It’s no secret that the Indians’ defense is still one of the worst in baseball. A quick perusal of fangraphs.com will give any Indians antagonist enough ammunition to criticize their defense for several weeks.
This past week, Owen Watson of fangraphs explained how the Indians defense is so poor that they are wrecking a very fine pitching staff. As of Friday, the Indians were fourth in FIP (essentially what the pitcher themselves can control, but had the eighth worst team ERA—due in part to the defense behind them. A novice may look at an ERA and remind people that those runs are earned, but just because they are earned and charged to the pitcher, doesn’t mean that is really a product of the pitcher’s mistake.
A perfect example of this comes from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Leading 1-0 through three innings, Trevor Bauer was in control of the game. Edwin Encarnacion started the inning with an infield single that Lonnie Chisenhall did not play cleanly. After Russell Martin bunted too hard, Chisenhall forced Encarnacion out at second base for the first out. Kevin Pillar was then hit-by-pitch and Michael Saunders singled through the left side to plate Martin and tie the score at one.
Then, they mayhem ensued.
Ryan Goins grounded to Carlos Santana at first base. Santana caught Pillar too far off of third base and appeared to have him caught between third base and home plate. Santana ran Pillar all the way back to third base, never getting rid of the baseball or starting the rundown. Instead, Pillar dove back into third base, the Indians did not get an out and everyone was safe with the bases loaded. Had Santana got an out, the Indians would have had two outs and been much closer to ending the inning without major damage.
Instead, Ezequiel Carrera hit a chopper back to Bauer. Bauer handled the play, but looked home for an instant for a chance at the force play and to keep a run from scoring. The hesitation was all Carrera needed to beat the throw at first base, keeping the bases loaded and still just one out. Had Santana got an out, Bauer could have easily fielded Carrera’s chopper, thrown to first and ended the inning. However, poor fundamental play led to a bases loaded situation where Devon Travis crushed a grand slam deep into the bleachers to make it 6-1.
All runs were earned and charged to Bauer, but had Santana made his fundamentally sound play, the inning would have played out much differently. Sure, Bauer made the bad pitch that Travis planted into the bleachers, but It’s a pitch he didn’t need to make had his defense supported him. Any pitcher will tell you, the more pitches they have to throw in an inning the more likely it is that they make a mistake. There’s a big difference between making a 30-pitch inning, or two 15-pitch innings. The total is the same, but the effort and endurance needed is totally different. Bauer finished the fourth inning, but left after just one out was retired in the fifth inning, tossing 90 pitches for the day.
This may all seem like a moot point since the Indians tallied their own six-run inning in the fifth and came back to win the game 10-7, but the Indians defense continues to hurt the rest of the team. While it didn’t ruin Sunday’s outcome, putting extra pressure on a pitching staff has not been a formula for success in the first four weeks of the season. Poor defense isn’t something the Indians can afford while they continue to try and find ways for their offense to come alive.
Worse than just the poor defense, is the poor fundamental play. On same level, range is something a player is born with or slowly declines as they age. That can’t be helped. But poor decision making and poor fundamentals becomes even more unacceptable when the Indians continue to struggle at so many other aspects of the game.
Playing the game in a sloppy manner, and struggling to score runs is not a formula for success. Along with added pressure on their strong starting pitching, it creates a bad product to watch. The Indians were fortunate to come back and win Sunday’s game, but so far that has been the exception, not the rule. Too many times the Tribe has fallen behind early in the game, just to quietly go to sleep in the later innings and on their way to another defeat. When the Indians aren’t playing a fun style of sound baseball, it’s a poor product to watch live or on television.
Photo: Phil Long/AP Photo