Friday, September 18, 2020

Playoff Teams With Little Outfield Offense And Top Notch Pitching? A Look At The 2020 Indians

Cleveland Indians pitching has been stellar during this shortened COVID season. Shane Bieber is pitching like Sandy Koufax. He'll be a serious Cy Young contender. Aaron Civale, Carlos Carrasco along with Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie anchor the starting staff. Even after trading Clevinger and the current losing streak, the starters still rank 3rd in FIP (ERA minus defense). They're striking out more than 10 per game and walking just north of 2 per 9 innings. Prior to the current losing streak, the team FIP was 4th lowest of any Indians' team since 1980 (1981, 2014, 2017). Relievers are no slouch with a FIP ranked 3rd only behind the Dodgers and Athletics. 

However, the Indians lack of offense has had me concerned as the post season approaches specifically their outfield offense. This is nothing new. I'd argue the Indians haven't had a big outfield bat since Manny Ramirez. When I started compiling the data for this post 2 weeks ago, I hesitated to post it. I wanted to wait to see if some change would occur for the better since the trading deadline. Between September 7 and 16, they dropped 8 in a row. (Note: The streak just ended at 8)

Prior to the losing streak, Indians pitching was stellar with top 10 in most categories. During the losing streak, the pitching has ranked near the bottom. No surprise the pitching regressed a bit. That's to be expected over the course of a season. But the fact that their overall offense got even worse is worrisome. Runs per game has dropped to 2.7 during the streak vs 4.2 RPG during the first 41 games. Total team Runs Created (wRC+) was 86 before the streak. The last 8 games: 72!  Mainstay offensive infielders' production (Ramirez is the exception) dipped during the streak.


Ironically the Indians outfield which ranked second to last (only the Pirates are worse) in runs production before the streak has been more productive but still below league average.

Outfield WRC+

First 41 games:  52 (only the Pirates are worse)

During 8 Game Losing Streak:  86 (ranked 18th)

Above 100 is considered above league average. 

All of this begs the question: Can a team with top tier pitching reach the playoffs with an anemic outfield offense?

I checked the playoff teams over the last 10 years and compared each team's OUTFIELD wRC+ (ability to create runs). Most are above 100.  2020 Indians circled in red.

Since this is a small sample size, I checked all teams' outfield wRC+ over the last 40 seasons (since 1981). Since there are more than 1100 separate team seasons, I separated the graphic into 5 year increments. Red indicates playoff team. There aren't many below 90. 1985 Kansas City Royals are one that stand out

How do we integrate team pitching?

The scatter plots below shows the wRC+ vs Team FIP.  They're posted in three parts: First is all 1114 teams' seasons since 1981 (1114 total), second plot adds the teams that made the playoffs (red). The third plot are the 2020 teams added (yellow). 

wRC+ vs FIP for all teams

Now all teams' OUTFIELD offense (wRC+) vs FIP

Playoff teams added (below). 

Median wRC+ for playoff teams as a whole is between 95 and 105. 

wRC+ vs FIP for all teams. Playoff teams in RED

Now just playoff teams' OUTFIELD offense wRC+ added (below). 

Median wRC+ for playoff teams' OUTFIELD is between 105 and 115

It stands to reason that the majority of playoff teams have BOTH pitching and solid offense. Red dots are clustered mainly in the upper left quadrant (above). Playoff teams OUTFIELD generate MORE offense

Let's add 2020 teams TOTAL offense

Yellow are teams this year 2020

2020 seems a bit different. More teams seem to have weaker pitching AND below normal offense. It's reasonable to think that these teams are not in contention. Sure enough, the combined winning percentage of these 10 teams is only 0.407!  The Indians seem to be the outlier.  High end pitching and weak total offense.

Now just 2020 teams' OUTFIELD offense (wRC+) and FIP with same teams labeled.

Notice that in this season Pittsburgh and Cleveland have the sharpest drop off in outfield production.

If history is any indicator, top tier pitching in most instances, will not make up for the lack of outfield offense.  Then again, the 2020 season is a different animal. Maybe with 2 weeks to go, it'll be enough to get in.