Standing Pat Leads to Regression
There is a great deal of analysis out there about what happens to teams a year after a huge improvement in won-loss record, if you want to try to figure out what to expect from the Indians in 2014. One reason for this is that the Baltimore Orioles traveled a path nearly identical to the Indians one year earlier.
As we all know, the Orioles slipped back slightly in 2013, missing the playoffs after making it in 2012. In trying to determine what lies ahead for the Indians, it is instructive to look at similarities between the 2013 Indians and the 2012 Orioles, and how each team responded.
There is ample evidence that the 2012 Orioles were a fluke. They outscored the opposition by seven runs, yet won 93 games, thanks mostly to a 16-2 record in extra innings and 29-9 in one-run games. The Indians also had excellent records in one run (30-17) and extra inning (10-2) games, but outscored their opponents by 83 runs, indicating that their improvement was less of a fluke.
Further, a great deal of Baltimore’s success rested on the excellent season of closer Jim Johnson, and a strong bullpen overall. This season was an obvious outlier when compared to the rest of Johnson’s career, making a repeat performance quite unlikely. Bullpens in general are more likely to regress toward average than other aspects of a team, so a team like the Orioles was less likely than most to maintain that strength. In looking at the Indians’ roster, there is nobody that stands out in 2013 as having a career year; indeed, several key players had below average years and seem likely to improve in 2014, which should offset any tendency of a regression.
In looking at other teams over the past thirty years that improved dramatically, one common denominator is that the teams that stood pat afterwards tended to regress.
This was true of the Orioles, whose biggest offseason move between 2012 and 2013 was to sign pitcher Freddy Garcia. Teams that overachieve tend to convince themselves that the weaknesses they overcame during their great season will not be a problem in future years as well. The Orioles, who had only 78 quality starts in 2012, decided to go with basically the same rotation in 2013 and got burned, posting the same number of quality starts but blowing nine more saves.
Another reason that the stand pat strategy often fails is that players, like teams, tend to find their true level after having big years, and teams that stand pat are relying on players to repeat years that are not in line with their career performance or skill level. Johnson is a prime example of this. The Orioles have addressed this issue by trading Johnson, but have still not upgraded their rotation.
So two questions come up: are the Indians glossing over the weaknesses that they overcame in 2013, and are they banking on players who overachieved in 2013 and are unlikely to do so again? The answer to both questions centers on the rotation. Even though certain pitchers overachieved in 2013, the rotation was the weakest area of the team, with only 73 quality starts. Based on the decisions that have been made, it appears the Indians decided that Scott Kazmir is unlikely to repeat his 2013 performance.
The other rotation member who will apparently not return is Ubaldo Jimenez. While this was not entirely the choice of the Indians, the fact remains that they determined that Jimenez was not worth the going rate for elite starting pitchers. Danny Salazar will fill one of these holes, and at this point the Indians have several internal candidates for the other: Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer. They have also signed Shawn Marcum as a free agent. If Salazar can put together thirty starts close to what he did in September, he will have a season similar to what Jimenez did in 2013, but it takes a lot of optimism to envision any of the other guys matching the 2013 numbers of Jimenez or Kazmir.
Overall, then, it would seem that the rotation, a weakness in 2013, may be even worse in 2014 unless you believe that Cory Kluber or Zach McAllister is ready to take another step forward. That may happen, but basing an entire season on such assumptions usually leads to disappointment, as the 2013 Orioles demonstrated.