Expected Improvements: Justin Masterson & John Axford

This set of predictions will be a little bit different than the previous ones as it will involve pitchers and a player who wasn't on the team in 2013. These will be the only two pitchers looked at as they will arguably be the two most important, the ace and the closer. The reason no other pitchers will be looked at is that this way of prediction is suspect at best and it is almost impossible to predict pitching results.

Masterson has been the staff ace since 2011 and since then has been the most talented and consistent pitcher on the teams during that time. He will be 29 going into the 2014 and coming off the best season in his career. Interestingly, Baseball-Reference.com's most similar player to Masterson is currently available free agent Matt Garza. At one year older than Masterson, Garza's experience this post season should also help the Indians know Masterson's value in next year's market which could help them sign him long term. The other four most similar players are Tom Griffin, Dick Ruthven, Bill Bonham and Jack Kramer.

2011 26 12 10 3.21 34 33 216 211 89 77 11 65 158 1.28 6.6
2012 27 11 15 4.93 34 34 206.1 212 122 113 18 88 159 1.45 6.9
2013 28 14 10 3.45 32 29 193 156 75 74 13 76 195 1.20 9.1
Top 5 Average 29 11 9.2 4.08 30.2 25.6 174 178.4 88.4 78.8 14.2 68.6 92.2 1.42 4.78

The innings pitched numbers are slightly skewed by Griffin's reversion to reliever in his year 29 season, but otherwise, things look fairly accurate (outside of the strike out totals). Masterson should expect a slight reversion that would explain the jump in ERA and WHIP. His strike out totals will likely be much closer to where Garza was in 2013 at 136 and a K/9 of 7.9. Of course, the win loss record will have a lot more to do with the Indians offense and bullpen as his numbers in 2013 should have lead to at least 17 wins.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Indians have a new closer coming in by the name of John Axford. This experiment may be even more interesting for Axford in trying to predict if he will be able to come back from two poor seasons in 2012 and 2013. Axford will be 31 going into 2014, so he he immediately be the oldest member of the bullpen. His five most similar players should be very familiar to the Indians as one played in Cleveland, Roberto (OG) Hernandez and two played in Detroit, Todd Jones and Francisco Cordero. The other two relievers are Brad Lidge and Tom Henke.

2011 28 2 2 1.95 74 46 73.2 59 19 16 4 25 86 1.14 10.5
2012 29 5 8 4.67 75 35 69.1 61 42 36 10 39 93 1.44 12.1
2013 30 7 7 4.02 75 0 65 73 32 29 10 26 65 1.52 9
Top 5 Average 29 6 3.4 2.60 70 30.2 76.7 62.8 24 22.2 4.6 33 88.2 1.25 10.35

If these prediction numbers meant anything, Axford would be a candidate for comeback player of the year. To find the reason for this, it is important to look at why the players selected were the most similar. Essentially, Axford had two great seasons to start his career, then followed those with two poor ones. This means his similar players could have had the same career path, the exact opposite (two poor seasons followed by two great ones) or four average seasons. The good news for Axford is that four of the five most similar players had terrible seasons in either their age 29 or age 30 season and every single one of the five had a great seasons including three seasons with ERAs under 2.00 and two All-Star appearances. While none of this is guaranteed and the two that didn't have ERAs under 2.00 had ERAs between 3.70 and 3.80, it still is positive for Axford.

The Indians don't need a 2.60 ERA, 30 save season from Axford to return to the play-offs in 2014, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Stability in the back end of the bullpen would allow for further, stress free development of Cody Allen, C.C. Lee and other questionable relievers like Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes. There is even some legitimate reasoning for a turn over by Axford, his 1.75 ERA in 13 games to end the season with St. Louis. The similarity scores only increase this positive thinking and if he is really like his most similar player, Hernandez, he may keep pitching until he is 42 years old.

Joseph Coblitz

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since its inception in 2011. He also writes for The Outside Corner and the Comeback and hosts the Tribe Time Now podcast. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians. Follow on twitter @BurningRiverBB