Tuesday, May 3, 2011


The Cleveland Indians are off to the races, with a 19-8 April in the bank and a not-inconsiderable amount of buzz developing around their unexpected fast start. Let's spend a few moments breaking this down in order to determine how things might turn out for them in 2011.

Josh Tomlin
Justin Masterson
When we look at the team's stats, two unusual features emerge. First, the Indians have two young pitchers, Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin, who are both off to exceptionally hot starts (Masterson is 5-0, Tomlin 4-0). Both are sporting ERAs that are about half of what they were in 2010. Those sometimes flammable "advanced metrics" suggest that Masterson is pitching just a bit better than last year, when mediocre run support and some trouble with control and keeping the ball in the yard kept his ERA in the 4.50 region.

Tomlin's prognosis is, if anything, less rosy given that he sports a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .179, which is in post-neo parlance so low as to not have a pulse. (And yes, a number that low is clearly unsustainable.) Other new measures suggest that Tomlin has done a Houdini act in high leverage situations thus far in 2011.

"Pronk" (Travis Hafner) has been more Mule
than donkey this year...
Whatever else may be the case for these two, the most undeniable fact is that both men have received excellent run support from the Indians in 2011: in the measure that we prefer over all the others, the 5+% (percentage of starts where the team scores five or more runs), both are well over 50%, which puts them in the top 20% of starting pitchers thus far this season.

The Indians hitters have also compiled a highly unusual "run shape" for their offense: it's spread across the entire batting order in such a way that the #9 slot has scored almost as many runs as the #1 slot. That's actually an amazing achievement for what amounts to one-sixth of the season: it doesn't tend to happen more than about 20% of the time in that sample size, and it happens about seventh-tenths of one percent of the time over an entire season.

This suggests that they are likely to stop being so hyper-efficient sooner than later. On the other hand, they have a fine base of youngish hitters (Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Matt LaPorta) and are having resurgent years from Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. They should remain a reasonably potent offense.

"Even though you hate me, you adore me as well...and
I can dance so fast that you won't even see me!"
No pronouncements for the future a la neo-sabe Nijinsky Dave Cameron, but it is instructive to at least take a look at the historical record regarding teams who start 19-8 or better over the course of the first 27 games of the year. BB-ref provides us with the breakout, which shows that since 1901, 129 teams have managed to do that. Of those teams, 73 (57%) have gone on to the post-season.

We've broken that data out in two ways--by basic won-loss record and by the Pythagorean won-loss record. The basic W-L (27g record data at the bottom) is all over the map, but the Pythag (at the top) is nicely linear, showing that the more legit you are in terms of runs scored/runs allowed in the one-sixth season slice, the more likely you are to wind up in the post-season.

The Indians, whose current Pythagorean WPCT is .671, score a 53% shot via won-loss, and a 64% shot via Pythagorean.

So don't take them to the bank, but be virtually assured that they are going to be at least a .500+ team in 2011. Only 2% of teams who started 19-8 or better (3 out of 129) wound up below .500 at season's end. And only two of the 69 teams that started exactly 19-8 (3%) failed to post a winning season.