Second Thoughts Game #116: Cleveland 6, NY Yankees 10
Cleveland Defense on the Defensive
The league-wide respect for a one Derek Jeter is profound. As an above-average hitter who played Shortstop in New York for the entirety of his career, Derek Jeter's respect is so wide-spread that the official scorer deemed it insufficient that Derek Jeter merely tie Honus Wagner for 6th on the all-time hit list. Jeter thrice-blest shall, instead, ascend from the plane of the mortal and become the first player in major league history to ever tie Honus Wagner for 6th on the all-time hit list twice. In the first inning, Jeter hit a weak infield grounder up the middle to Cleveland shortstop Jose Ramirez, who threw it on-target to first baseman Carlos Santana. Santana then promptly dropped the throw, Jeter was safe, and for the hoi polloi, such an encounter would likely have been ruled an error. However, this encounter was ruled a hit, tying Jeter and Wagner until such a time as the league office overrules the decision, allowing Jeter to accomplish the historic feat for a second time.
This moment of excellence in Jeteration is indicative, not only of Jeter's immense clout among official scorers, but also of the heavily trying state of the Indians defense in 2014. Before the season, things looked merely bad; Michael Brantley was coming off a 10-run-below-average season, Asdrubal Cabrera had endured a poor, Santana had given no hope he could be defensively competent anywhere on the diamond, Nick Swisher was an approximately average first baseman, Kipnis had major range issues, and even Michael Bourn, purported to be a defensive wizard, had injury issues. Things were grim before the season, but squinting and selective application of projections toward Bourn, David Murphy, and Yan Gomes might have led one to believe that the team, if all three played to their potential and the other defenders had a non-zero range - if everything went perfectly, in other words - that the team might be only a few runs below the league average, rather than the 3rd-worst in the AL (per FanGraphs' Defense metric) that they were in 2013.
Put obliquely, Cleveland's defense certainly defied expectations.
As of the beginning of Friday's game, Cleveland was without debate one of the two worst defensive teams in the league next to the Houston Astros, and most reasonable arguments would concede that Cleveland is indeed the worst. In terms of the same FanGraphs 'Defense' metric - a holistic statistic - regards Cleveland as only the 2nd-worst team, and at 64.6 runs below average, this statistic puts Cleveland five runs better than the Astros (69.4). This valuation is perhaps unduly generous. By Defensive Runs Saved, Cleveland is 30th in the league at 79 runs worse than league average - approximately eight full wins below .500 due to their defense alone, and 38 runs worse than the 29th-ranked Tigers at 41 runs below average. DRS suggests, then, that not only is Cleveland the worst defensive team in the majors, they are nearly twice as bad as the second-worst team.
Ultimate Zone Rating is more charitable to the Indians, placing them at 30th, but placing them only 60.3 runs below league average, and only four runs worse than the 29th-ranked Astros. These two metrics - which are two of the most prominent metrics in existence, feuding sabermetric houses - have come to agreement that the Cleveland Indians are the worst defensive team in the majors. This problem stems not from their manifold errors, but from hits - like Jeter's on Friday - that are not ruled as errors.
Errors have been no help for Cleveland, to be sure: their 89 errors are the most in baseball. Yet while they are not sure-handed, there is no team in the majors with fewer than 52 errors, and the median (the average of ranks 15-16) is 66.5 errors per team; given that there is a gap of only 23 error plays between the worst team in the majors and an average team, and given that any individual play is unlikely to itself account for a run, UZR holds that errors have cost the Indians only 9.6 relative to league average; substantial, to be sure, approximately one full win, but only a small fraction of the 60 runs below average that UZR rates Cleveland overall. The facet of UZR (and DRS) that most vehemently condemns Cleveland is the range - the plays that were almost made.
When Jose Ramirez replaced Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, one thing stuck out to this author personally. Jose Ramirez was making plays in places that simply seemed mad, in places that Asdrubal simply would never have made. The area directly behind second base, entirely neglected by Cabrera, was occasionally filled by Jose Ramirez making a play - plays that a shortstop with average to above-average range would make. This, and its equivalents across the diamond, is where Cleveland has suffered the most - not in the obvious mistakes, but in the near-successes. According to UZR, Cleveland's range alone put them 51.2 runs below league average - eighteen runs worse than the second-worst Pirates.
UZR deals with errors, but it separates range runs from error runs. DRS's range sub-category, Plays Made (rPM), does not siphon out errors, but instead includes them in a holistic play-making category. What is fairly astonishing is that, while DRS's overall rating of the Indians is -79, the subcategory rPM is -77. In other words, were it not for the Indians' complete inability to make putouts, be they flyouts or groundouts, on balls put in play, they would be very nearly an average team defensively. That fact is neither consolation nor redemption for a league-worst defensive team, but it remains incredibly interesting. Consider briefly the subcategory of DRS called 'Stolen Base' runs - it measures the defense's (read: pitcher's and catcher's) ability to either throw out base stealers or prevent them from stealing to begin with - this is one of the five subcategories of DRS listed on FanGraphs. The Cleveland Indians are the best team in the majors in throwing out base stealers at +6 DRS. So overwhelming is their failure to make plays that even the sterling virtue that is Yan Gomes's arm cannot stem the swelling tide.
Yan Gomes is a near-elite defender on the worst defensive team in the majors. At 10.7 Defensive runs above average (FanGraphs), he is the thirteenth-best defender in the majors, ahead of Kyle Seager and behind Salvador Perez. Whatever the manifold flaws of this team, and whatever problems he may have had with throwing errors earlier in the season, Gomes has the fourth-highest Caught Stealing percentage in the majors at 34.2%. Gomes is not what ails the defense.
Rather than engage in a player-by-player breakdown of the defense's woes, it might be merely sufficient to note that Gomes is the only above-average defender - relative to league average using FanGraphs's Defense metric - who has more than 100 plate appearances. The other players with 100 plate appearances on the team - Swisher, Murphy, Chisenhall, Brantley, Kipnis, Bourn, Santana, Raburn, Cabrera, and Aviles - are all regarded as below-average defenders. There is one bright spot on this team defensively, beyond Ramirez's inconsistent but occasionally aesthetically pleasing moments. Were it not for Yan Gomes, this team's defense would be scratching at history. As it were, they may yet be.
The Indians have no chance of breaking the all-time error record. The all-time error record for a single season for a shortstop is 119 by Billy Shindle in 1890; the Indians' (post-game) 91 errors would have difficulty clearing even Shindle's bar, let alone the team record: the highest mark of the last fifty years is 199 errors by the 1974 Cubs, to say nothing of the dozens of 500+ error seasons of the 19th century.
In terms of DRS, however, the Indians are certainly nearing the history books. DRS has tracked defensive performance since 2003; a relatively new metric, to be sure, but one that will have tracked twelve seasons, or 360 team-seasons, by the end of the 2014 season. It remains only early August, but the Cleveland Indians and their 79 runs below average already ranks 11th-worst, with 46 games yet to play. The worst team by DRS in that time, the 2005 Yankees, ranked at -115 DRS. In terms of the worst sub-categories, the 2014 Indians' Plays Made (rPM), at -77 before the game, ranks 5th-worst in the past twelve years with a third of the season yet to be played; the worst team during that time was the 2005 Royals at -110 rPM. History is neither guaranteed nor, at this point, particularly likely, yet the pace of ignominious history is disconcertingly near the Indians' own pace.
Trevor Bauer pitched poorly on Friday, without a doubt. Issuing five free passes (4 BB, 1 HBP) relative to only three strikeouts, his game was far from pristine. Yet on a day when his single-game groundball rate was the fourth-highest of any start in his career (second-highest of 2014), he was rewarded for doing what every pitcher is instructed to do - keep the ball on the ground - with Yankees hitters getting on base six of thirteen times the ball was put in play. The pitcher is the single most-important player on the field when it comes to run prevention, and on the whole, the Indians' pitching staff has prevented runs at a below-average rate. But when judging this Indians pitching staff, one must take incredible care not to use ERA as a panacea. There are facets of run prevention and defense that ERA simply does not capture. When Justin Masterson, elite groundball pitcher, was traded, there must be reasons to rationalize the trade beyond his surface-level 5.51 ERA on the season. Genuine and compelling reasons to do so exist, but his ERA, inflated from playing in front of the Indians' defense, is barely - if at all - among them.
Yet the futility of the Indians' defense raises one specter, one overriding question that emerges from this logical flotsam: how on Earth does Corey Kluber have a 2.55 ERA?
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Ramirez, Lindor, and maybe Urshela can be part of the solution, but some very tough decisions would have to be made about mssrs Kipnis, Chisenhall, Swisher, Santana, and Bourn. I personally think Brantley is fine in LF, and obviously, Gomes is good at C, and maybe Murphy is ok (w a good RH platoon partner) in RF.
I can't believe I'm writing this, but given the report above on the historical level of defensive ineptitude from the current bunch, maybe an all-rookie infield of Urshela, Lindor, Ramirez and Aguilar wouldn't be worse than what we have, and may be a lot better...?
"What concerned me is that after Santana dropped the throw, Bauer went completely to pieces. It looked like the botched play in the field destroyed his concentration because he suddeny couldn't throw a ball over the plate, walking three batters before the inning was over. He even walked a guy on four pitches with the bases loaded. "
That is exactly the issue I came here to address. Bauer melted down as he watched team clank do its thing behind him. Should he have shook it off - sure - he did after the first. However, at some point frustration simply can be overwhelming.
The key issue is how we are going to restructure this team to fix this problem - especially with the contractual obligations in place.
A lot of strikeouts.
I'd like to see a middle infield of Lindor and Ramirez next year.
Hard to believe the metrics have Brantley as a below average defensive outfielder. He's thrown out ten runners on the bases and he has good speed for a left fielder. I have not noticed him misplaying balls, taking bad routes that resulted in doubles that should have been caught, or making stupid or inaccurate throws that allow runners to move up.
What concerned me is that after Santana dropped the throw, Bauer went completely to pieces. It looked like the botched play in the field destroyed his concentration because he suddeny couldn't throw a ball over the plate, walking three batters before the inning was over. He even walked a guy on four pitches with the bases loaded.
Kluber would have shaken it off and methodically retired the next two hitters.