Even the Cleveland Indians, the best team in baseball by run differential and authors of an AL-record winning streak, aren’t without question marks.
Currently, they’ve got a significant one — namely, in center field. Just over a week ago, Chris Davis stepped on Bradley Zimmer’s left hand as the latter attempted a head-first slide into first base. The result: a broken fourth metacarpal. Zimmer, who had taken over the lion’s share of work in center field, is now probably out for the rest of the season, including the postseason.
In the absence of Zimmer, Cleveland was left with a void in center. To understand how they’ve decided to address that void, it’s necessary to know a little something about the infield.
The Indians like their infield alignment. Recently, the club shifted Jose Ramirez from third base to second — where he rates as a well above-average defender — and assigned third-base duties to fellow Fringe Five alum Yandy Diaz and his intriguing gifts. That pair is complemented by Giovanny Urshela — at the very least, an excellent late-inning defensive replacement who also possesses enough glove to back up Francisco Lindor at shortstop. This was the formula the club used during their 22-game win streak.
With the infield settled, the Indians found themselves wondering what to do with longtime second baseman Jason Kipnis, who has recently returned from another stint on the DL.
The solution? To give Kipnis a look in center field, where he last played regularly at Arizona State in 2009. Kipnis fell to the second round of that year’s draft in part because he was viewed as a ‘tweener in the outfield. The numbers suggest that, based purely on raw footspeed, that might still be the case: Kipnis’s Statcast sprint speed is below the league average for center fielders.
The first 6,978.1 defensive innings of Kipnis’s major-league career were all recorded at second base… until Sunday, that is, when he returned from injury and started in center. Kipnis has started the last two games there, as well, playing five innings on each occasion, before returning to the bench. The Indians are easing back into action a player who’s dealt with hamstring issues.
I asked Cleveland manager Terry Francona how many games we could expect to see Kipnis play in center down the stretch last week. Said Francona: “A lot of games.”
While the Indians haven’t announced their plans for distributing center-field playing time in the postseason, it certainly seems like they’d prefer Kipnis to capture the lion’s share of innings there if it appears he can handle it.
Why might one believe that it’s worth the risk? In large part because of the Indians’ pitching staff. Cleveland pitchers could become the first such group to strike out 10 batters per nine innings over the course of a season. There are simply fewer balls in play for defenders to field.
Consider that Indians’ center fielders have had only 1.71 batted balls directed toward them this season, which ranks 21st in the sport, according to Balls in Zone (BIZ).
By comparison, there was an average of 2.51 balls hit toward center field in 2007. This season, the leaguewide mark has fallen to 1.90. That’s a significant loss of opportunity.
To drill deeper, Petriello looked at where the Indians rank in opportunities to field batted balls in center that have between 25% and 75% hit probability. Again, the Indians feature one of the lower figures in the game.
As the game becomes more extreme, more of a Three True Outcomes affair, individual defense has become less important. So with a record strikeout staff on the mound, it makes some sense for the Indians to see if they can sneak some more offense into the lineup.
So how’s the experiment going?
Well, Kipnis stood around Sunday for five innings, receiving no opportunities.
He’s had only one ball hit in his zone in 10 innings in center to date, this line drive off the bat of Andrelton Simmons on Monday night, which had a hit probability of 56%, according to Statcast data via Baseball Savant.
While that’s a really small sample of non-activity, it’s early evidence that center field is a place where the Indians could look to sneak in offense. (The club employed Lonnie Chisenhall in center early this season before calling up Zimmer.)
Of course, mistakes are magnified and more costly in the outfield. Kipnis’s bat will likely need to play above average to produce a net performance gain.
It’s perhaps why rookie Greg Allen deserves a spot on the playoff roster.
— Jim Pete (@JimPeteEHC) September 20, 2017
The Indians could employ Kipnis in playoff games early — at least against right-handed pitchers (against whom he’s got a career 119 wRC+) — and then turn leads over to the speedy Allen as a defensive replacement.
Paul Swydan examined the American League’s most notable playoff-roster decisions earlier this week and featured Cleveland’s outfield among the hot spots. Jackson, Kipnis, Jay Bruce, and Chisenhall are likely locks, Michael Brantley is still hurt, leaving likely one spot up for grabs between Allen, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer and Tyler Naquin.
Allen has the best speed, and probably the best glove, among those candidates, though Guyer is a useful platoon player.
The Indians have some decisions to make, but playing Kipnis in center seems like a worthwhile gamble. And so good, so far. Not so much because of what Kipnis has done in center, but because of the limited activity that will likely continue.