The Cleveland Defense Is A Different Kind Of Problem Now

One year ago today, I wrote an article right here called  “The Indians Are Missing The Easy Ones,” which looked into just how awful the Cleveland defense had looked to that point. Though it included all the usual “it’s still early in the season” caveats, the simple fact was that the Indians had done little to help what had been (and would be) a fantastic young pitching staff with repeated miscues in the field, flaws that seemed obvious even in mid-April. (It was also a great excuse to have an article full of blooper GIFs. This is going to come up again.)

As it turned out, it wasn’t just a small sample size problem. The Indians went on to have the worst DRS in baseball at a shocking -75, and as Jeff Sullivan ably noted in August, the defensive gap alone was a huge component of what set the Indians apart from the Royals. If you buy into the idea that 10 runs equal a win, then DRS saw a difference of 11 wins between the two clubs on defense alone. Even if you don’t completely accept that full value as an accurate accounting, it’s pretty clear that poor fielding was a huge detriment to the 2014 Indians, and that’s a big deal considering that they missed the wild card by just three games.

So! Now it’s 2015. With somewhat of an inflexible roster, management was limited in the moves they could make, so while things look similar, they aren’t identical. The Carlos Santana third base experiment is long over. Asdrubal Cabrera‘s adventures at shortstop are now Tampa Bay’s problem, with Jose Ramirez presenting a far superior defensive option. Yan Gomes‘ second half looked a lot better than his first half. Nick Swisher’s achy knees haven’t yet appeared in a game. Tyler Holt showed defensive value as a backup outfielder late in the year. Jason Kipnis swore he was healthier after oblique and hamstring issues helped to tornado his 2014 season.

Story after story after story came up about the team’s focus on it this winter. This was never going to be a good defense, not with so much of the same cast and crew, but maybe enough had changed to think, okay, maybe this won’t be so bad. So how’s that going?

Team DRS
26) Phillies -8
27) Twins -10
28) Indians -12
29) Rangers -14
30) Nationals -15

Almost certainly not unrelated, particularly given this pitching staff:

Team BABIP against
26) Yankees .309
27) Brewers .310
28) Mariners .314
29) Rangers .316
30) Indians .338

Oh. For all the talk about improved defense, that’s a thing, and it’s a thing that hasn’t gone as planned, one of several problems as everyone’s favorite breakout team has sputtered off to a disappointing 5-9 start. As you can imagine, given last year’s problems, it’s easy enough to flip to the Fielding tab on our stats page, see Cleveland down near the bottom, and rip off a tangent about how nothing has changed and this team is doomed.

Except that it’s not quite that simple, for something of an odd reason. Let’s sort the DRS leaderboards again, but instead focus on one particular area: Pitchers.

Pitchers DRS
25t) Angels / Rangers / Tigers / Padres -2
28) Cardinals -4
29) Phillies -5
30) Indians -7

24 of the 30 teams are within a relatively narrow -2 to 2 range, simply because it’s so early and no one’s had the time to be that bad. But Cleveland’s pitchers have dragged down the overall team score to such a degree that if we looked only at non-pitcher DRS, they’d be tied with the Pirates at 23rd. Not that ranking 23 out of 30 in anything is something to be proud of, but when you’re coming from as far back as this group was last year, you’ll take what you can get.

So maybe this defensive unit isn’t quite deserving of that early-season blame, not entirely, anyway, because while no one would argue that this disaster from Marc Rzepczynski

Rzepczynski_error

…or this poor Corey Kluber decision…

kluber_bunt

…didn’t lead to actual in-game damage, nor are they really indicative of the team’s defense as a whole.

To that, you might also add the April 20 instance in which infielder Mike Aviles, who had had all of 5.2 career innings in center field entering the season, was allowed to remain in center during a ninth inning in which a 3-0 Cleveland lead became a 4-3 White Sox comeback…

aviles_hit

…or when the ball hit Jerry Sands right in the worst possible spot: his glove.

sands_hit_wall

Over the course of a long season, a few poor plays from a pitcher here or a lightly-used reserve there or a career minor leaguer over there won’t amount to all that much. This early in the year, every miscue is magnified, and so by the numbers, Cleveland’s defense looks like it’s again a big issue. Right now, there’s a bit more to it.

Still, there’s a fine line between saying “maybe they’re not so bad” and “maybe they’re not bad,” because it’s still a problem. At 32, much of Michael Bourn’s speed has deserted him, and much of his defensive value in center has gone with it. Between 2009-12, he had the most DRS of any outfielder in baseball. Since 2013, he’s been a net negative. Brandon Moss and his bum hip shouldn’t really be out in right field, but he has to be because they certainly can’t let Ryan Raburn escape DH and strap on a glove. David Murphy was once an adequate defender, but he’s was among baseball’s worst last year. It’s anyone’s guess how Swisher will fit, and what he can offer.

Even in the best-case scenario — basically Kipnis looking more like he did in 2012-13 than 2014 —  it was hard to see this being a positive, especially not with Lonnie Chisenhall failing to show much defensive improvement at third base and yet another DH, Santana, trying his best to fake it at a different infield corner. There’s just too many fielders who shouldn’t be wearing gloves, and not enough DH spots to hide them in. It’s too similar to last year’s team, and last year’s team — defensively, anyway — was a mess.

Gomes will be back from his injury, and that should be a boost. At some point, Francisco Lindor will come up, and that should help, though the impact may be mitigated by what it does to Ramirez, who is easily the best Cleveland infielder. Since Ramirez is not likely to shift to his left or right and displace Chisenhall (out of the lineup) or Kipnis (to the outfield, as has been sometimes rumored), Lindor’s arrival might not add all that much, at least defensively. Maybe, if Chisenhall falters, it’s Giovanny Urshela instead, currently back in Triple-A for a second year and regarded as a solid defender.

What we know, certainly, is that the defensive numbers aren’t perfect, especially this early. What we know, even more certainly, is that defense has been an ongoing issue for this team for a few years. Right now, it’s just too simple to look at “close to last place in DRS” and make the judgement of a disaster. Pitchers and minor leaguers and out-of-position infielders are making that look worse than it needs to be. It’s not the same thing as having a playoff-caliber defense, though. Not the same thing at all.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Stuck in a Slump
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Stuck in a Slump

Where have you seen these Kipnis to CF rumors? I haven’t heard any of them.

Moonshadow
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Moonshadow

I’m going to start a Kipnis to the Angels for Josh Hamilton rumor.