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Tribe Happenings: Indians lackluster defense in April hurt them

Tribe Happenings: Indians lackluster defense in April hurt them
The Indians defense was as poor as it has ever been in April. (Photo: AP)
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

A disastrous April

We are now a few days into May, and while April is thankfully in the review mirror, I just wanted to share some numbers to show just how bad the Indians were in April and how fortunate they were to even go 11-17 for the month.

Last year the Indians went 11-13 in April, an almost equally bad start, but there were more promising signs. Check out the stats with the offense for April in each year:

  Runs/Game AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO K/game
2013 5.0 .265 .333 .465 .798 .200 8.3
2014 3.9 .232 .313 .356 .669 .124 6.6
Change -1.1 -.033 -.020 -.109 -.129 -.076 +1.7

The numbers speak for themselves, but the Indians start offensively has been one of the big reasons for their early season struggles. Their inability to score runs this past April compared to last April is because they have been unable to hit for power and hit the home run something they lived on early last season. They hit 36 homers last April (1.5 HR/G) which was second best in all of baseball but only hit 19 homers this April (0.7 HR/G) which was 22nd in the league.

 Now, yes, Mark Reynolds was a big reason for the big power numbers last April as he hit eight of them, but they had a pretty balanced attack from the rest of the lineup as Carlos Santana had five, Ryan Raburn had four, Lonnie Chisenhall had three and seven other players each had two. This April the leader in home runs was Michael Brantley and the only other multi-homer efforts came from Jason Kipnis (3), Yan Gomes (3), Carlos Santana (3),Nick Swisher (2) and David Murphy (2).

 The Indians actually did an okay job of getting on base, but their station to station lineup along with a significant drop in power has meant they have often had to rely on three hits an inning to score even just one run. Considering they only hit .232 for the month you can see why it has been tough to string hits together and have a rally so they can score more runs.

 While the Indians struggled at the plate they actually struggled even more in the field. They were one of the worst fielding teams in baseball in April, though that should not come as much of a surpruse as the defensive issues continue to be a problem that has plagued them the last few seasons. There are no monthly defensive splits (at least not that I am aware of), so I have compiled the Indians numbers to date and extrapolated them over a full 162 game season in order to compare them with their 2013 defensive numbers.

This season they have 30 errors (2nd most in MLB) in 31 games which at this pace works out to 157 errors over a 162 game season. Last season they had 98 errors all season which was 11th most in MLB, so they are on pace to shatter that mark with almost 60 more errors this season. On top of that, the Indians have a -12.0 defensive runs saved mark after 31 games (27th in MLB) and projects to -62.7 runs saved for the season. Last year they had a -41.1 defensive runs saved number (27th in MLB) – so they are on pace to blow that poor mark out of the water as well.

Now, obviously some of these defensive issues will normalize over the course of the year, but the early season issues with the defense has really hurt the Indians and put a lot of extra strain on the pitching staff and had a big hand in several losses. For as inconsistent as some of the pitchers in the starting rotation were for the month, it actually performed as good or better than it did last April and the pitching staff as a whole was better thanks to a good showing from the bullpen:

2013 4.27 4.61 4.10 42.4% 8.1 3.7 0.6
2014 4.28 3.46 3.75 47.7% 9.1 3.7 3.8
Change -0.01 +1.15 +.035 +5.3% +1.0 NC +3.2

This past April the Indians struck out an additional batter per nine innings, saw a significant improvement in their fielding independent pitching line and a huge jump in their WAR number for the month compared to last April. Rating the pitching based entirely on WAR and FIP alone, the Indians were 7th best in all of MLB in both categories which shows that the pitching was more than adequate for the month. While the starting pitching needs to be more consistent one through five in the rotation, it was the combination of an atrocious defense and pop gun offense which lead to their April demise and poor record. The pitching is also what gives optimisim that the Indians can turn their record around rather quickly.

So far three games into May the defense is still awful, but the offense has started to pick up and the pitching continues to be very good. Meatloaf once sang that "two out of three ain’t bad" and if the Indians continue to get good showings from two of the three main components of the team then they could be in store for a good bounce back soon.

Defensive shortcomings continued

To add to what was noted above about the defense, the Indians really have few alternatives at the moment to correct the issue.

Right now they are locked into a starting outfield of Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and David Murphy, though they could possibly platoon Murphy more down the road if they really wanted to. The outfield defense has not been poor, but it has not been great either. Bourn has underwhelmed and Brantley and Murphy are just solid, unspectacular defenders. The Indians have a couple of promising outfield options in the minors but right now – barring injury – this is the regular outfield lineup that they will go with for the long haul at least for the rest of this season.

The infield defense has been where the Indians have really struggled. While everyone was worried about how Carlos Santana would handle playing third base, he has actually performed right around league average with a 0.0 defensive runs saved and -4.7 UZR/150. And for as much grief as Asdrubal Cabrera gets, his 1.3 defensive runs saved and -0.8 UZR/150 are in the upper half of shortstops in the league. The problem has been the right side of the infield as Jason Kipnis has been the worst defensive second baseman in baseball with a -4.0 defensive runs saved and -25.3 UZR/150 and Nick Swisher has been the worst defensive first baseman in baseball with a -5.9 defensive runs saved and -26.2 UZR/150.

With a well below average defensive combination of Kipnis-Swisher on the right side of the infield and an average to below average combination of Santana-Cabrera (and Lonnie Chisenhall) on the left side, that’s a poor way to support a starting pitching staff that has three horses in the rotation who are groundball pitchers.

The problem here is the Indians are kind of boxed in once again and can’t really do anything to change the performance. They have to hope the current players perform more to their career norms – though even those aren’t that great either. They are not going to remove Kipnis from second base and for the time being Swisher, Cabrera and Santana/Chisenhall are locked into their positions. They are committed to all of these players save for Cabrera beyond this season, so this may be a continual problem for them going forward.

The hope is that when Francisco Lindor takes over at shortstop and Yan Gomes gets back to playing defense like the Indians know he can that the defense will be much improved. It also bears watching to see how Jose Ramirezperforms at second base in Kipnis’ absence. Ramirez is a plus defender at second base and it will be interesting to see how he rates out for May assuming Kipnis is not back until the end of the month or beginning of June. If Ramirez shines then the Pandora’s Box may have been opened on a potential move of Kipnis to the outfield sometime down the road – though that is extremely premature at this point and even if they did consider such a change it probably would not happen until after this season.

Tomlin gets the call

The Indians could really not go wrong with whatever decision they made in choosing between Josh Tomlin andTrevor Bauer to replace Carlos Carrasco in the starting rotation. In the end they sided with Tomlin and he will make his season debut with the Indians on Tuesday night.

Tomlin, 29, was having an exceptional season at Triple-A Columbus where in five starts he was 2-1 with a 2.06 ERA and in 35.0 innings had allowed 22 hits, 9 walks and had 28 strikeouts. His last two starts were fantastic as he threw a combined 17.0 scoreless innings and allowed 9 hits, no walks and had 16 strikeouts. That ability to perform so well, pitch deep into games and dominate was enough for the Indians to side with him. It also did not hurt that he finished second in the competition this spring for the fifth starter’s spot to Carrasco, so the Indians are also probably extending a courtesy to him in that regard.

Tomlin has Major League experience and actually has enjoyed some success when he has been 100% healthy. His issues at the Major League level mostly stem from him pitching hurt, something he did for a lot of 2012 and at the tail end of 2011 which skew his overall numbers. The Indians want innings and someone who they can rely on to compete in the fifth spot in the rotation and are showing a lot of faith that Tomlin can be that guy for them.

It will be interesting to see how Tomlin does in Cleveland. He is more of a fly ball pitcher so the Indians below average defensive infield should not affect him as much as the other starters, but he also has average stuff and will really need to be on his A-game with the command and location of his entire arsenal to have consistent success. He also had an extremely low .211 BABIP and had a very high success rate of stranding runners (85.8%) at Columbus – not to mention a 3.67 FIP to boot – so it will be interesting to see how that performance translates to the big leagues.

As for Bauer, well, he will just need to continue pitching lights out at Columbus. Even in the wake of learning he was not getting the call up to Cleveland he pitched seven shutout innings on Saturday, so he definitely looks like he is still locked in with his focus - and he should be with Danny Salazar continuing to struggle with his consistency and unable to pitch deep into games.  If Bauer continues to pitch as he has and Salazar slips up in his next one or two outings, we might see another change to the rotation this month.

Kluber the Magnificent

Wow, Corey Kluber is turning into something special.  After a breakthrough performance last season when he went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA (3.30 FIP) and 8.3 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9, he is blowing those numbers out of the water this season and proving all of the experts right who predicted that last season was only the beginning to a very promising career.

Kluber, 28, is 2-3 with a 3.60 ERA in seven starts this season, but has a 9.6 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 2.73 FIP. His record-breaking outing on Sunday against the White Sox was ruined thanks to John Axford serving up a three-run homer in the ninth inning, but it still does not take away from how exceptional of an outing it was. In 8.0 innings he allowed just 3 hits, 2 walks and had a career-high 13 strikeouts.

The outing was right in line with his career best outing just two starts ago when he pitched a nine-inning complete game against the Royals and allowed an unearned run on 4 hits, no walks and had 11 strikeouts. His 13 strikeouts on Sunday tied him with C.C. SabathiaChuck Finley and Dave Burba for the club record for strikeouts in a game by an Indians pitcher at Progressive Field. His seven consecutive strikeouts from innings three through five set a club record, beating the previous mark of six held by Bob FellerBartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Mitch Talbot. With his 11 strikeout performance against the Royals and 13 strikeout performance against the White Sox he became the first Indians pitcher to strikeout 11 or more batters in consecutive home starts since Dennis Eckersley on August 13 and 23 in 1976.

Kluber is emerging into a James Shields-like horse in the rotation and may now be the Indians ace in the present and future. His emergence last season was a big reason for the Indians success as a team and will be the same this season and beyond if the Indians envision any thoughts about making it to the postseason.

Parting shots

Catcher George Kottaras had a great season debut for the Indians on Sunday hitting solo home runs in his first two at bats of the season. He is the first Indians batter to homer in his first plate appearance with the club since Kevin Kouzmanoff on September 2, 2006 at Texas, and is the first Indians player in club history to hit a home run in each of his first two career plate appearances with the club. He is with the team while Yan Gomes is away on paternity leave, but that kind of showing could be enough to make the Indians rethink things with the bench when Gomes comes back. It also shows how meaningless his .080 batting average was in 28 minor league at bats at Triple-A Columbus. … With Michael Bourn ailing from another hamstring injury - though not on the disabled list or expected to go on it - the Indians have temporarily called up Nyjer Morgan. In his first game back with the club he racked up two hits and is hitting .357 in limited time (28 at bats).

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

May 6, 2014 - 9:15 AM EDT
Agree 1B would be odd for Kipnis, especially with Swisher there. Could move one of them to DH but bumping out Chiz/Santana then.

Really the only way to get Kipnis off 2B is to move one of Bourn. I don't believe it's as impossible as some suggest, though it definitely won't be easy. Seen worse contracts moved though.
May 5, 2014 - 10:48 PM EDT
Francona needs to stop stuffing his mouth with gum and start thinking and managing.
May 5, 2014 - 9:59 PM EDT
Get this gas truck out of here. Allen to closer.
May 5, 2014 - 7:25 PM EDT
Maybe Francona is alternating playing every other game at 2B between Aviles and Ramirez to see who performs the best between them.
MT88 inb WI
May 5, 2014 - 5:51 PM EDT
Not sure why Aviles at 2B tonight. They should let JRam play everyday while up here.
May 5, 2014 - 4:46 PM EDT
Good question with regard to where Kipnis fits in the outfield. It is why it is still very early to suggest such a change or even really start thinking about it as there are so many factors in play. But if Kipnis continues his Carlos Baerga impersonation at second base, the Indians are going to have to consider a move to another position. Maybe even first? Though that would be odd....
May 5, 2014 - 4:38 PM EDT
Love that Tribe Happenings
May 5, 2014 - 4:33 PM EDT
Gomes back in the lineup tonight. Giambi back on the 15 day dl. Maybe by being on the DL I hope he decides to retire. Aviles at 2nd base tonight.
May 5, 2014 - 4:33 PM EDT
If they move Kipnis to the outfield where would they put him? He won't replace Brantley or Bourn. We can't move Bourn's contract the way he's been playing and Kipnis doesn't look like a centerfielder anyway. He doesn't look like a right fielder, either, as he doesn't have the arm. Plus, I like what Murphy is doing so far and Raburn hits left-handed pitching better than Kip.

May 5, 2014 - 4:31 PM EDT
Think calling the defense "lackluster" is putting it bit too nicely...

Really interested in seeing how Gomes does now that his wife has given birth. Not trying to give him a free pass/make excuses but hoping that some of the boneheaded miscues may have been somehow related to the stress of a child birth at home. He's too good to have been this bad so something had to be up...

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