The Indians have won 10 games in a row! That’s really good, and it’s allowed them to storm out in front in the American League Central. Sure, things can change in a hurry — 10 games ago, the Indians and the Royals were tied. But there’s no sense in just dismissing whole hot streaks, and the Indians now have one of the better records in baseball. For a few years, they’ve gotten some preseason stat hype, and now they resemble an actual contender. A contender that, mind you, has been doing almost all of this without Michael Brantley. Not bad.
I wrote last week about how the Indians’ patchwork outfield has overachieved. That’s been a part of this success. Of course, the rotation has also been critical, and now it looks like even Trevor Bauer might be figuring something out. On the bases, the Indians have been remarkably good, so that’s a quiet strength of theirs. I want to take this opportunity to call attention to another. For a while, the Indians were known for being horrible in the field. Last season, they turned that around. This season, they’ve been up to something special.
My focus is going to be on grounders in particular, because I want to show you the kind of difference Francisco Lindor can make. A month and a half ago, I posted an InstaGraphs about the Cubs defending grounders. At that point, the Cubs led baseball in lowest slugging percentage allowed on grounders, according to Baseball-Reference. At that point, of course, the Cubs led baseball in lots of stuff. Anyway, since then, the season sample size has doubled. Here’s the new big-league landscape.
In first place, now, we have the Cleveland Indians, edging out the Cubs and Red Sox. The Cubs have been good! The Red Sox have been good. The Indians have been a little bit better, by this measure. Grounders are almost exclusively about the infield, so we can say the Indians’ infield has been terrific. They rate well enough, too, by DRS and UZR, but those numbers can get confused by the various shifts. I like looking at the team picture when I can. Slugging allowed is slugging allowed, and it doesn’t tell you any lies.
How would the Indians’ performance stack up in recent history? Using the Play Index, I examined the past decade. For every team, I found slugging allowed on grounders, then I factored in the league-average slugging allowed on grounders, to calculate a SLG- number. In the table, you’ll see the top 10. As should always be noted, it’s important to point out this season isn’t half over, so numbers will move. But this is for the sake of perspective.
|Team||Season||GB SLG||League GB SLG||SLG-|
If the Indians were to finish like this, they’d be third-best by this measure in the decade. They’ve been 15% better than average, which is fairly near to the 2014 A’s. Three teams are represented from just this season, which is a reminder of the limited sample sizes. They could also just be really good infields. Numbers can always be revisited down the line.
Once I get going with numbers, it’s hard for me to stop. So now I want to show you a little information from StatCorner, which issues team-scale reports. StatCorner has a team runs-above-average statistic for grounders. So far I’ve focused on slugging allowed, but StatCorner also folds in errors and whatnot. It’s not perfect, but it’s fairly complete, and it’s a solid estimator. In the plot below, check out the Indians’ infield over the past decade. This is where they’ve come in relative to average against grounders, and for the 2016 number, I’ve expressed it in RAA per 162 games.
It couldn’t possibly be any clearer when Francisco Lindor showed up. I don’t want to say this is all just about him, because any infield is always more than just the shortstop, but Lindor has been absolutely critical. Before Lindor came around, the Indians fluctuated around average. They did that for years. As soon as Lindor arrived, the Indians took off, and this year they’re on an unbelievable pace. StatCorner has the Indians on track to be about 82 runs better than average against grounders. The highest team mark in the decade is +70 runs, belonging to the 2007 Blue Jays. The 2013 Orioles are in fifth, at +51. The Indians are already at +38 — that would rank them 14th in the decade, even though they haven’t played half their schedule. You see how this is astonishing.
Extreme paces tend not to keep up. That’s the nature of extremes. So the Indians could well fall off this pace. Separately, as much as Lindor is phenomenal, the Indians’ infield contains other players, and the defenders aren’t in control of their shifts. This is a team thing, more than it’s a player thing, so I don’t want to make it all about the shortstop. But that shortstop is a true difference-maker. With Lindor at the center of it, this year’s Indians have welcomed opposing ground balls. That’s helped to drive the team’s success, and if certain paces continue, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Lindor could win himself an MVP.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.