The Converge of Ohio’s Two Teams

It has never happened, but it might this year – the Cleveland Indians could face the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Other match-ups are more likely — Nationals vs. Tigers, for instance — but Ohio’s teams may be on a collision course. It is less of a long shot than you might think.

On paper, the Reds are one of the best teams in baseball. They won 97 games last year and if they stay relatively healthy — the loss of Ryan Ludwick is an early blow — they should once again be favored to capture the National League Central title. Few will be surprised if Great American Ballpark is hosting games in late October.

Then there is the team 270 miles to their northeast. The Indians won just 68 games last year. They‘ve made major upgrades, but that‘s mostly on the position-player front. Their starting rotation is a question mark the size of Lake Erie. Justin Masterson, the de facto ace of the staff, again struggled with left-handers and posted a 4.93 ERA. The 4.16 FIP/4.15 xFIP suggest better things are in store in 2013, however.

The Reds won’t be 29 games better than the Indians this year. As a matter of fact, there is a distinct possibility the gap will closer to nine games. It might be three or four. Why? Let’s take a look at the two teams, position by position, keeping in mind that players both outperform and fail to live up to expectations.

Ryan Hanigan is among the most underrated catchers in baseball. He’s an excellent defender who possesses good on-base skills. He also has a lifetime .322 wOBA and isn’t going to suddenly become Lance Parrish with a bat in his hands. Carlos Santana can be Lance Parrish with a bat in his hands. Six years younger than Hanigan and entering his prime, Santana has 45 home runs over the past two seasons and ZIPS projects a .364 OBP and .442 SLG this year. Hanigan is an asset, but he’s not touching those numbers.

The Reds have a clear advantage at first base. Joey Votto is one of the best players in the game. However, this is a position where the Indians are outclassed only because a superstar is in the other uniform. Nick Swisher can be penciled in for 25 to 30 home runs and a solid OBP, because that’s what Nick Swisher does. He will also be a positive influence in the clubhouse.

In the middle of the infield, Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart are better defenders than Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera. To this point in time Phillips has been a better hitter than Kipnis. Conversely, Cabrera is a far superior hitter to Cozart. Kipnis is the wild card. At age 25, he is a breakout candidate capable of surpassing the workmanlike numbers Phillips puts up annually. If you’re a neutral observer, which duo would you rather have? If your decision is based solely on ceiling, the answer probably has to be the Kipnis-Cabrera combo.

The Reds have a clear edge at third base. Maybe. Todd Frazier was a strong rookie-of-the-year candidate last year, but he wasn’t a young rookie. Projection systems see the 27-year-old corner regressing slightly from last year’s .273/.331/.498. As for the Indians’ hot corner, are you a riverboat gambler? Two years ago, Lonnie Chisenhall was Cleveland’s top prospect and was rated the best pure hitter in the system. At age 24 he has a higher upside than Frazier, but he‘s also high-risk.

Outfield production will be a key for both teams. Offensively, the Reds have a distinct advantage in power, although the gap lessens with Ludwick out of the lineup. Jay Bruce is 40 home runs waiting to happen and Shin Soo-Choo can be counted for 20-plus in Great American. Chris Heisey will supply the occasional long ball in Ludwick’s stead. The Indians trio of Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs may not combine to hit as many as Bruce.

The DH position will make up for some of the power differential. Mark Reynolds is a home-run machine [strikeouts be damned] in the Dave Kingman mold As for the Reds DH/power-off-the-bench, applications are being taken at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way. As of the moment they’re a Jay Bruce injury away from being the Shin Soo Mets.

The Cleveland outfield is all about speed. Your grandfather’s grandfather crowed about Braggo Roth and Tris Speaker, and the current mix is equally swift. Bourn, Brantley and Stubbs combined to swipe 84 bags last year, which isn’t Billy Hamilton territory — the sliding Billy’s had 111 steals in 1891, and 155 in 2012, respectively — but they are larcenous enough to wreak havoc. They will also get opportunities to run. You can’t steal first base, but that shouldn’t be an issue for Bourn and Brantley, each of whom had a .348 OBP last year. [Stubbs is another story.] Much as Bruce is 40 home runs waiting to happen, Brantley is a batting-title contender in waiting.

Which brings us to the modern day Billy Hamilton. Ludwick’s expected three-month absence exacerbates the “how long do we have to wait for Billy?” question. Presumably, the name Jackie Bradley, Jr. has come up in internal discussions within the Reds front office? How ready is Hamilton? Could he get on base enough, against big-league pitching, to take advantage of his wheels? Is he likely to get on less often than anyone not named Choo, Hanigan or Votto?

OBP remains Cinci’s biggest problem. All of those RBIs Tony Perez amassed in the 1970s? How many would Joey Votto get — assuming Dusty doesn’t take the bat out of his hands — with Pete Rose and Joe Morgan hitting in front of him?

The Indians have better outfield defense than the Reds. It isn’t even close. Cleveland has three natural centerfielders in the lineup and Cincinnati has none. When it comes to run prevention, this could be a not-so-insignificant equalizer. Cinci’s pitching is far superior — the Tribe has a slight edge offensively — but the number of runs saved by the team’s fly chasers could help bridge that gap. For every time Homer Bailey is backing up third base, Ubaldo Jimenez will be fist pumping a double that wasn’t.

This isn’t to say Cincinnati hurlers are destined for the abyss. Bryan Price is one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, and his staff led the league in road ERA last season. It isn’t the extra fly balls finding terra firma that poses the biggest threat. The likelihood of the entire starting rotation remaining healthy for a second consecutive season simply isn’t good. That’s no slam on Baker’s pitcher usage, Price’s tutelage, or the diligent work put in by the trainers and medical staff. Pitchers get injured and depth is an issue for every staff. For some teams it is an issue as large as… well, Lake Erie.

Yes, Cleveland Indians, we’re looking at you. We’re also going to question the quality of your arms. If you’re in denial, we refer you to last year’s numbers. They weren’t pretty, and if you pitch like you did in 2012, an outfield of three Kenny Loftons and a middle infield of Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel won’t be enough to get you to the post-season.

But what if the starters match their career years? Masterson had a 3.21 ERA in 216 innings two years ago. Jimenez had a 2.88 ERA in 221 innings in 2010. Neither has celebrated his 30th birthday. Brett Myers celebrated his two years ago and put up a 3.14 ERA in 223 innings the same year. If they replicate those performances, or even come close, are they not comparable to Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo? The Reds also have Homer Bailey, who emerged from enigma-land to win 13 games and toss a no-hitter. Can Trevor Bauer — the key to one of the biggest trades in Indians history — do the same? Few pitching prospects have a higher upside.

The bullpens are a plus for each team, especially with Aroldis Chapman remaining in a closer role. [Raise your hand if you thought of Daniel Bard when the Reds discussed making him a starter.] Add in solid set-up men like Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall and the underrated Sam LeCure, and Cincinnati shouldn’t lose too many late-inning leads.

The Indians? Chris Perez has nearly as many bashers as Baker — Dusty bashing is a sport of its own in the Queen City — but the criticism is overwrought. Perez coughs up the occasional home run and isn‘t always politically correct, but his 39 saves and healthy K/9 speak volumes. Along with set-up man supreme Vinnie Pestano, he fronts a self-proclaimed bullpen mafia that is an Indians’ strength.

Cleveland‘s greatest strength might be their manager. Terry Francona is a leader of men who understands the numbers. He has a pair of World Series rings. Dusty Baker is a leader of men.

The consensus? The Reds are a 90- to 92-win team. Playoff bound and World Series worthy? Absolutely, assuming there are no catastrophes. There are concerns, but they are NL Central favorites for a reason.

The Indians? Let’s just say the gap between Ohio’s big-league teams is closing. Fast. What was once a chasm is now akin to an Evel Knievel motorcycle jump — eagerly anticipated, doable, and perilous. They may plummet into a canyon, but if they play to their potential we’re looking at an 88- to 90-win team that could sneak into the playoffs, where anything can happen. You might not want to bet on it, but you can certainly dream on it. The Cleveland Indians could face the Cincinnati Reds in an all-Ohio World Series.




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA


34 Responses to “The Converge of Ohio’s Two Teams”

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  1. t ball says:

    Is converge a noun?

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  2. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Everyone says the Indians have 3 Centerfielders, but does it matter when they didn’t play that great of centerfield defense? Stubbs is probably above scratch, albeit not much, but Brantley has had negative Fangraphs fielding ratings every year, ranging from poor to just under scratch. Stubbs/Bourn seem fine, albeit Stubbs seems like just a 4.0 FLD guy, but I don’t see the fielding upside of Brantley.

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  3. dtpollitt says:

    I like your analysis but the eyeball test tells me the Reds are still going to be significantly better than the Indians.

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  4. maguro says:

    Personally, I don’t see much of a convergence. The Reds are still very good and while the Indians will probably be a little better than they were last year, they’re still a below average team. If absolutely everything goes right for them, the Indians could contend, but you can say that about just about every team in baseball other than Houston and Miami.

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    • tomdog says:

      Thanks!

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    • Justin Masterson says:

      The Indians had an atrocious defense last year, and the core of the offense is entering their mid/late 20s. I don’t think David is arguing that these are equal teams or close to it (boy, guys like Bruce are pretty pedestrian on the road though, eh?) It seems that something like an 80% projection for the Indians gets them into high-80s win totals. Kind of silly to say they’re definitely below average, and definitely not in the playoffs, in a league with this much current parity. If I’m looking for an underrated team that seems like a safe bet to be .500, this is one of the first places I look.

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  5. Beasley says:

    The author seems like a real Indians homer. The two teams aren’t even close in talent.

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  6. MrKnowNothing says:

    Feels like the Indians all have to have career years to match a Reds team that would have to all have average to slightly below average years.

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  7. Tom says:

    This has to written by a Cleveland fan with dreams of grandeur.

    The only Cleveland SP pitcher that comes close to even making the Reds’ 5 is Masterson and he is only a touch better than Leake. I love how you have to go back 2-3 years to even get stats that can even start to come close.

    Out of the bullpen the tribe has no one to even touch Chapman. Perez=Broxton. Pestano is a little better than Hoover. The rest of the Reds bullpen are all better than their Cleveland counterparts.

    It sounds like you admit that offensive, the Reds are better if not much better at every position except C, SS with CF being a toss up. Brantley hit .288 last year – I think that was the batting title was won at .330 and Zips says he hits .275 this year. Batting title, you gotta be kidding me. The Reds will get 25 HR’s, 90 RBI’s and a .258 avg out of LF this year. If Hamitlon comes up after the ASB, which I think he will, you’ll have a bunch of steals there too. You can dimiss DH for an NL team that maybe plays 5% of their games where they would need a DH.

    Defensively, I’ll grant you that Bourne>Heisey and Stubbs>>Choo, but I’d take Bruce’s defense over Brantley. No one runs on Bruce’s arm.

    In the infield including catcher, the Reds win defensively EASILY. Overall OF/IF combined, defensively, the edge goes to the Reds.

    Cleveland closer to the Reds, I’ll give you that, but the Indians won’t even sniff the playoffs with that pitching.

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  8. Haastile says:

    I like the Indians, I like the moves they made, having said that they are not close to the reds. Period.

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  9. jruby says:

    This was thoroughly unconvincing.

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  10. Ian G. says:

    There are “ifs” a lot bigger than Lake Erie that exist with the Indians’ rotation, that simply don’t exist with the Reds. Assuming health, the Reds probably have a top-5 rotation in baseball. Health or not, the Indians look bottom-5 until Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir discover some magic from the past. That’s the difference between these clubs.

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    • eddiegaedel says:

      But the Indians just beat the World Series favorites the Toronto Blue Jays 2-1. Let’s overreact!!! Go Indians!

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  11. eddiegaedel says:

    [Raise your hand if you thought of Chris Sale when the Reds discussed making him a starter.]

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  12. GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat says:

    Fun to read, and I’d love to see an all-Ohio WS, but the Indians are a .500 team if everything goes right.

    Looking at that starting 5, it’s pretty safe bet that everything’s NOT going to go right.

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    • Ian G. says:

      We’re more likely to get a Missouri World Series than an Ohio World Series this year. But at least we’re more likely to get an Ohio World Series than a Florida World Series!

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  13. BadBob says:

    An all-Ohio series?? Can you even imagine the horror that poses for advertising execs???Two miniscule markets that no one else in the entire country gives a —– about! The total viewership wouldn’t fill Yankee Stadium.

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  14. big red machine says:

    When you start throwing out sentences like: “But what if the starters match their career years? Masterson… Jimenez… Brett Myers… If they replicate those performances, or even come close, are they not comparable to Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo?”

    That is… that is just a ridiculous thought. I mean, since we’re doing crazy “what ifs”, what if Scott Kazmir comes off the DL and starts throwing mid ’90s again? What if Carlos Santana sets a record for HRs by a catcher with 50? What if Jason Kipnis puts up better numbers than Robinson Cano? Come on now…

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  15. big red machine says:

    I mean, if Terry Francona is the Indians’ greatest strength? I’m not knocking Francona… and I hate Dusty Baker. That is clearly a spot Cleveland > Cincinnaty. But if the manager is a team’s greatest strength, how is that considered to be a good thing? How many wins/losses is Terry Francona potentially responsible for (on an AL team after all)?

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  16. Jay29 says:

    To (attempt to) answer your Votto RBI question:

    Choo and Rose have/had similar OBPs, maybe a .020 edge to prime Rose over current Choo. Morgan’s prime OBP was over .400, though; compared with Heisey (~.315) or Phillips (~.320) he could’ve been expected to get on base roughly 0.100 more often. So combine those two guys and you can expect, given 1000 times through the lineup, the Rose-Morgan combo would get on base about 800 times (1000 PA each) and the Choo-Heisey/Phillips combo would get on base about 700 times.

    So that means Votto would see about 14% more baserunners with Rose & Morgan ahead of him. Does that mean he’d get 14% more RBI? I don’t know. But if it does, you could expect his RBI total to be around 10-15 higher, depending on your preferred projection. That’s not enormous, but it’d be fairly important for fantasy players to consider.

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  17. David Smith says:

    How many more RBI’s would Votto have if Rose and Morgan were batting in front of him?

    This is obviously a trick question.

    If Dusty Baker were the Manager, Rose and Morgan wouldn’t be batting at the top of the order. See, Toothpick thinks that a fast Center Fielder HAS to bat lead off (Corey Patterson, Wily Tavares, Drew Stubbs) and the Short Stop has to bat second (Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Zack Cozart).

    So, if Rose and Morgan were still playing then Geronimo would be batting lead off, Concepcion would be hitting second and because the Catcher has to hit eighth, Bench would be down in the order, most likely with Rose and Morgan directly in front of him.

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  18. clouse wilhelm says:

    A few things contributed to the Indians being so horrible last season. Two massive franchise record setting losing streaks in august and September. Won’t happen again this year. The starters ALL could be as bad as last year sure. But they are just as likely to ALL be as good as their best years as well. More than likely, they will be more around career norms. It always seems to me that baseball reporters, and fans are always about what have ya done for me lately. Everyone forgets that the Indians won 80 games in 2011. This current team is much much better than that team. The Indians could tank again. But… The pitching only has to be good enough to keep the offense in games, and get it to the bullpen. Many are sleeping on the Indians.

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  19. Big Toucan says:

    This article seems drastically out of character for Fangraphs.

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  20. EL DoRo says:

    I don’t think the Indians have a chance at the World Series. The Reds, yes. I think a Northern Ohio-ian wrote this.

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    • chasfh711 says:

      I stopped reading once I got to this sentence:

      “It has never happened, but it might this year – the Cleveland Indians could face the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.”

      This is such a freaking absurd statement on its very face that I didn’t bother reading the rest.

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  21. Chris Biscan says:

    Who feels salty now?

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