I will lead this off by saying that I am both a fan of the Cleveland Indians and frustrated by the 2017 season. I generally try to write about things I have less of a stake in, but a weird stat caught my eye, and it merits discussion, bias be damned.
On the year, Cleveland has performed in a manner that has not reached their lofty expectations. They stand at 48-45, just a half game ahead of the inversely surprising Twins. You could point to a lot of reasons why this is true. Corey Kluber, excellent while on the field, has spent time on the DL. Young Francisco Lindor has caught the weak fly-out bug. After a slow start, Edwin Encarnacion has continued to put up his worst year since his breakout. Of the field, Jason Kipnis is still the same man, but you would not be able to tell by watching him play baseball this year. And I could continue with the players who have not quite met their external expectations that were placed upon them when the season started. Still, the Indians have the seventh-best run differential in baseball, and an even better BaseRuns differential, so the underlying stats still look good. How is this team only three games above .500?
Well, the Indians have a combined wRC+ of 102, a respectable total that is good for tenth in the MLB if you factor out pitchers. For a team expected to be above-average offensively coming into this season, that’s somewhere between disappointing and reasonable. It’s not as if they’re 25th in baseball, and randomness happens, so tenth is pretty good. In low-leverage situations, they are even better, putting up a Fonz-esque (cool) 111 wRC+. In medium leverage, they’ve been almost as good. In high-leverage situations, the Indians have a *twenty-eight* wRC+. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to call this HLwRC+.
If you read this website, I don’t need to explain how horrific that is, but I will anyway because it’s fun. In high-leverage situations, the Indians have basically batted like Kyle Freeland, a man who, before this year, likely had not held a baseball bat since high school. And it’s not particularly fluky either. FanGraphs’ batted-ball data shows that Cleveland has the lowest Hard% in these situations, and the fifth-highest Soft%. They’re definitely not an ideal gas, because they have not gotten hotter under pressure.
I really cannot overstate how ridiculously bad this is! Coming into the season, the lowest single-season HLwRC+ since 2002 was 50, by the 2003 Tigers. That team had zero(!) players worth 2+ wins, and had a 80 wRC+ in all situations. The lowest HLwRC+ by a team with a winning record was the 2006 Detroit Tigers, at 60. So much to say about this: that team won 95 games and went to the World Series! They must have been winning every game by scores like 10-3. Also, impressive turnaround by the Tigers. Their most valuable players were Carlos Guillen and Jeremy Bonderman. Wow.
This is a team-wide problem. Jose Ramirez, who’s quickly becoming one of those “so underrated, they’re properly rated” kind of players, has a wRC+ of 150, but an HLwRC+ of 34. Yan Gomes has some funny numbers: wRC+, 81, not great. HLwRC+: -81. In fact, only one member of the team with over 150 PA this year has a higher HLwRC+ than wRC+, and that is Roberto Perez, whose latter number is 37. Of course, all of these are small sample sizes.
At their current pace, Cleveland is on track to have about 218 more high-leverage at-bats. If from here on, their HLwRC+ equals 102, their current wRC+, they would still finish the season with an HLwRC+ of 60! Obviously, they’re still in first place, and have set themselves up to make the postseason for a second year in a row. But they’ve done so while being the anti-Freddie Mercury.