite as bad as they appear on the surface, as they are running an abnormally low LOB%, as well as an unsually high HR/FB rate—which explains why their xFIP is 4.11 compared to their 5.17 ERA/4.64 FIP. The Tribe’s relief corp ranks nearly dead last in total team RP WAR, and their futility—combined with the excellence of the starting pitching—has led Terry Francona to only use his pen for 222.2 innings this year, good for dead last in the MLB. From 2016-2017, the Indians had the 4th best bullpen in baseball by WAR, including the best bullpen ERA and FIP, and the second best xFIP. What happened to this once formidable group? For one, the team lost bullpen stalwart Bryan Shaw via free agency, as well as mid-season acquisiton, Joe Smith. From 2013-2017, no relief pitcher threw more innings than Shaw, who carried a solid 3.11 ERA over those 5 seasons. In addition, superstar Andrew Miller has thrown just 14.1 innings, having been on the shelf for 52 days this season across two separate DL stints. Because of this, Francona has had to rely on closer Cody Allen much more than he would like to, with the results being slighly underwhelming. Allen’s ERA has jumped from 2.94 in 2017, to 3.62 in 2018, all while running an abnormally low BABIP of .233. This seems to suggest that there’s more regression on the way, which doesn’t bode well for a guy who’s K% has fallen almost three percent, and who’s out of zone swing rate has decreased while his out of zone contact rate (and overall contact rate) have increased.

Take a look at the motley crew the Tribe has run out this year (no bullpen carts yet in Cleveland, unfortunately).

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When two of the top three guys in innings pitched have combined for -0.5 WAR, you know things aren’t good. Oliver Perez and Neil Ramirez have actually been pretty solid over the last month or so, but those aren’t the guys you want coming in to face Aaron Judge, JD Martinez, or Carlos Correa in October. With both Cody Allen and Andrew Miller likely to be in different uniforms next season, it would greatly benefit the Tribe to capitalize on the team they have now by fortifying their biggest weak spot with pitchers controllable past this season alone. MLB Trade Rumors confirmed this idea, writing, “The Indians hope to acquire at least one quality reliever who’s under control past this season, per [Buster] Olney.”

So, who fits that mold? Obviously, we can rule out a few teams right off the bat:

  • Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies, A’s, Twins, Tigers, Royals, White Sox

All of those teams in that list are firmly entrenched in playoff races, or have invested enough in their team that it would be tough to justify tearing it down right now. The A’s are interesting, given their penchant for selling off productive players at peak value. I think their recent success and competitive timeline will lead them to hold onto their stud closer Blake Trienen, though. I also added the other AL Central teams in there, given that it is unlikely they would like to trade within the division (which for the record, is stupid).

That leaves the following teams as potential trade partners:

  • Rays, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels, Orioles, Padres, Pirates, Reds, Marlins, Mets

I find it highly unlikely that the Rays move another controllable bullpen piece, given their recent success with the “opener” and the fact that they already traded their former All-Star closer, Alex Colome. The Angels came into the year expecting to compete for a playoff spot, but injuries have derailed them this year. They will be looking to bounce back next year, and probably will only sell off short-term assets. The Mets don’t have anyone worth trading for, while teams like the Pirates and Blue Jays with ace closers (Vazquez and Osuna, respectively) probably will cost too much in prospect currency. The Orioles have relief pitchers with solid track records, but Britton/Brach are both free agents at the end of the year, and Darren O’Day is out for the year after hamstring surgery. Mychal Givens—who is a good reliever in his own right—is controlled through 2021, but probably isn’t the type of arm you can count on as the main guy in a bullpen.

That leaves four teams to choose from: Rangers, Marlins, Reds, and Padres. While each of the first three organizations possess quality, controllable arms, I think the Indians should be aggressive in obtaining Padres’ relievers Brad Hand (LHP) and Kirby Yates (RHP).

While Hand has been an above average reliever for a few years now, Yates really has broken onto the scene this year. Check out some numbers and rankings and see for yourself:

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Both rank in the upper echelon in K%-BB%, which shows an ability to miss bats while still maintaining command of the zone. Hand’s ERA and FIP look better, mostly because he had more success in previous years than Yates—although this season Yates is actually vastly outperforming Hand in this area. For those that don’t know what SwStr% means, it is calculated by dividing swings and misses by total pitches thrown by the pitcher, with league average being around 9.5%. Both Hand and Yates are well above average in this category, with Yates’ numbers bordering on elite. These two excellent relievers would fit in nicely in 2018 with a healthy Andrew Miller and a less overworked Cody Allen, and also would provide a sturdy base for the 2019 relief corps that are almost certainly going to lose the two aforementioned Indians.

Check out these two surplus value graphs that I calculated for both Padres relievers:

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Let me briefly explain my methodology. When calculating surplus value on a contract, the goal is to figure out how much “extra” value the player is giving to his team by subtracting the market value for his production by the dollars he is actually owed via his contract. The $/WAR calculation for 2018-2020 were taken directly from an article written here on Fangraphs by Matt Swartz, and the expected WAR totals were generated by the generally accepted decline rates laid out by former Fangraphs’ editor and chief, Dave Cameron. Players on average perform at 90% of their previous year’s WAR output through age 30, 85% from 31-35, and 80% from 36 and up. For 2018 dollars owed, I divided each players’ contract by 3 to account for the fact that each would only be in Cleveland for about a third of the current season. Similarly, the 2018 final WAR calculation shown at the bottom of my charts uses 2016 and 2017 WAR totals added to each player’s current WAR, plus an average of what Zips and Steamer—which are Fangraph’s projection systems—think they will produce the rest of the season. Finally, that total is then divided by three to get the average of the three seasons, and then divided by three again, to account for the third of the season Hand and Yates would pitch for the Tribe. Using the previous two seasons WAR in addition to the current season will enable us to have a number that is less influenced by one particular season’s performance, thus giving us a sturdier baseline for which to calculate the next season’s WAR totals.

These charts aren’t perfect, and are meant to be used as simply a rough estimate to see how valuable each player would be over the course of their contracts. For example, Yates will head to arbitration in 2019 and 2020. It is tough to say how much of a raise he will get each season, so I kept the raises equal, and simply doubled his previous year’s salary. Arbitration pays for saves, as well as other counting statistics like strikeouts and holds. Since Yates probably will never do much closing, and really hasn’t become dominant until this season, I feel comfortable saying his salary won’t escalate too much the next few years—which is great for a small market team like the Indians.

Clearly, if we can ascertain how valuable Hand and Yates are, the Padres certainly know their value as well. What would it take to get both of these guys? Would it take a massive overpay? Is there a point where it becomes too expensive? The answer, in short, is “it depends.” The Padres have an absolutely loaded farm system, so they might have more specific desires when it comes to prospect returns. Of course, prized Tribe prospect Francisco Mejia’s name will most definitely be talked about first. I’ve seen him ranked anywhere from a 55FV to a 60FV on the 20-80 scouting scale, meaning some see him as an above average MLB contributor, while others see him as a potential All-Star. Using Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli’s prospect valuation model, which according to Dave Cameron “looks at the level of expected performance and the expected cost of a player during the years before he reaches free agency, and then estimates a player’s value to his organization during that time,” here is how top prospects can be valued:

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As you can see, pitchers are valued less due to the fact that pitcher’s get injured much more than hitters, and thus are riskier over the course of their control years. Depending on how you value Mejia, there’s a 22-million-dollar difference in his estimated prospect value. To elaborate, if Hand/Yates combined are around 40 million dollars in surplus value by my model, Mejia’s value outweighs theirs by 20 million if he is a 60FV, while it actually is about 2 million less if he ends up a 55FV. Is there a lot more that goes into trades than simply surplus value? Absolutely. Teams all have their own ways of valuing MLB/MiLB players, and the value of a championship sometimes is the necessary boost to make a move that might be otherwise unadvisable (see: 2015 Kansas City Royals).

Based on what I’ve seen/read, it’s tough for me to value Mejia at a 60FV, mostly due to the uncertainty surrounding his long-term projectability behind the dish. Everyone knows he has an absolute hose, but it appears as if his footwork, blocking, and game-calling need work. Not to mention, he doesn’t have a traditional “sturdy” catcher’s frame, and there is legitimate concern that his body will not hold up after catching 110+ games a season. If he isn’t able to develop into an average to slightly above average catcher, it’s not as if his advanced barrel control from both sides combined with some sneaky raw power won’t play at a corner outfield spot or 3B. That profile will just will make him less valuable, because it is extremely difficult to find a catcher that can hit as well as Mejia is projected to.

Let’s construct two trade scenarios based on Mejia being a 55FV prospect. Because of the scarcity of dominant relievers on the trade market with team friendly contracts, and the fact that the demand for Hand/Yates will be high among contenders, the Tribe will probably have to overpay for their services.

Here’s two mock trades I think could work:

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We’ve already talked in length about Mejia, but here’s some quick information on the other guys I included in this deal (note: all FV ratings are via Fangraphs). Talking about deal number one first, Willi Castro (45FV) is a slick fielding SS with solid contact ability, and would fill in nicely at SS if top Padres’ prospect, Fernando Tatis Jr., moves off of short like many are expecting. Quentin Holmes (40FV) is a plus runner with immense athleticism that will help him play plus defense in CF someday. The hit tool isn’t there yet, but if he develops the way the Tribe are hoping, he will be a key cog at the top of a lineup down the road. Julian Merryweather (NR) is a big, right-handed reliever that Fangraph’s prospect analysts Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel have up to 98MPH, with a plus curveball and changeup. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, but is an interesting high-upside bullpen piece that could break camp with the team as early as 2019. In the second deal—not including aforementioned Mejia and Merryweather—there is Yu Chang (50FV), who probably has just enough athleticism/twitchiness to stick at short, but also could fill in nicely at 3B down the road. He has some swing and miss issues, but there’s legitimate raw pop in his bat, and he should be able to get to that power in game enough to be a valuable everyday regular. Jordan Milbrath (NR) is a massive 6’6” 215lb reliever that has what Longenhagen and McDaniel describe as a plus sinker and slider.

Will either of these deals be satisfactory to the Padres? Who knows. Will the Indians think that Mejia headlining a deal is too expensive? Who knows. These mock trades were meant to put out a framework of what could potentially move the needle on two relievers with justifiably high price tags, all while staying within the parameters of what a fair deal would be in terms of surplus value.

With the recent departure of LeBron James, and the consistent futility of the Browns (save us, Baker Mayfield) the Indians are Cleveland’s best chance at fielding a championship team over the next five years. Although the price might be steep, it’s impossible to put a dollar amount on what a World Series would mean for the city of Cleveland, even if it requires trading an arm and a leg for a Hand (and a Yates).

Where Art Thou, Yan?

It seems that more and more often, we as baseball fans are constantly trying to “diagnose” the cause of a specific player’s struggles, and give our two cents on if everyone should — in the words of Aaron Rodgers — relax, or be concerned about the player’s deficiencies. I am not sure what it is; maybe it’s because talking about other people’s problems makes us forget about our own. Maybe it’s because we as humans simply like to tell other people how to do their jobs, because it makes us feel important. No one will truly ever know the exact answer to that question. With that being said, however, I am going to do exactly what I just talked about the previous four sentences; I am going to try to explain what is going on with Yan Gomes. In his first two seasons with the Tribe (223 games total), he accumulated 7.8 WAR, won a Silver Slugger award in 2014, and drew positive reviews for his framing abilities according to Baseball Prospectus (ranked 17th out of 417 catchers in 2013 and 32nd out of 382 in 2014 in the Framing Runs statistic). Framing runs essentially shows how many runs a catcher saves throughout a given season based on how many extra strikes they are able to get their pitchers from their framing abilities. The Indians, seeing a young and talented player still required to go through the arbitration process for several more years, locked Gomes up to a six-year, 23-million-dollar contract before the 2014 season. Taking a look at this chart, the Indians’ felt they were in for a huge bargain.

Year Age Salary (in millions) WAR est. $/WAR Value (in millions)
2014 27 0.6 3.5 7.6 26.6
2015 28 1 3.15 8.2 25.8
2016 29 2.5 2.84 8.8 24.9
2017 30 4.5 2.55 9.4 24.0
2018 31 6 2.17 10.0 21.7
2019 32 7 1.84 10.6 19.5
Total 23 (includes 0.5 million signing bonus) 142.6
Surplus Value 119.6 M


To briefly explain my methodology, I used the estimates for dollars per WAR (which adjusts for inflation) from an article by Matt Swartz from Hardball Times, and adjusted Gomes’ overall WAR per year by the generally accepted decline rates laid out by Dave Cameron of FanGraphs a few years back. Players on average perform at 90% of their previous year’s WAR output through age 30, 85% from 31-35, and 80% from 36 and up. When the Indians signed Gomes, he was coming off a 3.3 WAR season. Considering he was going into his age-27 season, he was probably nearing his peak year in terms of WAR. Therefore, right or wrong, I believe his true-talent level (and what the Tribe were expecting from him) in 2014 was right around 3.5 WAR. I adjusted his yearly totals accordingly until his contract expired — I did not incorporate team options for 2020 and 2021 into this. The Indians receive roughly 120 million dollars in surplus value for the length of Gomes contract, which would be an incredible deal for a small-market team.

Obviously, Gomes went out in 2014 and produced a 4.5 WAR season, even further increasing the bargain for the Tribe in the early goings of the deal. Since 2014, however, Gomes hasn’t been the same player at the dish. His defense still grades out favorably according to many defensive metrics, but his bat appears to have taken a big step back. It isn’t fair to judge him on 2015, considering he was injured early on in the season and never fully recovered. This year, there isn’t an injury excuse — that we know of anyways. Gomes is slashing a dismal .167/.204/.353 at the plate, and has been worth just 46 wRC+, meaning his hitting has been 54% worse than league average. Few things of merit before jumping into a more detailed analysis: he is running a .174 BABIP, which is tremendously lower than his career average of .302 and upon regression will raise his average. His walk rate is about the same, and he is only striking out 3% more than his “peak” season of 2014. While a 3% rise in strikeout percentage isn’t minuscule, Gomes has always been known as a free swinger (over the last four years, he is in the 75th percentile in swinging strikes and 83rd percentile in swing percentage).

So, the big question here is, what specifically is causing Gomes’ struggles? I am going to try to be as systematic as possible here, so that everything kind of builds upon itself. To quickly summarize his plate discipline statistics — because I don’t think there are really any surprises here — his out of zone, zone, and overall swing percentages in comparison to his career have increased, and his out of zone and overall contact percentages have decreased. I am not sure why his Z-Contact% has increased, but I don’t think that is of much consequence. It is clear that Gomes is swinging more, and making contact less.

Turning to his batted-ball statistics, there are several important changes that start to paint a better picture of why Gomes is struggling. For ease of communication, I have split the information into two tables below.

Season Team GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB%
2012 Blue Jays 1.28 14.9% 47.8% 37.3% 8.0%
2013 Indians 1.12 17.8% 43.5% 38.7% 11.2%
2014 Indians 0.93 24.0% 36.7% 39.4% 9.6%
2015 Indians 0.84 26.4% 33.6% 40.0% 11.3%
2016 Indians 0.76 18.9% 35.1% 45.9% 14.7%

Notice how in all of Gomes’ professional seasons, his groundball-to-fly-ball ratio has gone down. This could be considered a good thing, since he does possess a ton of raw power, and everyone knows you can’t hit home runs on the ground — okay, technically you can, but Gomes doesn’t have Dee Gordon speed. The next thing that jumps out is his 14.7% pop-up rate, which is good for 25th highest out of 192 qualified hitters. His increased fly-ball rate, coupled with his bloated IFFB%, could explain why his BABIP is so low — balls in the air are caught more often than balls on the ground. More importantly, though, it seems that there could be a pitch-recognition problem, considering his isn’t quite squaring up balls as consistently as he has in the past. To go into this concept further, let’s take a look at the next chart.

Season Team Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2012 Blue Jays 52.9% 31.4% 15.7% 7.1% 62.9% 30.0%
2013 Indians 42.2% 31.7% 26.1% 14.3% 53.5% 32.2%
2014 Indians 42.6% 30.2% 27.2% 16.4% 52.6% 31.0%
2015 Indians 37.4% 37.0% 25.7% 16.6% 55.5% 27.9%
2016 Indians 44.6% 40.5% 14.9% 20.3% 54.1% 25.7%

Gomes is pulling the ball more than he ever has in his entire career — excluding the cup of tea he had in the bigs in 2012. Not to mention, he has basically abandoned taking the ball the other way. Looking at his quality of contact stats, he is hitting the ball “hard” less often than he typically has throughout his career, too.

Sure enough, Gomes has been below the league average in exit velocity for the majority of the season. So, to recap what I have already found, Gomes is hitting a ton of fly balls and pop-ups, is pulling the ball more and taking it the other way less, and is hitting the ball softer than usual. What does this all mean? I think it illustrates that Gomes is struggling with breaking balls.

Looking at Gomes’ spray angles against hard, breaking, and offspeed pitches, it appears that he is not recognizing breaking balls well this season.

For those that aren’t familiar with Brooks Baseball’s spray angle data, it essentially shows the average direction which balls are hit on the field. So, a positive spray angle (as depicted on the graph) means that the hitter tends to pull that pitch, and a negative spray angle means they tend to take it the other way. A recent FanGraphs Community Blog post by an author named Brad McKay explained the significance of spray angle well, in my opinion. He surmised that similar spray angles for different pitch types suggests that a player “was able to recognize and wait back equally well for both pitch types,” something that I happen to agree with. Looking at Gomes’ Silver Slugger Award winning year, it appears that Gomes tracked and hit fastballs and breaking balls at a similar spray angle, while also hitting offspeed pitches almost identical as well. This shows that Gomes was picking up the ball well in 2014. Fast-forward to 2016, and you can see that those angles have changed, and Gomes is now pulling breaking balls more than he does against fastballs. This suggests that something isn’t right with Gomes’ pitch recognition. He has almost reverted back to more of what he was in 2013. Interestingly enough, Gomes hit really well that season in 88 games played. The difference from then to now, however, is the pitch sequencing.

The approach against him has done a complete 180. The lefties — who used to pound him with fastballs when ahead in the count — now go to their breaking balls, while the righties — who used to pound him with breaking balls when ahead in the count — now attack him with fastballs. Essentially, the way pitchers (both lefties and righties) attacked Gomes in 2013 is consistent with how one would traditionally pitch to an aggressive, right-handed power bat. Here’s what I think has happened now. Pitcher’s have realized that Gomes is not picking up breaking balls the way he was in the past, causing him to have to sit breaking ball on the majority of pitches. He does this with the hopes of picking up the breaking ball early enough to decide whether to swing or not swing. With this in mind, right-handed pitchers know that because Gomes is sitting breaking ball, he will have a harder time catching up to the fastball many times. Simultaneously, left-handers know that they can attack him earlier with their fastballs (which are generally a pitch righties see well from lefties) to get ahead in the count, and then try to put him away with the breaking ball. In a sense, Gomes is completely and utterly discombobulated at the plate. Here are his heat maps vs. righties, broken down into “hard stuff” and “breaking balls.”As expected, the “hard stuff” is up, while the breaking balls are started over the middle of the plate and break down and away. Next, the lefties.

Lefties have attacked him with fastballs low, and inside, and use this to set up the breaking ball on Gomes’ back foot, which is incredibly difficult to hit (especially for someone not picking up those types of pitches well). Gomes is hitting .177 against the 55 sliders he’s seen this year, and is hitting .000 against the 35 curveballs he’s seen. His averages against harder pitchers are not much better.

Now that we have identified the problem, is there a way to fix it? I don’t know what Gomes is doing behind the scenes, but in my opinion there are three different ways to go about this. For one, I think Gomes should study the way pitchers are attacking him (which I would assume he is already doing). Using this knowledge, I think Gomes could benefit from being a little more patient at the plate. Instead of swinging out of his shoes all the time, he might be better suited remembering how pitchers are attacking him, and waiting on a pitch he not only can drive, but knows is most likely coming (helping to eliminate the guessing game he is playing right now). Lastly, I think he could simply practice recognizing pitches on the pitching machines teams have in the clubhouse. Gomes could spend time every day tracking a set amount of pitches, working to improve his ability to discern spin on the baseball upon its release. Then, he could put that pitch recognition to the test by actually attempting to hit the pitches when they are thrown. These are pretty simplistic solutions, and I am sure Gomes is working tirelessly trying to break out of his slump already. These are just my best guesses on how to improve this deficiency in Gomes’ game going forward in 2016.

I still believe in Yan Gomes, and so should you. He has proven he can be a successful big-leaguer, and one of the top catchers in the league. Catchers are judged more on their defense than on their bat, and catchers who can do both are considered a premium. In other words, Gomes could still be considered a solid MLB catcher, even if he doesn’t ever regain his old form at the plate. It is my opinion, however, that we should not sell him short at the plate. The ability is there, it just needs a little refining right now. For the sake of Indians’ fans everywhere, let’s hope Gomes can unleash his inner “Yanimal” sooner rather than later; the fate of the Indians season depends on it.



Why the Darlings of the AL are Not Ready for a Playoff Push

The 2015 MLB season has been filled with plenty of surprises thus far. The Twins have maintained their hot start, and currently hold the first wildcard spot in the AL. The NL Central has been highly competitive, with three teams in position to make the playoffs should the season end today. The Padres have been a huge disappointment (although I never fully bought into them), and may be sellers at the deadline just seven months after making the biggest splashes of the winter. Sleeper picks Cleveland and Seattle might as well have been asleep the first half of the year, both putting together extremely underwhelming performances and effectively ending their postseason hopes.

But no over- or under-achieving organization quite took the league by storm like the Houston Astros. They began the year hotter than any team in baseball besides St. Louis, finishing May with a record of 32-20 and a four-game lead over the second-place Angels. In their last 43 games, however, it has been a much different story. They have gone 20-23, enduring one seven-game losing streak in June, and they began the second half on a six-game losing streak (also losers of 8 of their last 9). Back in mid May, amidst all the frenzy over the already anointed playoff bound Astros, I began to wonder what was propelling this team to victory. It was clear that although their starting pitching doesn’t blow anyone away with immense velocity or stuff, they had a set of guys who were displaying that they knew how to pitch and could hold their own in a MLB rotation. Here are the splits on the Astros’ starting pitching, using May 31st as the divider.

March/April-May 4.08 3.75 6.45 2.46 0.298 70
June-All Star Break 4.03 3.54 8.04 3.13 0.299 70


I made sure that only active players on the Astros’ roster were included due to the fact that there are many insignificant players whose numbers would have been included in the splits because of spring training. The ERA and FIP numbers are very similar, as are the BABIP and LOB% stats. The two interesting changes are the increase in strikeouts and the simultaneous increase in walks. Walks lead to runs, and since the Astros have not been great offensively, the more free passes given out the more likely they will be playing from behind in games. While Dallas Keuchel has been extraordinary, and Lance McCullers has been solid as a rookie, their rotation doesn’t seem to have enough to strike fear into opposing team’s hearts (see 1990’s Atlanta Braves).

They do however appear to have a solid bullpen, possessing the 4th best ERA at 2.67 and the 4th best LOB% at 80%. Their recent scuffles have them at an overall record of 49-42, currently a half game back of the Angels. According to the computers, they have a 55.3% chance of making the playoffs in some capacity this year, and are expected to finish with a record of 84-78 — good enough to win a wild card spot. The computer’s calculations aren’t always perfect, so it is safe to say that there is definitely a margin of error here, although I cannot say for certain what that number might be (probably ±3-4 wins). Regardless of what the analysts are saying, I believe they WILL NOT make the postseason. Why? Because history is not on their side.

After a lot of hard work entering in all of the numbers by hand, I finally have created a table that houses several statistics from all playoff teams starting in 1995 when the wild card was introduced. Take a look at these numbers:


2015 Astros 0.240 0.178 24.8 8.2 0.307
1995-2014 Postseason Avg. 0.269 0.163 17.2 9.1 0.340
1995-2014 Postseason Min. 0.238 0.113 12.7 6.3 0.310
1995-2014 Postseason Max. 0.293 0.204 22.6 12.0 0.373


If the season were to end today, and the Astros made the playoffs, they would have some heavy outliers among the last 20 years worth of playoff teams. They would have the second lowest batting average, the highest K%, and the lowest OBP. Their ISO is well above average, but the fact that they run such a low OBP means that those extra base hits won’t increase their expected run totals very much; you need guys on base to score runs. Their average walk rate is to be expected based on the lineup they have assembled. They have a lot of what I would call “hackers,” guys who go up and take massive cuts trying to crush the ball — Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, and Colby Rasmus to name a few. The only way this lineup gets worse in the ‘K’ department is if you bring Adam Dunn back from the dead and trade for Mark Reynolds. My point is simple: there has never been such a boom or bust type of team to make the playoffs, at least not one this extreme. Even if they were to acquire a frontline starting pitcher like Johnny Cueto or Cole Hamels, I do not believe that their lineup would be able to support the pitching staff enough to catapult them into the postseason.

Only time will tell what happens with the darlings of the MLB this season. They have a strong core, and a bright future, with many top prospects making their debut this season and even more right on the doorstep. Jeff Luhnow has done an incredible job building this team, and there is no doubt that they will be contenders in the AL West for many years to come. Yet, while they are not the same Astros of recent memory, they are not quite ready to make the postseason. This may not be a bad thing, though. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

The Cleveland Indians as a Fringe Playoff Contender

It’s been a disappointing year thus far for the Cleveland Indians. They are currently 42-46 heading into the All-Star Game, and are in 4th place in the competitive American League Central division. They are underperforming their BaseRuns projection by 4 wins, meaning the computers view this team as much more of a playoff threat than they actually have been thus far. Although they have the third-highest remaining projected winning percentage in the AL at .532, their rough first half has them only finishing with about 81 wins. As wide open as the wild card race is, a .500 finish would clearly not be enough. What has happened to everyone’s preseason sleeper team? Besides Sports Illustrated jinxing them of course.

Well as expected, they have had stellar starting pitching from the likes of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar, and even have gotten good outings recently from under the radar prospect Cody Anderson. Everyone knew they had a bad defense, but many thought that the Indians’ offense could support the great starting pitching enough to propel them into the postseason. Thus far, however, that has not been the case. They are at league average or below in almost all offensive categories. They are not a power hitting team by any means, and have the 10th lowest FB% in the MLB, which makes sense seeing as to hit for power you need to get the ball in the air. However, they still run the 7th lowest BABIP in baseball, which insinuates that they have a lot of hitters who tend to roll over a lot. Lo and behold, they are 3rd in Pull %, and have a lefty heavy—heavy being an understatement—lineup.

Essentially, the Indians have amassed a lineup with a bunch of pull-happy hitters who don’t hit for much power, which doesn’t work in a league that nowadays uses the shift religiously. I think all Cleveland fans know where I’m going with this, because the phrase has been overused by Tribe fans for almost a decade now. Yes, Cleveland is lacking an impact right-handed bat. Brewer’s prized prospect Matt LaPorta was supposed to be that guy when the Indians traded C.C. Sabathia for him and others—including player to be named later Michael Brantley. However, his MLB career was as successful as Kim Kardashian’s first marriage. Ironically or not, Milwaukee has another player that I believe can push the Tribe over the hump; his name is Carlos Gomez.

The 29 year old native of the Dominican Republic, known for his fiery personality, has been extremely productive for the Brew Crew since 2011, racking up 18.4 WAR in that 4 year span. With Milwaukee sitting at the halfway point with the second worst record in all of baseball, they will most definitely be sellers at the trade deadline. I recently tweeted FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan asking him if Gomez would be dealt, to which he responded, “Gomez is probably moving. Lucroy not.” That doesn’t mean it is set in stone, but that shows that there is a decent chance he gets traded. Let’s just assume for arguments sake that the Indians and Brewers have mutual interest in being trade partners. Why should the Indians’ make the move?

One plus is that Gomez wouldn’t be a rental. He is under contract through 2016, and is only set to make 9 million dollars next year. If you consider 1 WAR to be worth roughly 7 million dollars, Gomez’s average of 6.6 WAR per year the last two seasons would be a huge bargain for the Tribe. With the contracts of David Murphy and Ryan Raburn likely to be coming off the books next year, an extra 9 million dollars on the payroll will be inconsequential for the notoriously conservative Dolan family. Gomez also would provide a major upgrade from primary Tribe center fielder, Michael Bourn. I have included a chart that compares their averages from the last two seasons. Why two seasons? Because that’s when Bourn signed with Cleveland, where he has not been the same player he once was.

Name Avg. WAR Avg. wRC Avg. RISP Avg. DEF Avg. ISO Avg. SLG Total PA
Bourn 1.3 53 0.298 -3.3 0.101 0.360 1,062
Gomez 6.6 93 0.298 17.2 0.208 0.492 1,234


It is easy to see who has been the more valuable player. The reason I included ISO and SLG was to demonstrate Gomez’s excellent power, not necessarily to compare it to Bourn’s (because that is not the type of hitter he is). Gomez would provide a major upgrade defensively – where the Indians struggle – and at the plate, where he is a key catalyst in manufacturing runs. Gomez has created almost 40 more runs per season than Bourn the last two years. If you take into account how every 10 runs scored or given up equates to a win or a loss, those extra 40 runs would essentially add on about 4 more wins to the Indians win total (assuming those averages hold up throughout the 2015 season). So that would take the roughly 81 win Indians and make them an 85 win team; better yes, but still not a playoff contender.

Although Bourn and Gomez have been equally as good with RISP, this season has been a different story; Bourn is hitting .216 in 68 PA and Gomez is hitting .381 in 65 PA with RISP. The Indians have the 7th worst average with RISP this season at .230, with the MLB average being .255. For a team that struggles to score runs, this would be a huge difference. Slotting Gomez in the lineup everyday behind a guy like Michael Brantley would also take a ton of pressure off of him to carry the team day in and day out.

So what does this all mean? Could Carlos Gomez really propel the Tribe into October baseball this season? Probably not. Here are their season splits against teams above and below .500.

               Wins Losses Winning Percentage
Teams ≥ .500 24 32 0.429
Teams < .500 18 14 0.563


They struggle against good teams, and beat bad ones. That is not the mark of a playoff team. In the last 74 games of the season, the average winning percentage for teams they play is .515. While I fully believe the team could make a strong second half push – I actually believe they will make the playoffs – it is not likely. Still, a trade for Carlos Gomez would not only aid them in the second half of this season, but for next season as well. Clevelanders are sick of hearing “we’re building for the future.” The Indians have an extremely strong core, one that is young and locked into team-friendly contracts. It is time to win now, because they would hate to look back years from now like a reminiscent ex-lover and say, “That was the team that got away.”