How close are the Indians to a World Series? Kipnis: “We’re close.”
Wade Davis pumped a knee-high strike to Wilmer Flores. Home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez turned and pumped a fist, signaling a strike. And the party was on. Davis tossed his glove high in the air as he raised his arms in a V. Catcher Drew Butera sprinted to the mound and jumped into a celebratory embrace with Kansas City’s closer. And a mob formed on the field, bouncing and splashing water as the stunned Mets faithful looked on, or filed out.
The Royals, following nearly two decades of futility and a recent rise defined by aggressiveness, fundamentals and a never-say-die spirit that was on full display this October, won the World Series. Here in Cleveland, Tribe fans probably felt a bit of a sting. This was, after all, the third time in the past four years that an AL Central rival reached the World Series, and one more year tacked on to Cleveland’s championship drought.
Kansas City, of course, won the pennant last year, too. The Tigers won the division and made it to the Fall Classic back in 2012. As for 2013? Well, no one needs to tell Indians fans what happened. They got a nine-inning taste of playoff baseball. What a tease. There’s always next year, right?
The Indians sure hope so.
“We’re close,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said at the end of the regular season. “We’re going to have to keep getting better and we’re going to have to keep growing. I think the front office knows that. We’re not far away. We’ve definitely got a good foundation here. We’ve definitely got good players and now, we could be just one piece away, one bat away, one pitcher away and I think it’ll be important for us to go out and get it.”
How close are the Indians? Well, when the Royals notch 95 wins and the Indians only collected 81, it sure doesn’t look that close on the surface. That said, examine what Kansas City did this season, and also take a look at how the Mets reached the World Series, and Indians fans should see that, really, the Tribe isn’t that far off.
“I think you see the core of the Mets’ rotation,” Indians GM Mike Chernoff said, “and you can feel that we have something similar in our core starters right now. And then you see the same thing with the Royals’ position players and feel like, with a core group of guys here for the long term, maybe we can replicate both of those things.”
Quickly, on the Mets’ and Indians’ rotations, here’s a snapshot comparison:
Those numbers are fairly close across the board. Indians also ranked first in the Majors in average velocity (92.9 mph) — a tick above the Mets (3rd at 92.7). Cleveland led the Majors with a 11.3 swinging-strike percentage, while New York came in at ninth (9.8). Obviously, a good chunk of the Mets’ numbers include the ageless Bartolo Colon. If you swap him out and toss in Steven Matz, New York’s average age for their core four is 25, while the Indians’ sits at 26.5.
So, what does this all mean? Well, it means both teams have elite rotations, and the foundation for each is relatively young, controllable and set up to help their respective teams contend for the next several years. If we’ll sit here and say that the Mets will be back contending again due to the strength of their young, talented staff, well, then we should be able to say the same about Cleveland’s group, too.
What about Chernoff’s point about the Royals’ position players? Take a look:
The Royals had a slight edge in power production, but both teams were near the bottom in that regard. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say the Indians don’t need more power in the middle of the order. They do. It should be the top priority this winter. BUT, Kansas City showed that power isn’t everything. And, as much as the Royals put their baserunning on display in the playoffs, Cleveland rated better on the bases during the season. The Indians were more patient. The Royals put more balls in play. There were some slight differences here and there, but in the end both clubs came in around league average (wRC+) overall.
So, what made the Royals a 95-win, World Series-winning team, and the Indians an 81-win disappointment?
The biggest difference came in the defense, but this is where it’s worth noting that the Indians rallied in a major way in the second half in that area. Overall, the Royals led the AL with 56 Defensive Runs saved and a 56.9 defense rating, according to Fangraphs. Cleveland checked in at third in DRS (18) and second in defense (23.0). The Indians did not rate that high at the season’s midpoint. Most of that came after Francisco Lindor took over at short, Lonnie Chisenhall moved to right, Abraham Almonte manned center, Gio Urshela handled third and guys like Chris Johnson and Jerry Sands cut into Carlos Santana’s innings at first base.
There is reason to believe, then, that the Indians closed the gap some defensively on the Royals in the final few months. Heading into 2016, maybe Cleveland is still short of the Royals’ level in the field, but the difference between the clubs defensively is no longer as large as it was back in 2014, or even in April and May.
Pitching wise, Kansas City was a touch behind Cleveland in overall ERA (3.74) mainly due to the strength of the Royals bullpen (AL-best 2.72 ERA). Cleveland’s relievers were second in the AL with a 3.12 ERA this year. In terms of pitching fWAR, K/9 and K/BB, Kansas City was in the middle of the pack or in the bottom third of the league. The Indians had the better pitching staff on the whole, and should still for the next couple years.
While watching the World Series, Indians fans probably didn’t feel like their team was close to being on the same stage. And, I’m not here to say Cleveland is on that level, yet. The offense does need more thump, the bullpen needs more depth, the rotation is a setback or two from being really thin at the back end, and there are still so many questions surrounding the likes of Chisenhall, Urshela, Almonte and others.
Even with all of the unknowns, though, the knowns — the statistics, especially following Cleveland’s mid-season roster makeover — paint a positive picture for the Tribe. This team, as Kipnis stated so matter-of-factly, doesn’t appear to be that far off.
“We’re getting better,” Kipnis said. “It’s not like we’re at the tail ends of our career. We’re all entering our primes, a lot of guys, so there’s going to be reasons for excitement. That’s why I just think that if it is one piece or if it is one person that we need, or type of player that we need, I’m hoping we go get him.”