Is this low number for the Indians the result of higher standards, a lack of good candidates, or something else? And does it look like they’ll add to this total any time soon?
Notes on the Numbers
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.
There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers only goes back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.
The Already Retired Numbers
Despite their relatively low total, the Indians were one of the first teams to retire numbers. Bob Feller was the first on the team honored, in 1957. That makes him the ninth number ever retired in major league history. One of those eight was later temporarily returned to service (the Reds’ number 5, first retired for in-season suicide victim William Hershberger, then for Johnny Bench). In addition, three of those that preceded Feller were on the Yankees (the first team to use the concept), and two others were Giants (meaning the concept might have started regionally? Just speculation on my part). After the two New York teams, Pittsburgh then retired two numbers, and Cleveland retired Feller’s, which seems to support the idea that retiring numbers spread regionally.
In any case, Feller spent the entirety of his career in Cleveland, from 1936 to 1956 (missing 1942 through 1945 for World War II). Baseball-Reference credits number 19 with 66 bWAR for his career.
After Feller, the Indians wouldn’t retire another number for another thirteen years. Lou Boudreau’s number 5 would be the next honored, in 1970. Boudreau played with the Indians from 1938 to 1950, accumulating 55 bWAR and 68 fWAR in Cleveland. He would play slightly over a season more with Boston, spending 1951 there and retiring in 1952 after four games. For his career, the shortstop totaled 56 bWAR and 70 fWAR.
The Indians were much quicker to retire their next number; number 3 was retired in honor of Earl Averill in 1975. The outfielder spent 1929 through 1939 with the team, amassing 45 bWAR and 54 fWAR. He would play until 1941, but didn’t significantly add to his career value (45 bWAR, 55 fWAR).
Another long gap followed; finally, the team started retiring numbers again in 1990. Mel Harder (number 18) was the first of three players honored by the team in the 1990s. The pitcher (and later coach) was an Indians lifer, playing exclusively for the team from 1928 through 1947. He was worth 43 bWAR over his career. Larry Doby came next, four years later. Number 14 played from 1947 through 1959, and was an Indian from 1947 to 1955, with a second stop in 1958. The pioneer earned 42 of his 47 career bWAR and 49 of his 57 career fWAR in Cleveland. Bob Lemon (number 21) completed the 90s trifecta in 1998. Lemon was another Indian lifer, accumulating 42 bWAR in his career, which lasted from 1946 to 1958.
The Indians also retired the number 455 in 2001 to commemorate their then-record number of home sell-outs. While I applaud their experimenting in the field of three digit uniform numbers and the honoring thereof, it does not really add to my study in any way.
Compared to the League
There are three components I use when comparing teams: the stat (fWAR or bWAR); the midpoint (the average or the mean); and where the value was accumulated (with the team or total career value). This gives me a total of eight different ways of comparing teams.
The Indians generally rate in the third or fourth quartile in every comparison, though. In average career fWAR and fWAR with the team, the Indians rank in the third quartile. Median bWAR and fWAR with the team both rank similarly. Average career bWAR, median career bWAR, and median career fWAR see the team in the bottom quartile. Average bWAR with the franchise is the only area where the team escapes the bottom half, and even then, it’s just barely (they fall one spot above league average).
So what does this mean? Basically, it means that the Indians have some of the lower standards in the league for retired numbers. This isn’t necessarily bad; the Astros compare reasonably well. The difference, though, is that the Astros have retired nine numbers in their 50 seasons, while the Indians have only retired six in their 111 seasons. I tend to like teams that err on the side of commemorating more players, and the Indians seem to use this model in all but actual results.
So Who’s Next?
However, the results may soon match up to the process; the Indians have several solid options for their next honoree, most of whom will actually raise their standards.
Going by WAR, there are two hitters more or less tied atop the franchise’s leader board, and their cases are similar. Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker are in a virtual tie in both versions of WAR; 74.4 to 73.3 in Lajoie’s favor in bWAR, and 80.6 to 80.2 in Speaker’s favor in fWAR. Both played with the team in the early 1900s (Speaker, from 1916-1926; Lajoie, from 1902-1914), and consequently didn’t wear uniform numbers. That doesn’t necessarily mean neither has a case, though. Speaker and Lajoie are better remembered than most early stars, which is a point that rules out a lot of players. In Lajoie’s case, the team was even named after him for a while. The fact that neither has been honored yet after being retired for so long doesn’t necessarily bode well But, if any more non-numbered players were to be honored by their teams, Lajoie and Speaker would be as good a guess as any.
After those two, the next player in WAR (by both B-R and Fangraphs) is Jim Thome. Thome has played in Cleveland for parts of thirteen seasons (1991-2002, 2011) and been worth 47.0 bWAR and 48 fWAR. In addition, he’s the franchise leader in home runs, with 337 of his 604 home runs coming as an Indian. Thome seems to be a clear favorite to get his number retired next. For his total career, Thome has 71.4 bWAR and and 71.5 fWAR.
Closely following Thome on both lists is 1990s center fielder Kenny Lofton. Five of Lofton’s six All-Star appearances came in Cleveland, as well as 45.5 of his 65.3 bWAR and 45 of his 66 fWAR. He was unquestionably an Indian, too; ten of his seventeen seasons came with the franchise. He played nearly ten times as many games with Cleveland than he did with his second-most tenured team. While his seventeen-year career definitely had enough value, I question whether Lofton was too underrated to get his number retired. In any case, he’s been retired since only 2007, so there’s still plenty of time for him to be honored.
Joe Sewell is next on the two lists. Sewell, a shortstop who spent eleven of his fourteen seasons in Cleveland, is in the Hall of Fame, so he is somewhat memorable. 40.9 of his 48.2 bWAR came while playing there, as did 45 of his 54 career fWAR. Like Lajoie and Speaker, though, he’s hindered by when he played; Sewell only wore uniform numbers for his final two seasons with the Tribe. As a whole, I think too much time has passed for a player who is something like third best player in team history without a number to be honored (also, note that no team has “retired” more than two numberless players).
For the top pitchers without a retired number, there’s a similar trend. The top two unhonored pitchers are Stan Coveleski and Addie Joss. Coveleski played nine of his fourteen seasons as an Indian (1916 to 1924), with 46.1 of his 54 career bWAR coming with the team. He’s in the Hall of Fame as well, but again, he never wore a number. His case is, overall, similar to Sewell’s; both were very good, but the Indians still haven’t chosen to “retire” numberless players, and even when they do, there are two or three better or more famous choices, among them Addie Joss. Joss spent his entire career with the Indians (or, as they were called in his time, the “Naps”) who put up 40.9 bWAR in his nine seasons (1902 to 1910). He is still second all-time in career ERA, which I would imagine is another point in his favor. Again, though, he never had a number, and the Indians have numerous unnumbered stars; the line still probably starts behind Lajoie and Speaker.
Sam McDowell is the next pitcher, going by bWAR. McDowell actually had uniform numbers, which is a plus. He spent eleven of his fifteen seasons in Cleveland, including all seven of his productive seasons; 40.2 of his 41.2 bWAR fame in that time span, as well as all six of his all-star appearances. Having a number is a definite improvement, but on just a number basis, McDowell definitely has the weakest case (not to say he’s a bad player-it’s just that everyone else so far is either a Hall of Famer or has the numbers to merit induction).
What about more recent players? The 1990s and 2000s were pretty good to the Tribe, so they may want to remember key members from these teams. Like with Thome and Lofton, a lot of these players spent time with other teams. The most prominent example would be Manny Ramirez, who played parts of eight (out of his nineteen) seasons there. His time there saw him put up 28.2 of his 66.6 career bWAR and 32 of his 70 career fWAR. When he goes into the Hall of Fame (and I do think it’s a when, not an if), it will likely be as a member of the Red Sox, and that might hurt his standing in Cleveland. However, he did still spend a significant amount of time there, and the team may look to acknowledge that.
There are several other candidates from the ‘90s. Albert Belle did play eight of his twelve seasons with the team, and was worth 25.8 bWAR (out of a career 37.4) and 30 fWAR (out of a career 44). his time there also saw three top 3 finishes in MVP voting. However, his prickly personality, short career, and sharp fall-off all diminish his case significantly. Omar Vizquel is another star from that era, who spent eleven seasons in Cleveland. He was solid in his time there at least, putting up 28.6 bWAR and 30 fWAR. His case may be a toss-up. In his twenty-three year career, Vizquel has been worth 42.3 bWAR and 48 fWAR.
Really, after that, it comes down to more recent stars. Sizemore is the current roster’s leader in WAR, with 28.5 bWAR and 30 fWAR in his eight seasons. He has a one year contract for 2012 right now, and he’s now three injury-filled seasons removed from his last MVP-caliber year. Another strong season would get him on the right track to being immortalized, but it may also price him out of the team’s range for 2013.
Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner have been strong in the past, but neither was a good as Sizemore in his prime years. They currently stand at 22 fWAR and 22.9 bWAR (Hafner) and 17 fWAR and 18.6 bWAR (Choo). Asdrubal Cabrera has been successful for even less time than those two, but is only locked up through 2013, so he likely won’t play for the team long enough. Ubaldo Jimenez has shown he can be successful in the past, and he’s signed for several years, but he only just arrived in town.
The only other player currently on the roster even worth bringing up right now is Carlos Santana, and even then, his case stems primarily from his youth and relative success for his age. The 25 year old won’t become a free agent until after 2016 as of the moment. He’s going to need several All-Star type seasons at least, though.
So, In Closing...
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Cleveland Indians in the future are, in order: