On the Astros: How did the Indians do it?

Jason Miller

The Cleveland Indians turned a 94-loss team into a 92-win team in one offseason. They spent on big-ticket free agents, but is that the reason they made the playoffs? What can Houston learn from the Tribe?

You might be able to guess why I'm focused a little bit on the Cleveland Indians. Moving up here, talking to fans in the city when the team is making a push for October has been great. It's also allowed me to think more about why the Indians got good.

One of the conversations I had with my boss' boss up here was that the Indians' fans never came back because they were convinced the ownership wouldn't spend money on a winner. Even after the Indians spent this last offseason, fans still wouldn't go to the games.

Multiple reasons were given for this, including the dynamic pricing model (uh-oh Astros), but what stuck out to me was the point about spending. Even though the franchise spent money in the offseason, it couldn't escape the stigma of losing CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee due to money.

Thinking about the offseason spending spree made me wonder how effective it was. Were those free agents crucial to the Indians making the playoffs? Let's move into some bullet points to discuss this further.

The Free Agent Spending Spree

This one will be a bit about roster construction. When teams go shopping in free agency, they run into trouble when they try to bring in a pillar of the lineup. Think of what the Angels tried to do with Albert Pujols and then Josh Hamilton.

The Indians didn't go for the top of the market, but they still signed a bevy of free agents. Michael Bourn was picked up to play center field. Nick Swisher was signed to play...somewhere. Oh, and they also traded Shin-Soo Choo for Drew Stubbs.

The result of those three significant moves was a grand total of 5.3 fWAR, or nearly as much as homegrown second baseman Jason Kipnis provided by himself.

More evidence? The top six fWAR totals on the 2013 Indians were from home grown players or players on the roster before last offseason. The seventh was a home grown pitcher while the eighth and ninth were ties between a waiver claim hitter and a pitcher signed to a minor league make-good deal.

You have to go to the 10th-best WAR total before you find a free agent.

That's not to say that Bourn and Swisher didn't provide value to these Indians; they obviously did. Heck, Jason Giambi was another free agent signing and he had one of the biggest hits of the season last week, even though he totaled -0.5 fWAR for the season.

It's all about relative value to the roster. Giambi was a luxury, but Swisher and Bourn served a purpose. They shored up the middle part of that 25-man roster with solid, league-average players. There is value there and they likely earned their salaries. They were not, however, game-changers.

Think about that in three months when the Astros sign Carlos Beltran and some fans criticize the move because Houston didn't get Robinson Cano. Shoring up an atrocious right field with a league average player might be the best move Houston could make in free agency.

The Bullpen

One thing I learned about the Indians through their fans is that the bullpen could not be trusted. Maybe not the entire bullpen, but definitely closer Chris Perez. Felt a little Lidge-esque to me.

Still, by the numbers, the Indians bullpen was really good. Only two teams in the majors lost fewer games from relievers than the Indians, whose relievers went 33-16. Compare that to to the Astros, whose 'pen went 14-40.

I won't get into the bullpen again, because good Lord, have we beaten that horse until it's unrecognizable. Raul Valdes is here now, though, and he'll fix all those ills. Will he alone cause a 24 game swing in Houston's bullpen record?

Probably not.

The Indians, though, only lost 18 games from their bullpen in 2012, when they lost 94 games. So, their success this season wasn't really an aberration. Houston's terribleness was also not surprising and might have been avoidable, but look at that 24-game difference in records.

If the Astros improve the bullpen and just improve the bullpen, they could do serious damage to that won-loss record.

It's not a foolproof plan, though. The White Sox bullpen was the talk of the league for much of the season, but Chicago relievers still lost 36 games this season. Maybe pitcher wins and losses isn't such a good measure of team success after all...

One-run games

I couldn't believe this. The Indians won over 65 percent of their one-run games in 2012, despite losing 94 games. In 2013, the Indians won even more one-run games (six more, to be exact) than they did in a near-100 loss season.

So, the luck-aided improvements weren't there. But, showing that the Indians could be a bad team but still have a good record in one-run games should be a point of hope for the Astros.

Remember when we talked about those 40 bullpen losses a minute ago? Well, the Astros also went 18-36 in one-run games. If they had played to their third-order win total (57 wins) and won half those one-run games, you're looking at a 66-win team instead of a 51-win team.

That's not far-fetched, either. The 2007 Tampa Bay Rays were 22-21 in one-run games. Bad teams don't have to perform equally bad in one-run games, because on the whole, those games are a toss-up. Good teams can tip the balance in their favor and bad teams can tip it the other way, but for the most part, it's a 50-50 proposition.

What's the point here? The Indians only won 68 games last season. In 2013, they made the playoffs.

Fix the bullpen, shore up the middle of the roster with a few, key regulars and the Astros suddenly look better than the bad team we saw this year.

I know, I know, that's a tough argument to make given the season we just watched. Realistically, Houston does that and wins 75 games. It's still a big jump and sets the stage for 2015.

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