Tribe’s Comedy of Errs No Laughing Matter
Mike B. | On 02, Oct 2014
Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.
English poet, Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”
Based on the amount of errs committed by the Cleveland Indians in 2014, they have a lot of forgiveness to ask for.
By traditional methods, the Indians were bad defensively in 2014. They led Major League Baseball with 116 errors and a league worst .981 fielding percentage. This is worse than last season’s subpar 98 errors and .984 fielding percentage. In 2013, they made the 11th most errors. In 2014, by almost any measurement, the Tribe was the worst defensive team in baseball. After starting the season with 45 errors in 45 games, they were on pace to become the worst defensive team in the 21st century. Their improvement during the second half made their 116 errors this season the least among teams leading the majors in errors since 2000.
That’s right, they were the best at being the worst.
Individually, Lonnie Chisenhall led all Indians with 18 errors, followed by Yan Gomes with 14 errors (and six passed balls) and Asdrubal Cabrera with 14 errors. Had Cabrera remained the Tribe’s shortstop for the final two months, he likely would have eclipsed Chisenhall, and certainly would have been a tandem in the worst left side of an infield in baseball.
Gomes had a very embarrassing first quarter of the season causing what was otherwise a solid defensive year to be skewed. From Opening Day to May 7, Gomes committed nine errors and had four passed balls behind the plate. After the first 34 games of the season, Gomes seemed to relax and settle in as a quality defender behind the plate and committed only five errors and two passed balls during the final 128 games of the Tribe’s season.
Defensive statistics, like many areas of baseball stats, have become much more new-age during the last decade. One statistic popular among new-age stat geeks, or sabremetricians, is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). According to fangraphs.com, “UZR puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).” UZR does not just consider errors made, but also outfield arm, range and double plays. An average defender at his position has a score of zero, while above average defenders have positive numbers and below average defenders have negative numbers. A Gold Glove caliber defender has a UZR of 15 or higher, meaning they saved 15 runs or more through their defensive play. Below average defenders will have a negative number, and players with UZRs of -10 or lower are deemed very poor and -15 is awful.
As a team, the Indians had the worst UZR in all of Major League Baseball in 2014 at -72.4. The Wild Card winning Kansas City Royals were the best in baseball at 61.1. Of the five American League playoff teams, only the Detroit Tigers had a negative UZR for the season.
Fangraphs also points out that UZR has been made to UZR/150 for a simple comparison between players and teams. Since UZR is a counting statistic like RBI or home runs, the more playing time a player accrues, the higher (or lower) their UZR will be. In order to compare players with different amounts of playing time, UZR can be scaled on a 150-game basis (UZR/150). If you want to compare a player with 90 games played to someone with 140, UZR/150 would be the way to do so. Under this metric, the Indians were 29th as a team—ahead of only the Houston Astros—with a -9.7 UZR/150. The Baltimore Orioles (10.9) were the best in baseball, followed by Kansas City (9.0). Defensively, the Indians were nearly 19 runs worse than the Royals this season. If the Indians played better defense, those 19 runs likely could have made up the four games they fell short of the Royals.
It seems by any measurement, catching and throwing the baseball is important to winning baseball games. This isn’t earth-shattering news.
The Indians defensive plight does not look any better when going around the diamond and looking at specific players and their success at their primary positions. Of any Indians to receive considerable playing time, only Jose Ramirez (7.0) and Mike Aviles (1.5), each at shortstop, have positive UZRs. Even Michael Brantley (-5.7) is a below average defender in left field and it gets much worse from there.
Using UZR/150, or projecting their defense over 150 games, Lonnie Chisenhall (-15.0) at third base, Jason Kipnis (-9.7) at second base, Nick Swisher (-18.4) at first base, Ryan Raburn (-15.6) in right field, David Murphy (-15.2) in right field and Michael Bourn (-15.9) in center field all grade out to be poor or awful defensively.
When comparing some players against one another, the numbers become even more startling. First, the Indians lone above average defender in Ramirez (18.9) played Gold Glove caliber shortstop in his 498 innings, while Asdrubal Cabrera (-10.8) was quite the opposite. Had Ramirez played 150 games at shortstop, instead of a full season of Cabrera, the Indians would have saved almost 30 runs over the span of the season. While everyone knows Swisher was a major defensive liability at first base, many believe Santana is a quality defender. But he still has a -0.9 UZR/150. Santana is slightly below average at first base, but as long as he is compared against Swisher, fans perceive him to be a major upgrade. That doesn’t really make him a good first baseman though.
Kipnis had a very difficult season by all accounts. Defensively, his -9.7 UZR/150 may be excused to the oblique injury he suffered in May and tried to play through the rest of the season. However, last season when he was fully healthy and posting All-Star offensive numbers, he was still a -6.3 UZR/150 in the field. His injury may have affected his defense, but his defense already was poor.
And possibly the most concerning defensive numbers could come from Bourn. When the Indians signed him two seasons ago, he was an outstanding defender. In 2012, he registered a 23.4 UZR/150 with the Atlanta Braves. Last year, he became just a slightly below average defender in center field with a -0.9 UZR/150 and this season he hit rock bottom, with a -15.9 UZR/150. It’s obvious the injuries to Bourn’s hamstrings and continuous trips to the disabled list are hampering his range and defensive play. Two seasons ago he was the best defensive center fielder in Major League Baseball, but in 2014 only Coco Crisp, James Jones and Dexter Fowler were worse among center fielders who played at least 350 innings. Bourn’s legs aren’t going to get younger as his contract hits the $15 million threshold in 2015 and 2016.
Former Indian Drew Stubbs was not outstanding with his new team the Colorado Rockies, logging a -2.4 UZR/150 in center field this year, but that’s a vast improvement from Bourn’s production. His -2.8 UZR a year ago with the Tribe is also an improvement versus his 2014 replacements in right field, Raburn and Murphy. It’s a small sample size, but Tyler Holt registered a 25.5 UZR/150 in 189.1 outfield innings this year. It might not be a coincidence that he logged the majority of his playing time in August while the Indians went 18-9. Bourn, Murphy, Raburn and Swisher all spent time on the disabled list in August.
For catchers, UZR and UZR/150 is not an adequate measurement, because there is little range. Using defensive WAR, Gomes rebounded from his abysmal April to have the 11th best among catchers. While Indians manager Terry Francona feels Gomes is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, he’s more likely in the middle third. If you eliminate that awful April, it would seem he would find his way into the top third, and considering the awful exploits of his teammates, he still looks good by comparison.
It isn’t a secret that the Indians defense cost them games. It likely cost them a playoff birth. It’s been said for generations that solid defenses are built up the middle. By standard or advanced statistics, the Indians have serious strides to make to create even a mediocre defense. If Gomes plays in 2015 like he did in the last five months of 2014, and Ramirez and minor league phenom Francisco Lindor—whose strength is defense—man shortstop, the defense will improve at two key positions. However, Kipnis and Bourn both provide very poor defense up the middle, Chisenhall is one of the worst third baseman, Murphy and Raburn are poor right fielders and Swisher and Santana are between awful and below average at first base.
Runs scored and offensive struggles easily can be evaluated by looking at the scoreboard each night, but as General Manager Chris Antonetti tries to improve the roster, defense to support his young pitching staff has to be a top priority.
The best offense might just be a mediocre defense.
Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images