Embracing uncertainty, 61 lottery tickets

The Indians have an organization reputation as being smart, quantitatively focused and risk averse. The front office, populated by a combination of Ivy-League grads and veteran "good citizens of the game" ballplayers, might be known affectionately as the "Polo-shirt posse." A recent overview of sabermetrics by fangraphs.com identified the Indians as one of the few organizations in the game that embraces quantitative and research-based approaches in all aspects of the organization (scouting, performance analysis and business development). I'll refer you to Jay's classic 2009 piece, "however beautiful the strategy," to point out this reputation for the Indians is not a new thing, but a strategy that has been honed for some time.

I raise this as an introduction because the 61 players in Goodyear representing the 2012 Cleveland Indians seem, in many ways, to represent the exact opposite philosophy. Rather than being a group of players with clear projections, the majority of the team's likely roster is occupied by giant question marks. This includes guys coming back from injury like Grady Sizemore or Jon Garland (if he signs), young guys just transitioning into major league roles like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, players with notoriously up and down recent performance records such as Shin-Soo Choo and Casey Kotchman, and a group of never-may have-once been-former prospects like Felix Pie and Matt LaPorta. The best guess on what these players might contribute in 2012 is low, but the range of possibilities for each of them runs from nothing to true breakout performances. The vast majority of the 61 players in camp, at some point in their career, were identified as top prospects in the game.

The uncertainty the 2012 Indians present can be seen both in individual projections and in aggregate team projections. The Vegas line on the Indians is just 75.5 wins. A projection based on a CAIRO-informed simulations puts the Indians at 84 wins, with a 42% chance of making the playoffs. Neither of these is likely a poor guess, though the spread they represent is one of the largest in baseball.

The Indians may be a smartly run organization, but no one can give you a smart answer about how the 2012 team will perform. There is simply too much uncertainty.

So why would the Indians set themselves up for this kind of scenario? One answer is that the Indians simply did not have a choice. The cost of adding substantial and readily projectable talent on the free agent market is simply too expensive for Cleveland. Given this reality, the Indians have taken an alternative path in simply loading the team, or at least the spring training roster, with a large number of backup plans. This is a way of mitigating risk, but it is also a strategy that embraces the reality of volatility in performance outcomes and health. For the Indians to compete against organizations with payrolls double and triple their size, Cleveland needs to get lucky and get a decent return on a few low-end bets. If the entry price is cheap enough, which on injury rehabs, young guys, and NRI re-treads it is, you can afford to make a lot of low-end bets.

This approach reminds me of something I wrote during the first week of last season:

A strictly statistical viewpoint would suggest that the 162-game season is in fact a devastating hurdle for a team like Cleveland. If the team doesn't have the talent, or money, to compete with Chicago and Detroit and Minnesota, let alone Boston or New York or L.A., that talent gap is likely to be reinforced by such a long season. Flip a quarter once, and you have even odds on getting a head or a tail. Flip it half a dozen times and you might get a string of six heads or six tails. But flip it 162 times and you are far less likely to get a large deviation between observed and expected performance.

But of course there is another way to view a season — as a tremendous set of possibilities. One of the great things about a long season is that the likelihood of actually witnessing the improbable increases. This seeming statistical paradox, that expected results and improbable events both become more likely, is part of the joy of baseball. No-hitters happen. Triple-plays, as we witnessed in Sunday's game, happen. In seasons as dreadful as 2009 and 2010, wonderful things still happen on occasion. Even unexpected championships.

Maybe this is something that every team does, but the Indians spring training program this season looks more like a Make a Wish Foundation promotional than I remember in the past. By layering the organization with low-risk (cost) high-reward bets, all the way down to today's signing of Cristian Guzman, the organization is increasing its odds that one of them will help push Cleveland over the hump.

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