Finding the Center of the Indians Defensive Struggles

The Indians wake up this morning at 38-43, nine games back of the Kansas City Royals and one of Major League Baseball’s most disappointing teams at the halfway mark of the season.

Despite winning five in a row, and making up four games in the standings in five days, the Tribe lost the last two games of their 10-game road trip in Pittsburgh and are still nine games back of first place. They’re just 4.5 games back of the last Wild Card spot, but five teams are between them and that spot, making the climb to the playoffs a very difficult one in the second half. Unfortunately, if you look down, Cleveland is just two games ahead of Oakland’s pace for the worst record in the American League.

Needless to say, this isn’t what the Indians expected when they were scoffing at Sports Illustrated jinxes in March.

One aspect of the Indians that was supposed to be better this season was their team defense. Last year, the Indians were one of the worst defenses assembled since 2000. With Asdrubal Cabrera removed from the roster, Carlos Santana no longer trying to play third base and now settled into first base and Michael Bourn working with a track coach all offseason, the Indians and their fans had hopes of being an average defense.

The Indians are improved, but they aren’t average. Actually, they haven’t had an average defense since 2008. Each year since, the Indians have been 24th or lower in Def rating.

Per fangraphs, Def is defined as, “the combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average (fielding runs) and positional value relative to other positions (positional adjustment). Def is a useful statistic to consider because saving a run in left field is easier than saving a run at second base because the average baseline of performance is much lower.”

The Kansas City Royals are the gold standard of defense, leading baseball in Def with a 40.3 rating. They led all of baseball last season, too. Cleveland is 27th overall, with a -15.0 rating. Just the Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox are worse.

If the Indians want to get back into contention this season, or any time in the near future, improving the team’s defense seems to be the biggest area to improve still. New age statistics may provide a more in-depth look at ways to evaluate defense, but the old adage that “good teams are built up the middle,” remains true.

Indians pitchers are some of the worst in all of baseball. As a group, they’ve made five errors and have -6 defensive runs saved (DRS). Fangraphs defines DRS as, “a defensive statistic calculated by The Fielding Bible, an organization run by John Dewan, that rates individual players as above or below average on defense. Since DRS is measured in runs, it can be compared easily with a player’s offensive contributions.”

That means the Indians’ pitchers have cost themselves six runs this season. Only the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres are worse. Credit to the Tribe though, they were the worst group of fielding pitchers for most of the first half of the season.

Cleveland’s catcher position is a solid spot of defense. Since the upgrade to Yan Gomes in 2013, the Tribe has been good behind the dish. A year ago, Gomes was 11th in Def after a very poor first five weeks of the season. Considering his knee injury in early April, his sample size is still small to evaluate on its own. Collectively, the catcher position though—mostly Gomes and Roberto Perez—has a Def of 6.1. That’s good enough for 17th overall, or right around average. Individually, both Gomes (3.3) and Perez (3.1) are positive defenders.

One belief entering spring training was that Jason Kipnis would be much improved defensively this season, now that he was no longer battling an oblique injury. In 2014, Kipnis was one of the worst second baseman in baseball, defensively. This year, Kipnis has demonstrated a noticeable improvement. He’s ninth of 22 qualified second baseman, with a Def of 3.4, and 11th in DRS, or slightly above average.

Indians’ shortstops have been quite sporadic this year. The group consists of Jose Ramirez, Mike Aviles and Francisco Lindor. As a group, Tribe shortstops sport a -0.7 Def, only 25th of 30 teams, but a DRS of 1, good enough for 12th. Ramirez, one of the pieces that was supposed to be a defensive upgrade for 2015, was a major disappointment, registering a -2.0 Def and -2 DRS. Aviles has a -0.6 Def and 1 DRS in his 162.0 innings at shortstop.

Lindor, the Indians prized prospect and highly-touted defender, has already improved the shortstop position. In 158.0 innings, Lindor has a 1.7 Def rating and 2 DRS. While it is a small sample size still, Lindor’s reputation as a very good defensive player, and the early statistics, lead one to believe that shortstop will finally become a stronger position for the Indians.

But center field becomes the area where the Indians are truly a mess. One of the most important positions on the field, the Indians are one of the worst. As a team, the Indians have a -6.5 Def, making them 27th of 30 teams and a DRS of -2, 21st of 30 teams. Cleveland actually saw the best defensive center field in baseball this season on their last road trip when they watched Kevin Kiermaier glide around the Tropicana Dome.

Bourn no longer glides. Before the Indians signed him, Bourn was the best defensive center fielder in 2012. Now, he sports a -4.0 Def and 1 DRS. He’s 21st of 26 qualified center fielders in Def and 14th of 26 in DRS. The disparity, combined with a -4.9 UZR (a metric that evaluates range), indicates that Bourn makes the play when it is hit to him, but he doesn’t cover the ground an average center fielder should cover. That track coach didn’t make Bourn faster. Father time is winning against offseason workouts.

And for anyone believing that Michael Brantley is the answer in center field, you’re incorrect. Among center fielders playing 140 innings or more, Brantley has a -1.7 Def, good enough for 30th of 47 players. Bourn is 33rd in the same measure. Brantley has a -1 DRS and a -2.0 UZR. He may be hampered by the back injury that has been rumored to bother him the entire first half, but he’s very comparable to Bourn and if he’s an improvement—it is just slightly.

What it proves is two things: First, if the Indians want to make another major improvement to their defense, it has to be in center field and secondly, the answer is not Brantley. Brantley is actually a slightly below average left fielder, but considering his offensive prowess, his subpar defense is quite tolerable. It does make the need of a quality, defensive center fielder all that much more important, however.

Bourn is the serious issue in the plight of the Tribe’s problems. A huge liability defensively, he doesn’t provide offense the way he used to. Each year as a Tribesman, Bourn has produced worse offensively. This year, he’s hitting just .235 and no longer does he play versus left-handed pitchers. An offensive liability and a defensive liability, on a team that struggles in each aspect, makes Bourn the epicenter of many of the Tribe’s problems.

That’s before taking into account the $13.5 million he’s making in 2015 and the $14 million commitment in 2016. Bourn is hurting the Indians at the plate, in the field and in the wallet.

Despite his attempts, Bourn is not getting quicker. He’s only slowing the Indians down. If the Tribe wants to ever become the average defense they likely need to be to be a serious contender and support their pitching staff, they’re going to have to strongly consider getting Bourn off their roster and replacing him with a younger, faster center fielder.

Photo: Getty Images

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