Indians Defense Needs to Catch On

In 2014, no matter how you measure it, the Indians were not very good defensively.

The Indians led Major League Baseball with 116 errors in 2014. Judging a team’s defense solely on errors committed is no longer fair. With new defensive ratings and metrics available, a defense can better be judged, including range and overall defensive play.

However, the Indians were not very good by any of those metrics either.

According to Fangraphs, “In recent years, though, we’ve seen two fielding metrics rise above the rest of the field and establish themselves as reliable: the Dewan Plus/Minus system (AKA, Defensive Runs Saved) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Both systems don’t always agree, but when compared with each other and taken in large sample sizes (~3 years), you can get a good idea of a player’s fielding abilities.”

In 2014, the Indians had a -64.8 defensive rating, meaning their defense gave up nearly 65 runs due to their poor defense. Only the Houston Astros (-74.0) were worse in all of Major League Baseball and the Detroit Tigers (-42.2) were the only American League playoff team to have a negative rating. It’s no coincidence that the Kansas City Royals (74.8) and Baltimore Orioles (55.4) were the two best defensive teams in baseball and were in the American League championship series. If the Indians are to return to the postseason, they’ll have to improve their defense.

Using the old adage, “good teams are built up the middle,” the Astros have made attempts this offseason to improve their defense. Houston has added catcher Hank Conger, shortstop Jed Lowrie and center fielder Colby Rasmus. All three are defensive improvements from the players they replaced a year ago. However, the Indians have made few changes to their roster and even less to improve their defense from a year ago.

The Indians continue to point to Jose Ramirez as their improved defense. Ramirez replaced Asdrubal Cabrera as the every day shortstop for the Tribe after the July 31 trade deadline. Cabrera was dealt to Washington, where he became their second baseman, and Ramirez was given the every day role. Among players who played 450 innings or more (essentially 50 full games) at shortstop, Ramirez had a 9.5 defensive rating, or he was responsible for saving 9.5 runs, good enough for seventh best among all shortstops. He replaced Cabrera, who had a -2.4 defensive rating. Only four shortstops were worse than Cabrera, and one—Hanley Ramirez—is expected to play left field this year instead. A full season of Jose Ramirez will certainly help the Indians’ defense, but expecting him to cure all the ills from 2014 is quite unfair.

Ramirez joins Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles as the Indians’ only positive defenders. Statistics for catchers remain unclear, but pitch framing is becoming a more acceptable metric. Gomes has an overall defensive rating of 13.2, good enough for 11th overall among starting catchers. Gomes had a very poor, first five weeks of the season in 2014. If he plays all of 2015 at the level he did the final five months of the season, he should move into the top third defensively among catchers. Aviles, not a regular at any position, is a positive defender at third base and shortstop.

While it is nice that the Indians have two positive defenders at up-the-middle positions, it’s not so nice that they are the only positive defenders the team puts on the field on a regular basis. Worse yet, their other two up-the-middle defenders are two of the worst at their positions.

In 2012, Michael Bourn was the best defensive center fielder in baseball. He had a 25.6 defensive rating and a 23.3 UZR. UZR takes into account runs saved, or lost, based upon the range a player can also cover. Bourn covered a lot of range in 2012, and covered it well. However, hamstring issues in 2013 and 2014 have hampered his range drastically. Last season, Bourn had a -7.8 defensive rating, making him 34th of 39 center fielders that played at least 450 innings. His -15.9 UZR was fourth worst. Only Dexter Fowler, Coco Crisp and James Jones had worse range among center fielders.

Defensively, Jason Kipnis had a -6.1 defensive rating at second base, finishing 30th of 31 second basemen. Only Houston’s Jose Altuve was worse last year. Kipnis’ defensive woes and lack of range last season could be excused from oblique injuries. Certainly trunk issues and pain twisting and turning can hurt a player’s range. However, even in his All-Star season in 2013, Kipnis had a -4.1 defensive rating and he has been consistently at the bottom of second base defensive metrics for his entire career.

It’s possible that when Francisco Lindor eventually arrives on the big league stage, Ramirez will shift positions to either third base or second base. Lindor is an excellent defensive shortstop and when he makes his major league debut, the Indians’ defense will immediately get better. But in the meantime, Ramirez and Gomes are the only positive defenders in the Tribe’s projected every day lineup, with Bourn and Kipnis two of the worst defenders at premium positions. Nick Swisher, Lonnie Chisenhall, David Murphy and Ryan Raburn all grade out as very poor defenders, while Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana are just below average at their respected positions.

Newcomer Brandon Moss will not yield any defensive help. In fact, he may make it worse. Moss’s -8.9 rating at first base is worse than Santana’s -7.8, and slightly better than Swisher’s -9.8. To be fair, none of the three are very good. Moss is an average outfielder and should be a vast improvement over Murphy and Raburn in right field.

Cleveland’s continued defensive woes may be a reason Tyler Holt has a chance to make the Opening Day 25-man roster. Holt only played 189 innings in the big leagues, but is a positive defender in the outfield. His hustle and defensive metrics could create a role for himself where he is a defensive replacement for Bourn, Murphy or Moss in late-inning situations. If Holt were to make the team, he would likely take a roster spot from someone like Raburn, a negative defender, with a declining offensive role.

Regardless of whether Holt makes the team, the Indians defensive issues will remain. Improved defense is probably the easiest way to make up the three games the Tribe fell short in making the playoffs in 2014, but an aspect the Indians have not addressed in the offseason. If the Tribe is to avoid being one of the worst defenses again in 2015, it will have to come from improved play from players that were defensive disappointments a year ago.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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