Most of the talk heading into the American League Championship Series entered around (A) the depth and quality of Toronto’s rotation, (B) the depleted Cleveland rotation, (C) the powerful Toronto offense, (D) Indians reliever Andrew Miller.
Meanwhile, there’s the underrated Indians offense flying under the radar, as it did all season. The Indians ranked second in the AL in runs scored, which means they scored more runs than the Blue Jays, who were fifth. It was a small gap — 777 runs to 759 — but still speaks to the depth of the Cleveland lineup since it lacks a hitter on the level of Josh Donaldson or Edwin Encarnacion.
The Indians scored 109 more runs than in 2015. Everyone scored more runs this season, but the average AL team increased by just 21 runs. So, the Indians jumped way up. Even more remarkably, they did it without Michael Brantley, injured most of the season, and with their catchers cratering to the worst production. The team’s big offseason signings were 34-year-old Mike Napoli, 35-year-old Rajai Davis, 37-year-old Juan Uribe and 38-year-old Marlon Byrd — not exactly a recipe that would seem to spell “more runs.” Indeed, Uribe didn’t last the season and Byrd batted 129 times before getting suspended for a positive PED test.
Where did the improvement come from? Let’s take a look at each position, comparing 2015 to 2016, with the primary players at each position and the collective wRC+ (adjusted runs created from FanGraphs, where 100 is average):
For the most part, it was incremental improvements, with three notable exceptions: Napoli did help out with 34 home runs, but it was Santana who had the bigger impact at first base and DH with a much better season; Ramirez, splitting time between third base and left field, helped numbers at those positions; and Naquin provided a big lift in center field. Let’s see what happened here with these guys.
Santana: .259/.366/.498, 34 HRs, 87 RBIs 89 runs
Santana drew his usual slate of walks in 2015, but hit just .231 with 19 home runs. He was still a league-average hitter, but it was the worst season of his career. In 2016, he split his time between leadoff and hitting fifth and give manager Terry Francona credit for thinking outside the box there. Santana raked in the leadoff spot, with a .260/.385/.502 line, as the Indians ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored by their leadoff hitters. The difference: A few more of his fly balls left the park. His batting average on balls in play remained stable, .258 in 2016 versus .261 in 2015. He managed to loft the ball a little more this year, hitting 37 more fly balls than 2015, so that helped lead to a few more home runs. It would seem, potentially, that Santana was maybe one of those guys who benefited from a little extra juice in the baseball as well. In isolating individual pitches, he was much better against fastballs, improving his slugging from .422 to .535, and his total from 13 to 24.
Ramirez: .312/.363/.462, 11 HRs, 76 RBIs, 84 runs
Not included in the stat line above: 46 doubles. Ramirez has been around since September of 2013 but he just turned 24 last month, so it looks like a case of a young player coming in to his own as he gets stronger and learns the league. When he hit .219 last year, he hit into a lot of bad luck with a .232 average on balls in play. His well-hit average did jump up this year and his BABIP improved to .333. Considering he struck out just 62 times in 618 PAs, as a switch-hitter with contact skills and some speed, I like his chances to hit around .300 moving forward.
Naquin: .296/.372/.514, 14 HRs, 43 RBIs, 52 runs
This is the big surprise. Even though he was a first-round pick out of Texas AM in 2012, Naquin’s power hadn’t developed in the minors and combined with a fairly high strikeout rate, he projected as a backup outfielder. He began the season with Cleveland, was sent back down to the minors, and then called back up for good on June 2 when Byrd was suspended. On a rate basis, he was the best hitter on the team. His future, however, is much more questionable than Ramirez’s. He hit .296 despite a 31 percent strikeout rate. That adds up to .411 BABIP, the highest in the majors among players with at least 100 PAs. Since 2000, only two players have had a higher BABIP with 100 PAs and those guys barely cleared that 100-PA minimum. The other issue with Naquin is his defensive metrics in center field were awful, with minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved. Anyway, for now Francona is platooning him in center field, with Naquin starting against right-handers and Davis against left-handers (he leads off with Santana moving down).