The Cleveland Indians are not a wealthy team. We all know this, we accept it and it’s why rooting for them is actually interesting. There’s ebbs and flows to seasons and contention windows, there’s struggle and conflict and the necessity of knocking off a Goliath to reach their eventual goal. It’s fun. Much more dramatic than, say being a Yankee fan.
But that last thing, the Goliath, that’s what’s ended the Indians season the last couple years. The Cubs and Astros built organically certainly, but there’s no way to consider either of them anything but a big market team, with incredibly wealthy (and new) owners who want titles. The Yankees’ single rebuild season saw them win 84 games. All teams with incredible talent, a good dose of luck, and of course, money to invest in their team. Not just the on-field stuff either. As we’ve heard come out of the Tribe clubhouse this week, the players felt they were out-everything’d by the Astros in their ALDS sweep. It’s hard to disagree. Some things, you just can’t control. Justin Verlander being incredible. The Indians bullpen being somewhat less so. Trevor Bauer being hurt in August. But somethings are in a team’s control, and that is what guys like Mike Clevinger and Jason Kipnis drew attention to.
When Sabermetrics truly went nuclear across baseball, a lot of times that was at the expense of some of old ways of doing things. which was good and fine and correct. Most times. Gut feelings and signing guys because they “look like a ball player” cause things like, say, the Ryan Howard contract. Or even the Chris Davis contract, and that wasn’t’ even that long ago. Things have metastasized so quickly with the analytical side of things, some executives a decade ago would be fools today. Only the nimble and forward-thinking stick around, and everyone is getting in on the same type of thing. No team better than the Astros. From filming every moment of every game at Minute Maid with high-speed cameras to wholesale overhauling the front office with a host of characters from inside and outside baseball. From the 2014 SI article that foresaw their 2017 title:
[Jeff] Luhnow brought Sig Mejdal aboard to be his director of decision sciences. The new director of amateur scouting was Mike Elias, a 31-year-old Yale graduate who had worked in the Cardinals’ scouting department. The new assistant GM would be David Stearns, a 29-year-old Harvard graduate who had most recently worked for the Indians. The new director of pro scouting would be Kevin Goldstein, who had been a respected writer for Baseball Prospectus but had never worked in pro baseball.
Baseball names are in there — Luhnow obviously, and David Stearns from the Indians — but Mejdal had never worked in baseball an Goldstein was, well, a more successful me. Sure, I think I could run a team, but nobody’s going to trust me with it, you’d think anyway.
The Astros tore it up, and decided to do baseball like nobody else had. They zagged hard when everyone else was busy zigging about, even the Indians, a team that is a proving ground for future execs (Stearns for instance) and has to fight for every marginal win. They should be the ones on the forefront if only because of their other limitations. So when the Astros basically beat them at their own game, it’s a little embarrassing and a lot worrying.
But one thing about scouting and analytics and all the behind the scenes stuff — it’s not expensive. Not in the way that normally prices the Indians out of things. The Astros’ owner Jim Crane has money the Dolans don’t. But the things that helped the Astros gain an extra edge aren’t in the millions, just in the hundreds of thousands. In his senior thesis that later won an award from the Society for American Baseball Research, editor at then-Wahoo’s on First Lewie Pollis studied the relative impact spending on front office analysts would have, compared to spending on free agency. In short, for less even than a Rajai Davis contract, you could hire a bevy of smart, ambitious minds that could crack a new code in baseball, or even more, slightly less-well paid people to unendingly analyze each little bit of the game.
Whether spending what could be player money on new toys or analysts, what have you, there’s better ways the Indians can spend their money than on players, if they want to gain an extra edge. Heck, they could spend on coaching. It’s generally thought b y the public that coaching in the majors is the best there is, but that’s probably a lie. The highest salaries for baseball coaches outside of the top flight managers is probably in college. Hitting coaches make somewhere in the realm of $150,000-$300,000. Oregon State’s Pat Casey turns 180year-olds into some of the best sluggers in the country, and he just signed a new contract that will pay him in excess of $500,000 a year by the end of it. Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt — who pumps out great pitchers — makes $2.3 million a year. This is way more than any other positional coach is paid, to say nothing of the best scouts and analysts. There’s nothing driving the best minds to the pros except cachet. Why can’t the Indians take advantage of this? It’s money they spend on Michael Martinez or Oliver Drake or a months’ worth of Josh Donaldson.
Cleveland is a team somewhere near the cutting edge of baseball. The on-field product makes it obvious, with a host of unheralded guys becoming stars not just on the team, but of the game. But they should be on that edge, past it even, and that can be achieved without breaking the bank in free agency.
We can read all we want about all the money they save by extending Jose Ramirez or whoever super early, but what about those savings? where are they going otherwise? They can’t sledgehammer their way past their personal Goliath’s, but they can use a relative moneybomb on the little things, and grow that into something monumental without hamstringing their budget. They have to be unconventional in how they win, so that has to extend all the way to how they spend money.