Improved D a Need for the Indians

Anyone watching the Cleveland Indians over the course of the 2014 season was punished with a defensive display rarely seen off of Little League diamonds.

That may be a bit of a harsh comparison, but the Indians did lead all of baseball in errors last season with 116. It was hardly their worst fielding season statistically in recent memory, but on a club returning from a Wild Card berth the previous season with high expectations surrounding them, the inability to catch, hold, and throw the ball at a professional level was discouraging and a storyline all season long.

If you happen to be drawing a blank on the subject matter, just consider “The Throw” by Ryan Raburn on July 24th in Kansas City.

In 2013, the Indians committed 98 errors, fifth-worst in the American League and eleventh-worst overall. That season, while ultimately falling short of a lengthy playoff push, had a far better result in the win-loss column. Errors matter, and it was evident during the 2014 season as the Indians threw away more than a handful of games.

To be fair, in the grand scheme of things, Cleveland’s 116 errors were the fewest errors to lead baseball in the 21st century and were the most by the club since being charged with 118 mistakes back in 2006. This total does not include any number of unforced errors and unturned double plays that became fielder’s choices. Yet even with few offseason roster changes expected, the team should be much better in the field in 2015.

Errors do not show up in the win and loss columns, at least not directly. Some errors will cost a team a game. Others extend innings, force pitchers to throw extra pitches, and keep players out in the field longer. Those can all have detrimental effects beyond the scope of one game.

By the numbers, the Indians avoided letting those errors directly alter their record. In their 84 wins, they committed 56 errors. In their 78 losses, that total was 60.

The team was at its best when they were error free, posting a 45-33 record in 78 games. If they committed one error, however, their record swung hard in the opposite direction, dropping to 25-34. Somehow, they were 11-7 in 18 games with two errors and squeezed by with a 3-4 record when charged with three errors in a contest. The Indians were a dozen games to the good when playing a clean game, and six games below the .500 mark when making at least one mistake worthy of being charged an error.

The mistakes came much more frequently early in the season. As a team, they committed 26 errors in April and another 29 in May, making up 47% of the total errors for the season. They made just 61 more over the remainder of the year, including eleven in July and 12 in September when the team needed to play mistake-free baseball.

Not surprisingly, the Indians had their share of men at the top of the leaderboard for errors committed over the course of the season. No one player racked up more errors than Lonnie Baseball.

Lonnie Chisenhall was clearly a defensive liability for the club, something dangerous at the hot corner. The team was able to overlook his lack of defensive prowess thanks to a strong first half at the plate. But as he returned to earth in the second half, his errors loomed that much larger as his contributions to the team shrank.

In 114 games and 108 starts, Chisenhall was charged with 18 errors. Only two players in the league committed more errors at third – Mike Moustakas with 19 and Josh Donaldson with 23. Moustakas appeared in 138 games for Kansas City at third base, while Donaldson played in 150 for Oakland. Had Chisenhall played as many games as either of them and maintained his same error rate, he would have surpassed their season totals.

Chisenhall was given the opportunity back in the field after showing that he had learned to handle southpaws for the first time in his career and was a needed replacement for Carlos Santana, who was struggling with all aspects of his game. Santana was easily on pace to lead the league in errors when he was removed from the hot corner.

Chisenhall’s .931 fielding percentage was the fourth-worst of any player in all of baseball who appeared in at least a quarter of his team’s games at third base (Mike Olt – .929; Pedro Alvarez – .924; Xander Bogaerts – .910). All three of their respective teams, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Boston Red Sox, have likely seen the issue for all three and have started to address the concerns.

Chicago, trying to get playing time for the former first round pick, had played Olt at first base in the minors, but put him at third base because of the presence of National League All-Star Anthony Rizzo. Pittsburgh moved Alvarez to first base for the final five games of the season after El Toro committed seven errors in his 15 games prior and 25 total for the year. Bogaerts, who had played his entire minor league career at short with the exception of ten games at third in 2013 and who was filling in for the injured and ineffective Will Middlebrooks, has already been replaced by Pablo Sandoval.

The story of Nick Swisher at first base mirrors to some degree that of Chisenhall.

Swisher ended his season prematurely, yet still finished with the third-highest total of errors amongst all AL first baseman. His nine trailed the ten of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer and the eleven of Houston’s Jon Singleton. Hosmer maintained a respectable .991 fielding percentage over the season because he played in 130 games, meaning Swisher committed one fewer error at first than Hosmer in 78 fewer games. Singleton played 91 games while earning a .987 fielding mark.

Santana earned five errors in his time at first in 94 games, posting a much more attention-worthy .995 fielding percentage. That tally was the eighth-best among any AL first baseman to appear in at least 50 games for his club.

Asdrubal Cabrera, in a contract year with so much to gain, was a large factor in the accelerated error total for the Tribe. He tallied 14 miscues and finished with the eighth-highest number of errors at shortstop in the AL, despite playing his final two months of the season in the NL with the Washington Nationals! His .963 fielding percentage placed him 51st of the 64 AL players to play in the sixth position throughout the season.

Yan Gomes was a bit of a mystery as the season began. Appointed the team’s everyday catcher, nerves or a heavier wear-and-tear behind the plate saw him rack up a higher-than-usual numbers of miscues. His footwork seemed to be off and he seemed rushed in making throws to the bases to pick off runners.

In defense of Gomes, however, was that it was his first full Major League season and his first time at the big league level getting extensive opportunities behind the plate. And opportunities he had. He recorded the second-most putouts of any AL player and the most of any catcher in the Majors, involved in 1,052 outs over the year. He caught the third-most games of any AL player and totaled the second-most assists.

With so much playing time and so much involvement in the events on the field, it is not a major surprise that he would be above the league average in committing errors, but leading the AL and trailing just Miami’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 15 by one is the real surprise. Gomes is aggressive behind the plate, but hopefully the early season adjustments that seemed to fix his error tendencies will carry over into next season.

There were certainly some deficiencies and areas of grave concern in the field last year for the Tribe, but it is not all doom and gloom. Looking ahead, things could right themselves.

A banged up Jason Kipnis committed six errors on the season and posted a .989 fielding percentage, one of the top marks among AL second baseman. A return to health and to form could see even better numbers.

A tandem at shortstop of Jose Ramirez (.983 fielding percentage) and Mike Aviles (1.000 fielding percentage at shortstop), even as just a stopgap until the summer months if/when Francisco Lindor is ready to assume the position, will provide the team with more consistency than Cabrera had last year. Lindor improved his fielding percentage 19 points from 2013 to 2014 to finish last season with a professional best of .971.

Gomes committed just three errors and had a .993 fielding percentage after the All-Star break, as compared to the eleven charged with a .985 fielding percentage in the first half. He saw more days off in the second half, catching almost 300 fewer innings, and made fewer errors with the presence of Roberto Perez as a backup backstop.

Santana may have found his calling at first base, where defensively he does not hamper the team like he did when behind the plate or at third. If manager Terry Francona does need to give him a day off, Swisher has been an adequate first baseman in the past, posting a career .991 fielding percentage there that is the best of the four positions he has played at the MLB level.

The outfield core will likely remain intact and should continue to be reliable. Michael Brantley committed just one error (while playing center field), ending a long errorless streak, while earning Gold Glove consideration as a left fielder. Michael Bourn had two errors in 105 games and David Murphy had just three in 120 games.

The Indians cannot afford to have the same plight in the field in the coming season if they want to remain relevant. While few may expect this team to be spotless in the field, they will need to perform at a much higher level to compete against the Tigers and Royals, who are much too good of ball clubs to not take advantage of mistakes on a nightly basis. When your goal is to contend, you cannot give away extra outs and extra runs each night out and hope to find yourself playing in October.

Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Anyone who believes a “banged up” Kipnis played a good second base last year is delusional. Kipnis is not a good second baseman when healthy, let alone when banged up. Instead of focusing on Chiz (who is indeed dreadful with the glove), we’d be much better off concentrating on how to move Kipnis off of second (or preferably, off the team, for a RF or 3B). We need to have Lindor and Ramirez playing regularly up the middle by 2016 at the very latest, if not sooner, and watch our pitching sing.

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