[Editor's Note: this post is actually from mainstreetfan, I am just posting it for him - Adam]
Each winter for the last several years I have sent a group of my Tribe-loving friends a prediction about the upcoming season. I just went to a game with one of them, who told me to post last winter’s prediction here for those readers in his and my age group (i.e., fans getting long in the tooth) who he thought might enjoy it. So here it is. If you don’t like it, I’m going to blame him.
The Promised Land Is Nigh
The Tribe is going to make the postseason this year. There, I've said it – the Indians are going to be in the playoffs in 2012. Sometime toward the end of September, I'll tell you how they're going to do in the postseason. For right now, it is enough for you just to know that they're going to make it at all.
I think that by now I should not have to go through the tedious exercise of establishing my bona fides as a prognosticator of the Tribe's fortunes. After all, in February, 2010 I told you that they would be lousy in the first half of that season and competitive in the second, and I also told you that they would contend in the 2011 season. I was right on all counts. In February, 2011, I repeated my forecast that they would contend in 2011, which, sure enough, they did until the end of August, 2011. And, might I add, they did so despite serious injuries to Sizemore, Choo, and Carrasco and substantial injuries to Chisenhall and Kipnis.
Hence my feeling that when I am now telling you that the Indians will make the playoffs this year, I really shouldn't have to offer my reasoning. (In fact, I believe that I am almost entitled to speak ex cathedra on the subject.) But for those of you who have allowed decades of disappointment with the outcomes of the Tribe's seasons to cause you to have become besieged by doubt about whether the Tribe will ever be successful again, I am going to "show my work" by telling you why I know that come October we are going to be scrambling to line up playoff tickets.
Conventional Wisdom Is Defied
Believe me, I know that this forecast defies the conventional wisdom about the Tribe and its chance of reaching the postseason this year. As this essay is going to press (actually, it is going to pixel, but you know what I mean), the oddsmakers and other run-of-the-mill forecasters give the Indians about a 30-to-1 or worse chance of getting to the playoffs.
So why do I say otherwise? The answer is that I have used more and better analytical tools than the other forecasters and have consulted more and better sources. Where they have limited themselves to using standard-issue "Moneyball"-type analysis, I have done that work and then still more work. They cite Bill James, who I consider to be okay as a starting point but not as a final authority. I go beyond Bill James.
In fact, I have added into the analytical mix sources as diverse as John Maynard Keynes, Cy Young, Chris Antonetti, and the mystic chords of Indians baseball memory. And this is why I am right and the other forecasters are wrong. But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. So let's get to the guts of the analysis. Here is how and why it is going to happen.
First, the Indians have two front-of-the-rotation starters in Masterson and Jimenez – and Jimenez is indeed every bit as good as I say he is. Immediately, I can feel flowing back at me over the internet the intense negativity that most of you are feeling about Jimenez and the price the front office paid to get him – two pitchers drafted in the first round of recent drafts and two other decent minor leaguers. So right off the bat let me counteract these negative feelings by offering a little sidebar about pitching prospects.
I firmly believe in the adage that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect ("TINSTAAPP" to the cognoscenti). In fact, the relentless lesson of baseball history is that most highly-touted pitching prospects have failed miserably. For a nice recent discussion of this subject which focuses on only one such failure, you may wish to read the following article (TINSTAAPP).
So do I think the front office made a mistake in trading first rounders Alex White and Drew Pomeranz for Ubaldo Jimenez? No, I don't. And I'm saying this even though Jimenez pitched badly for the Indians after he was acquired in mid-season last year and even though he has gotten bombed throughout spring training thus far this year. I base my belief in Jimenez on the fact that he was an outstanding starter for the Colorado Rockies, who play in a stadium that is so far above sea level that it has become something of a graveyard for promising pitchers. If he could be a dominant starter there, he will be a dominant starter in Cleveland. And, yes, I do trust the Tribe's talent evaluators, examining physicians, and front office enough to believe that Jimenez was healthy when the Indians acquired him and is still healthy now. If he is healthy, he is a great starter. It’s really that simple. And a great proven starter is well worth two top-level pitching prospects and two other minor leaguers – especially since there is no such thing as a pitching prospect to begin with.
End of sidebar.
So to return to the subject of starting pitchers, the Indians have two great ones in Masterson and Jimenez and decent middle-to-back-of-the-rotation starters in Lowe, Tomlin, and (here you are permitted to take your pick from among the following): Hernandez (fka Carmona), Gomez, Huff, Barnes, Slowey, or McAllister. In fact, you may be required to substitute one of these last-mentioned names for Tomlin at some point in the season. It makes no difference. Given the strength of the front of the rotation, the people who will start in the remaining three slots will be more than adequate.
Which brings us to the bullpen, which is outstanding. Again, I hear the skepticism arising in your hearts. You say that the performance of bullpens is notoriously unpredictable from one season to the next. To which I say the following: first, by and large you are right, though the fact that the Indians' bullpen has performed well for the past two seasons makes its performance this season a little easier to predict; and, second, the Indians have an abundance of major-league-ready relievers in Columbus who can replace any reliever on the big club who falters.
So on the subject of pitching, I think the Tribe is in very good shape. But what about the position players?
Here the Tribe is also in solid shape. Even if Sizemore does not return to full health (actually, I think he will), the Indians will have the following excellent players to rely on as the core of their team: Choo, Santana, Cabrera, and Kipnis. And they will also have the following decent players to help the frontline players: Kotchman, Brantley, Hannahan, Donald, Duncan, and Hafner. And even if he does not open the season with the big club, they have an emerging star in Chisenhall who will arrive as an impact player by mid-season at the latest.
Let me concentrate for a moment on Kotchman. Keep in mind that the Indians had subpar fielding at first base last year. Also keep in mind that Kotchman is a superb fielder. What this means is that there will be perhaps 8 fewer errors committed by the Tribe's first baseman this year than last (Kotchman will not play first every game, so his defensive skills won’t always be a factor) and that there will be perhaps another 10 fewer errors committed by the other infielders this season than last because Kotchman will pick throws out of the dirt that were not picked last season and which therefore resulted in errors being charged to other infielders. This totals about 18 fewer errors over the course of the 2012 season than the number committed by the infield last year, and this will translate into a number of additional victories by the team. So even if he
doesn't hit as well as he did last season (which may indeed have been an offensive outlier for him), Kotchman will help the Indians enormously.
The Competition and Certain Observations Regarding Health
But, I can hear you saying to yourselves, what about Detroit? And I agree with you that they do indeed look formidable at first, and even second, glance. But upon closer examination, they also look (at least to my practiced eye) like a team that is just waiting to underperform expectations. I say this for the following reasons.
To begin with, their infield and left field defense will be atrocious, and with ground-ball-reliant starters like Fister and, to a lesser extent, Verlander, at the front end of their rotation, their very poor infield defense will come back to haunt them this year. Second, as I noted in an e-mail I sent you during the postseason last year Verlander put 271 innings on his arm last season when the postseason is included. While he is one of the best starters I've seen in a long time, even he cannot defy the laws of physiology as they apply to a pitcher's throwing arm. And when starters exceed 230 innings in a year, they seem to pay a price the following season or two in terms of lost velocity or worse. The most innings Verlander had ever put on his arm before in a season was 240, and that was during the 2010 season, which creates a cumulative quality to the excessive number of innings he pitched in 2011. In short, I look for Verlander to have trouble this
I also think that the Tigers are unlikely to have the same good luck with health this year that they had last year. They were fifth-best in the majors in terms of the number of player days spent on the disabled list last season. (By way of contrast, the Indians were 15th best.) In fact, it looks to me like Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have body types which are susceptible to injury. Take either or both of them out of the Detroit lineup – and combine this with the loss of Victor for the season and diminished effectiveness by Verlander – and the lineup loses much of its luster.
At the same time, I think that the Indians are owed some luck in terms of health this year – in large part because they had such miserable luck in this area the previous three seasons. 2008 was lost when Hafner, Victor, and Westbrook were lost for much of the season– and lost just after their contracts were extended, I might add. Hafner and Westbrook were also lost for the 2009 season and had diminished effectiveness in 2010. 2009 represented the first of three successive lost seasons for Sizemore. 2011 saw the loss of Choo and Carrasco, the continued loss of Sizemore, and the partial-season loss of Kipnis and Chisenhall.
And note that the fifth-versus-fifteenth comparison I pointed out above is a raw number. The Indians who were lost to the disabled list were mainly core players; this was not true of the players lost by the Tigers. In sum, if any team is owed some good luck in terms of health, it is our team – particularly when compared to the Tigers.
Let me offer another observation, one that heavily influences my thinking about the Tribe's chances of making the postseason this year. It seems to me that Chris Antonetti would not have pulled the trigger on the Jimenez deal with Denver unless he believed that the team had an excellent chance of making the postseason this year and next. And Chris Antonetti knows the team a heck of a lot better than any of us do.
Here are some facts to keep in mind about Antonetti. He is a relatively young man and, having been recently named general manager after a long apprenticeship, is at the threshold of what could be either a long and rewarding or a short and undistinguished career as a GM. From our lone but lengthy conversation about the Indians when we shared the same table when he was our guest at a law school luncheon several years ago, I concluded that he is an extremely bright and very levelheaded individual.
So ask yourself this: Would you have taken the same career risk in making the Jimenez trade as he did unless from your intimate knowledge of the quality of the Tribe's personnel you had made a reasoned judgment that the team was in an excellent position to reach the playoffs this season and needed another front-of-the-rotation starter to help it get there?
Keynes Tells Us What Antonetti Knows And What We Fans Don't Know
In employing this method of analysis, I am trying to mimic John Maynard Keynes and his famous analysis of how to maximize one's chances of winning a competition based on predicting the likely winner of a beauty contest. What he concluded was this:
Keynes described the action of rational agents in a market using an analogy
based on a fictional newspaper contest, in which entrants are
asked to choose a set of six faces from photographs of women that are
the "most beautiful". Those who picked the most popular face are then
eligible for a prize.
A naïve strategy would be to choose the six faces that, in the opinion of
the entrant, are the most beautiful. A more sophisticated contest entrant,
wishing to maximize the chances of winning a prize, would think about
what the majority perception of beauty is, and then make a selection
based on some inference from their knowledge of public perceptions.
This can be carried one step further to take into account the fact that
other entrants would each have their own opinion of what public
perceptions are. Thus the strategy can be extended to the next order, and
the next, and so on, at each level attempting to predict the eventual
outcome of the process based on the reasoning of other rational agents.
"It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s
judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion
genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where
we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects
the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the
fourth, fifth and higher degrees." (Keynes, General Theory of Employment
Interest and Money, 1936).
While I readily admit that this is far from a perfectly analogous situation (because baseball talent can be more objectively measured than personal beauty), is it nevertheless not the case that, even as knowledgeable fans and even as fans who understand the importance of modern statistical analysis of baseball performance, we should also be paying careful attention to the third-order or fourth-order judgments being made by Chris Antonetti?
The temptation that fans like us face is to try to judge baseball talent for ourselves – just as the average entrant in Keynes’s newspaper contest tried to judge for himself or herself the issue of which of the women's faces was objectively the most beautiful. More sophisticated fans would try to make a judgment about what other informed observers (the baseball equivalent of the judges in the beauty contest) would conclude about which team’s players are best. But I think that the most thoughtful fans would make their judgments by looking not just at the statistics of the players themselves and not by just looking at the consensus opinions about the players offered by those professing to have expertise in utilizing statistics-based analysis of the players’
value. They would instead also make their decisions based on what they saw in the faces of the people who know the players better than anyone else: the front office personnel of the team who have selected and developed the players. And I think this is particularly true in the case of a team like the Indians, many of whose core players have just arrived or are just arriving at the major league level.
Stated differently, the proposition I offer you is this: Antonetti, who runs as sabermetrics-based a front office as exists in all of baseball and who from his own observations and his access to the ongoing observations of his talent evaluators and statisticians is more familiar with the Tribe's emerging talent than anyone else in baseball, must believe that the Indians can reach the postseason now or he wouldn’t have made the Jimenez deal in the first place. So should not Antonetti’s judgment about the readiness of the Tribe to make it to the postseason be afforded especially heavy weight in deciding how good the Indians really are this season? I, for one, think that the answer is resoundingly in the affirmative.
So it is that I have made my judgment about the Indians' fortunes this year. I have looked at the players themselves (in fact, I began watching a number of them in person at Akron over the last several years before they ever reached the majors). I have also looked at generally-accepted performance data about the players and the opinions of non-Tribe-related people about what the data means. But I have not overlooked what I consider to be an exceptionally important fact upon which to base my own judgment about the team's likely performance: namely, what I see in the face of Chris Antonetti – the judge who has the most direct knowledge of the team's immediate prospects.
I base my judgment about the Tribe on one other factor as well. I have asked the baseball gods to decree that our time has arrived.
I Enlist The Help Of The Immortals
For what it is worth (perhaps not much), I thought I would add this additional piece of information to this essay. As I mentioned in my forecast of February, 2011, last winter was the first time I visited the grave of Cy Young in Newcomerstown.
As most of you probably also know, I am by nature a skeptic. I do not have a single New Age bone in my body.
But as most of you do not know, for some reason I nevertheless believe in the existence of the baseball immortals. So when I visited Cy Young's final resting place last year in the peaceful country cemetery in which he is buried, it was my wish that the Indians be a contender in 2011. My wish was granted; they won 12 more games than they did the previous season and were a contender.
If you also believe in the influence of the baseball immortals, keep in mind that last year Number 19 was available for the first time to lobby the others on our behalf. So maybe after I left last year the shades of Feller and Nap and Boudreau and all the others descended out of the ether and crowded around Cy's grave and decided that now it is the Indians' turn. Be as skeptical about this as you wish. The immutable fact is those 12 more wins.
Incidentally, I am also convinced that until these guardians of the Indians' fortunes decide that our team’s time has arrived, the Indians will not win the World Series.
The Ever-Present Shadow Of Time's Winged Chariot
It is important that their time arrive before too many more years have passed. I say this because in 2007 I took a friend and his mother to a game. She had been an ardent Indians fan since she was a young woman but had only become interested in baseball several years after they last won the Series. She lived in a nursing home but could still get away to attend occasional games. It was her profound hope that she would live long enough to see the Indians win the Series again.
She is gone now. Time’s winged chariot had finished running its course for her before her wish could be granted. Some of you (indeed, more of you than I would like to remember this about) who are reading this e-mail have, like me, been going to games since the 1950s. How far along in the arc of its journey the chariot is for each of us we cannot say. So we better hope that the team's time has arrived – or that it will arrive shortly.
Whether any of this has meaning for you or not you can decide for yourselves. But I did want you to know that this year I asked Cy that the Indians be allowed to go to the postseason.
Keeping Some Perspective
As the season commences, I ask you to pay heed to the fact that each season has its own rhythms, and the composition and therefore performance of teams, particularly young teams like the Indians, changes as a season goes on and as talent arrives from the minor leagues. So do not panic if they do not get off to the same fast start they did last season. If they are four games out or closer on June 1, I'll be happy enough. So should you.
In about a week my wife and I are off to Italy. In fact, I will be watching the home opener on my computer at nine in the evening in my hotel room in Venice overlooking the Grand Canal, where I will be sipping a nice glass of Chianti and watching as the season begins to unfold. Then this October we will all get together and toast the conclusion of a season that I am sure we all will remember very fondly.