Yesterday the Cleveland Indians defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 6-4 to salvage the final game of a three game series. It snapped a skid of seven losses in the last nine games. Despite the much needed victory, the Indians only had five hits and Carlos Carrasco pitched mediocre—the true definition of a fifth starter—and the ninth inning was a scare, but they did something they’ve struggled to do all season.
They played solid defense.
Their defensive positioning was as much the reason they won the game. Jason Kipnis was playing directly behind second base on a defensive shift when Edwin Encarnacion smoked a one bouncer past John Axford and destined for center field. Kipnis’ positioning put him in the right spot to field the smash and throw to first base to end the game. If not for his placement, Encarnacion’s hit would have been a single to center field and tied the game. Cleveland likely would have squandered a ninth inning lead and the momentum generated from yesterday’s come from behind victory would have been lost.
But spray charts, scouting reports and defensive metrics aren’t necessary to know the Indians defense has been lacking this season. The team has made 16 errors (13th in the American League) in just 18 games and have a .975 fielding percentage (14th in the American League). The result has been 10 unearned runs to date this season. That’s a lot of lack of support for a pitching staff that has at least started the year inconsistently and 12th in the American League with a 4.23 ERA. Despite all the new defensive metrics to evaluate players and range, Saturday’s lackluster defeat was full of misplays that were not charged errors. However, the oldest evaluation tool in baseball—the eye test—tells most fans the defense is hurting the team.
The most troubling aspect of the Tribe’s defensive woes has to be new, starting catcher Yan Gomes. Gomes was named the starter after a solid season in 2013. His promotion to the full time role was expected to be a defensive upgrade from that of Carlos Santana. However, Gomes has struggled mightily in the first three weeks of the season, already committing five errors. Those five miscues is enough to tie him for the American League lead with Josh Donaldson in errors.
Friday night, Gomes made a throwing error to first base that caromed into short right field. Two runners were able to advance to scoring position and score on a base hit later that inning. The two runs were the decisive tallies for Toronto in a 3-2 victory. Saturday, Gomes was not charged with an error but had a passed ball on a pitch that was called a strike. Gomes didn’t appeared crossed up on the pitch, he just appeared to miss the pitch. Again, the base runner scored on a single later in the inning.
To a novice, you’d have to wonder if based on Saturday’s passed ball if Gomes needed an eye examination. Something doesn’t seem right with the catcher that made just three errors in all of 2013. More concerning than Gomes five errors may be the three passed balls and eight wild pitches uncorked with him behind the plate. Granted, wild pitches are credited to the pitcher, but a poor defender can certainly help that number increase. The errors, passed balls and wild pitches result in over 16 free bases given to Indians’ opponents.
When a team’s offense is struggling to hit with runners in scoring position and the starting pitching is looking for consistency, handing over a free 90 feet in nearly every game only makes the formula to winning that much more difficult.
Regardless of the statistics or metrics, the Tribe defense has been a hindrance in 2014. If Cleveland could become just average with the glove, it’s something that could help the pitching staff and take pressure off the struggling offense. It could be the spark that helps the Indians turn around their early season struggles, just like they did on Sunday.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images