The Indians as the Anti-Royals

In an unexpected turn of events, the Royals are fighting with the Tigers to try to win the AL Central, which hasn’t escaped your attention. The Tigers have been hurt by Justin Verlander being replaced by Chris Volstad, and by Joe Nathan being also replaced by Chris Volstad. The Royals, meanwhile, have been helped by an overall clutch team performance and an amazing defensive outfield. At this point, the division is almost a toss-up, where as recently as a few weeks ago it looked like the Tigers would advance without breaking a sweat.

Looking up at both of those teams, not quite out of the race but not quite in the middle of it, are the Indians. Though the Indians haven’t been markedly worse than the Royals, they have, in several ways, been the anti-Royals. The Royals have been clutch, and the Indians haven’t. The Royals have outplayed their BaseRuns, and the Indians haven’t. The Royals haven’t hit well, and the Indians have. The Royals haven’t had a strong rotation, and the Indians have. And then you get to the fielding. There is no greater difference between the two teams than there is in the field, where the Royals have been great and where the Indians have been less than that.

Let’s rewind to late April. On April 23, Mike Petriello published a post titled “The Indians Are Missing The Easy Ones“. Those early-season Indians were mistake-prone in the field, throwing out what was statistically the worst team defense in baseball. Whenever you have a team playing at an extreme over a small sample, you expect the team to look more average going forward, because that’s just the nature of what regression is. In general, the principle holds true. In the case of the Indians, it hasn’t come true.

Those Royals are seventh in baseball by Defensive Runs Saved, but first in baseball by UZR. To a great extent they have their outfield to thank. The Indians, meanwhile, are last in baseball by DRS, and they’re last in baseball by UZR. And it gets worse. They’re last in baseball by UZR by more than 13 runs. They’re last in baseball by DRS by more than 30 runs. The Indians don’t just have the worst statistical defense in the league — they’ve set up trip wires around the perimeter. They don’t want another team to come by. They don’t want another team to get close.

You might wonder, have there been any signs of progress? Let’s look at the Indians’ month-to-month Defense ratings, as provided by our leaderboard splits:

Month Rank Out Of
April 30 30
May 30 30
June 29 30
July 30 30
August 30 30

Remember that Defense is all about UZR and position adjustments. In April, the Indians were the worst defensive team in the league. The same was true in May. In June, they climbed out of last! In July they returned, and they’re right back there in August. If nothing else, this is remarkable consistency, and if the pitchers haven’t yet adjusted maybe they have only themselves to blame.

So how do the Indians stack up over the course of recent history? As we’ve gone over before, we have DRS data going back to 2003, and we have UZR going back to 2002. Let’s look at a breakdown, shall we? I’ve extrapolated 2014 data to a full season, so that everyone shares a common denominator.

Stat Rank Out Of
UZR, team 389 390
DRS, team 358 360
UZR, infield 387 390
DRS, infield 346 360
UZR, outfield 384 390
DRS, outfield 355 360

The Indians are on track to have the second-worst UZR since 2002, and the third-worst DRS since 2003. Where is this coming from? According to both metrics, the Indians have had a lousy defensive infield. According to both metrics, the Indians have also had a lousy defensive outfield. So, again, you’re getting an idea of their consistency. As we’ve probably gone over a bunch of times, it can make you stop in your tracks when the defensive numbers disagree with one another. If DRS says something different from UZR, then you need to dig deeper to see what might be causing the disagreement. Here, DRS and UZR paint just about exactly the same picture. Both of them hate the defense, which has been both error-prone and relatively immobile. Not every single player is to blame, but I don’t feel like singling anybody out. Everyone has in some way been a part of this.

Already, the Indians have the fifth-worst UZR since 2002, and it’s the middle of August. Already, they have the 11th-worst DRS. There’s only one obviously worse defensive unit, and it belonged to the 2005 Yankees. To make the Indians feel better, those Yankees finished 95-67, but they also hit the absolute crap out of the ball, which can make up for a lot of deficiencies. Those Yankees had a 116 wRC+. These Indians are hanging at 104, so, advantage, New York.

For Cleveland I’d say this isn’t a total shock. Between 2009-2013, they ranked fourth-worst by DRS, and first-worst by UZR. They haven’t had a good defense since 2008, and it’s not like this is something you can just up and fix with ease. The last two years they’ve been an above-average offense, and sometimes you just have to take the bad with the good. But the 2014 Indians are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and their primary weakness has been the fielding, which hasn’t supported a pitching staff that’s had one of the highest strikeout rates ever. And that’s a credit to the arms — were there more balls in play, this would all only look worse.

You can win with a bad defense. You can lose with an awesome defense. The Indians and Royals might still both miss the playoffs, despite occupying opposite extremes in that regard. You always always always only want to care about overall value. But if the Indians do indeed miss out, it’s going to be hard not to blame the gloves. This has been one of the worst defenses in more than a decade, and just because something can be overcome doesn’t mean it’s going to be simple.

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.

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J.P. Arencibia
9 years ago

No mention of a certain star defensive SS prospect just chillin in Columbus?

Sure, he would be awful at the plate, but his glove might be worth it if they want to get to the playoffs. Their Masterson and Cabrera trades indicate that they are probably not shooting for the postseason this year, though.

9 years ago
Reply to  J.P. Arencibia

Should JP Arencibia be commenting on a piece that involves defense as a topic?

9 years ago
Reply to  J.P. Arencibia

Lindor could be a decent-enough hitter even this year – great eye, no power. Masterson and Cabrera were impending free agents who were also not contributing – they were easily replaced from within by Ramirez and Salazar. They’re still trying to get a wild card, but aren’t selling out to do it.