The Cleveland Indians have a handful of the best players in baseball, led by two players who were never supposed to be anything other than a utility infielder and a back-of-the-rotation starter.
That’s of course no slight to Jose Ramirez and Corey Kluber, who are perhaps two of the hardest-working, most disciplined players to ever grace the game of baseball. I don’t think anyone in the sports world would ever discredit their perseverance and work ethic as “luck”; what I’m talking about is the concept of luck more from the standpoint of an MLB franchise.
Before I confuse you any more, let’s simplify things a bit by taking a look at some quotes from some men who scouted Ramirez early on in his career:
“Ramirez has little power and minimal physical projection, so some scouts worry that more advanced pitchers will eat him up… Ramirez lacks a high ceiling, but he’s a well-rounded player who may continue to surprise as he moves through the system.” -Baseball America, 2011
“Jose was not close to being a top prospect. I don’t think he had any other offers except the one from us. I think Jose has surprised everybody.” -John Mirabelli (Indians Senior Director of Scouting), 2018
“Hit tool could be above average but power will play well below average; down the lineup bat at best; arm is fringe; not a good fit for the left side of the infield; left-handed bat isn’t as strong; bat speed not as good.” -Baseball Prospectus, 2013
For additional fun, here are some quotes pertaining to Corey Kluber before his breakout 2014:
“Kluber doesn’t have high upside, but he has good feel for pitching and could be a back-of-the-rotation starter.” -Baseball America, 2011
“We are always interested in anyone who can become a starter. It’s why we liked Corey the more we scouted him. But none of us are about to tell you that we had any idea Kluber would develop into an elite pitcher.” -Mark Antonetti, 2014
“Kluber’s ceiling now sits somewhere north of a No. 5 starter status. Granted, even Kluber’s most ardent supporter would guard against him sustaining this performance.” -Baseball Prospectus, 2013
You can see what I’m getting at. Ramirez and Kluber were supposed to be guys who could help round out a roster. Instead, they’ve become guys who are carrying it. That’s hardly an exaggeration; a simple reference to accolades shows that they were two of the best players in baseball last season. Kluber won the AL Cy Young for the second time in his career, while Ramirez finished top-3 in MVP voting.
The more interesting case, though, comes from Fangraphs’ WAR estimates. If we add up the Wins Above Replacement contributions of Kluber (2.7) and Ramirez (5.6) on the season so far, we can surmise that the two are responsible for about eight of the Tribe’s wins to date. Being that they own a record of 47-37, it’s fair to say that without these two superstars, the Indians would barely be a .500 team. Likewise, the 13 combined Wins Above Replacement that the tandem contributed last year is the difference between the club’s 102-60 achievement and a mere 89-73 record that would have barely outpaced the division-rival Twins. Obviously fWAR isn’t a flawless measure of win contributions, but it’s another strong point in the case that the Tribe’s best pitcher and best position player boost the team’s status from “good” to “elite”.
Because I know you’re already thinking about it, there’s one thing I need to address before I go any further: I’m certainly not ignoring the otherworldly performances of Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer, who are undoubtedly both prominent components of the Tribe’s success this season. But Lindor was drafted eighth overall by the Indians in 2011, and Bauer was the centerpiece of the trade that sent then-superstar Shin-Soo Choo to the Diamondbacks. The expectation is that a team ought to get some good value from two players with that kind of pedigree (though that’s not to say it’s a sure thing by any means). If you look at the top 20 position players by fWAR from 2016-2018, and the top 20 pitchers during the same time span, you can eventually extrapolate that 75% of these players have some form of pedigree, whether it’s being a first- or second-round draft pick, a six-figure international signing, or part of a trade package for a marquee player.
As you might have expected, Ramirez and Kluber are two of those ten pedigree-less players. It’s lucky enough for the franchise that Lindor and Bauer both panned out and became studs. But on top of that, to have the incredible fortune for a 5’9″ slap-hitter and a mid-twenties minor-leaguer with control problems to suddenly blossom into perennial superstars? We can go back and forth all day about how good the Indians are at making sneaky good trades, or how great they are with player development, but the organization’s director of scouting and president of operations have openly admitted that they had no idea Ramirez and Kluber (respectively) had the potential to become what they’ve become.
There are a lot of reasons for the Tribe’s success across the past two and a half years. Luck is definitely one of them. When you do a lot of things right as an organization, you’ll end up with a good team. When you do a lot of things right, and then a Cy Young Award winner and MVP candidate fall out of the heavens, that’s the birth of a dynasty.
Featured image courtesy of Erik Drost, via Flickr.