Offense V. Defense – Which is Posing a Bigger Problem?

The Indians have started the season as a big question mark.

The team, which was projected by Sports Illustrated to win the whole thing come this fall, has gotten off to a less-than-stellar start this season. It’s early, so there’s nothing to say that the team should be written off yet. They’ve gotten off to slow starts the past few seasons, and have turned it around as the weather gets warmer. They were 11-13 in April in 2013 and finished that season 92-70, and last year’s squad, which has a number of similar faces to this year’s roster, went 10-17 in April before ending the season at 85-77. Just because their record after Wednesday’s game in Chicago is 5-9 doesn’t mean they’re completely out of contention.

However (and I think this is obvious), that doesn’t mean that the Indians can just sit back and hope everything works out. They need to work on their weak areas to strengthen their performance and – hopefully – turn it around as they have in the past.

The big question mark is, though, what do the Indians need? Offense, defense, pitching, what is the big puzzle piece that is missing?

It feels like a little bit of everything. The rotation has been strong, so there isn’t much to say the team needs to focus on there, but the bullpen has been shaky, the offense nonexistent, and the defense – while not amassing great numbers of errors – is not strong. While it would be nice to see all of these areas improve at once, working on each individually could be an easier way to build up the team’s performance.

Defense seems to be the place the Indians should start, and what, if improved, could lead to a higher number of wins. The Indians have only been blanked twice this season, so their offense is at least able to put runs on the board the majority of the time. It’s their ability to keep runs off the board that seems to be one of their biggest issues.

The Indians rotation isn’t really suffering from an inability to strike batters out. In fact, with the exception of T.J. House, it seems that the starting pitchers are actually pretty good at striking guys out. Their starting pitching ranks first in the American League and second is all of MLB with 94 strikeouts this season; their entire pitching staff boasts 145 strikeouts, ranking fifth in all of baseball and second in the American League. Striking batters out isn’t really the problem; it’s the ones that get on base that are causing the most frustration.

The Indians rank 26th out of 30 teams in Defensive Runs Saved at -10. The only teams lower than them are the Phillies and Twins (also with -10), followed by the Rangers (-12) and the Nationals (-15). The team BABIP against the Indians is a whopping .338, ranking them dead last. It’s discouraging because, with a pitching staff that is doing so well in the strikeout department, to know that that many hits are resulting in, well, actual hits points to a gap in the abilities of those behind the pitcher.

Sure, there have been some extenuating circumstances in which your typical fielders haven’t been able to fulfil their typical spots. Michael Brantley was out of left field for a while this season, Mike Aviles for some reason was chosen to fill in at center field for two games, but there haven’t been enough defensive substitutions to really argue that it’s the fault of a player not knowing a position that is causing the struggles. The infield should, if anything, have been better this year – Lonnie Chisenhall has a season at third under his belt already, Carlos Santana has the same at first, and Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez are at positions they know.

It’s just a big question mark.

Arguably, players in Columbus could be called up in the near future not for their bat power, but for their defensive abilities. Giovanny Urshela is the Clippers third baseman and, after having to postpone his 2015 debut in Columbus, just got back out onto the field this week. He has a strong bat, yes – he hit a home run in his first game back with the Clippers this week – but his defense is also superb. He had just five errors in 220 chances last season. He would be more than an improvement over Chisenhall.

The same argument can be made about Francisco Lindor; his debut will, more likely than not, come from his ability to contribute defensively more so than his offense. There isn’t much I can say about Lindor’s abilities at shortstop that haven’t already been said. He’s fantastic, end of story. If he can adapt to a big league stage, there is no telling what sort of boost that would give the Indians defense.

Of course, that then opens up questions of what happens to Ramirez and Chisenhall? What do we do with them?

But that’s a different column.

The bottom line is that the Indians are off to a slow start, despite having outstanding numbers on a pitching front. A defensive boost, however, is the first step toward turning this team’s record around.

Photo: Mark Duncan/AP Photo

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