Indians Improve Starting Rotation, Indirectly

The Cleveland Indians pulled a dual surprise by signing both Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and while they’re unlikely to complete the trifecta by signing Kyle Lohse, the recent Bourn acquisition has people thinking about the Indians as a dark-horse American League playoff contender. Everybody likes an underdog, the Indians have put themselves in the headlines, and they do possess an abundance of talent. The Indians, at least, look to be something approximating a .500 ballclub, and given the error bars that come with win-total projections, the playoffs aren’t out of the question.

When you look closer, the Indians seem to be well below the Tigers, and about on par with the Royals and the White Sox in the Central. Despite everything the Indians have done, people still question the starting rotation, and for legitimate reasons. In my Tuesday chat queue there were several concerns expressed regarding the Indians’ starters, and consensus seems to be that the Indians don’t have enough pitching. They did add Brett Myers and Trevor Bauer, but they still have a rotation fronted by Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez.

It’s true that starting pitching isn’t a Cleveland team strength. If it were, the Indians would look a lot better than they do, and we wouldn’t be talking about them as a dark horse. The Indians have not dramatically and directly upgraded their rotation with new personnel, and God knows what Masterson and Jimenez will deliver. What the Indians have done is upgrade their staff indirectly, especially with the Bourn signing. This is basically a post about the Indians’ team defense.

A year ago, the Indians finished last in baseball in UZR, at -57 runs. By DRS, they were third-worst, at -51 runs. Not coincidentally, the Indians’ pitchers posted a collective 4.40 FIP but a 4.79 ERA. The staff was already mediocre, but the team defense made it look worse. Given the exact same personnel going forward, one would expect the Indians to regress closer to the mean, but the Indians’ defense was a problem.

This offseason, the Indians have brought in Bourn and Swisher, and they also acquired Drew Stubbs in a trade. Bourn is one of the game’s premier defensive center fielders, Stubbs was one of them, too, and Swisher is a versatile sort who’s adequate at a few positions. I think it’s worthwhile to attempt a quick and dirty Indians team UZR projection.

We can skip over catcher, as UZR doesn’t make an attempt. My suspicion is that Carlos Santana is an overall negative, but he’s not changing, and we’ll just write this off as a catcher mystery. Lucky for us, they didn’t make any changes at catcher, so assuming something like similar performance seems pretty safe. Let’s move on.

First base looks like it could be occupied by both Swisher and Mark Reynolds, with Reynolds maybe playing more often. Swisher’s record is fine; Reynolds’ record is worse. Put together, I think we can give these guys a -5. Understand now that we’re estimating, and of course these targets are truthfully ranges. A -5 is more like 0 to -10.

Second base will once again be Jason Kipnis, and because I don’t want to get into too much detail, I’ll just say that I’m giving Kipnis and the other second basemen an overall -5 as well. When we move on to shortstop, with Asdrubal Cabrera, I come up with a -10. Cabrera is a good hitter, for a shortstop. It’s a good thing that Cabrera is a good hitter, for a shortstop. In the field, he’s a problem.

Third base looks to be a platoon between Mike Aviles and Lonnie Chisenhall, and as the lefty batter, Chisenhall should play more often. Here, I came up with another -5. You’re free to disagree with any of these numbers, but you’re probably not going to disagree by a huge margin.

So the infield is still something of a defensive mess, observed overall. That’s without even considering Santana’s work behind the plate. But the outfield is where the Indians could shine. Let’s group the corner positions together. These should be occupied by Swisher, Stubbs, and Michael Brantley. Swisher is getting older, but his defensive track record in the outfield is pretty good. Stubbs’ numbers with Cincinnati were great, and he played in the middle. Brantley has been a center fielder, but the numbers don’t speak kindly of him. A corner position seems to be more up his alley. As a group, I’m putting these guys at +5, although it could be more like +10 depending on what you think of Stubbs and Brantley in easier positions. I’m trying to be conservative.

And then there’s Bourn in the middle. Bourn’s UZR last year was an insane +22. Before that, it was -6, and before that, it was +19. If you look at the UZR and the DRS figures, I think +10 is a reasonable estimate for this coming season. We have a good idea that Bourn is outstanding in the field, and he shouldn’t lose his legs over the course of one offseason.

Combine all those numbers and you get -10 runs. Of course that could be 0 runs, or -20 runs, or anywhere in between. There’s lots of error, here, and we don’t know how often the backups will play, or how the team will take advantage of its flexibility. But while the team defense doesn’t project to be incredible, it does project to be an awful lot better than it was a year ago, on the order of tens of runs. If you just want to use the numbers as presented, then the Indians could go from a -57 UZR to a -10 UZR. That’s a difference of 47 runs saved.

As you know, baseball isn’t about individual components, like power hitting or starting pitching. It’s about overall value, based on run production and run prevention. There are concerns about how the Indians’ pitchers will contribute to the run prevention, but the defense should make a stronger contribution, helping the pitchers out. To say that the Indians’ rotation isn’t good enough is to say that the Indians will allow too many runs. But what the front office has done is add the equivalent of one or two front-of-the-rotation starters.

That’s a skewed way of looking at it, but think about what a 47-run upgrade looks like. Steamer projects Masterson for a 4.12 ERA in 201 innings. Subtract 47 runs and now you have a 2.01 ERA projection. Masterson and Jimenez are projected for 4.12 and 4.46 ERAs. Subtract 20 runs from each and you’re left with 3.22 and 3.51. The advantage of better defense doesn’t apply to just one or two guys; it works across the board, a little bit for everybody. But the run prevention situation wouldn’t look better had the Indians upgraded to a couple strong starters, and put together another lousy defense behind them. Better pitchers generate more outs and throw more innings. Better defenders allow the pitchers to generate more outs and throw more innings.

The Indians’ rotation is still not good in isolation, and everybody’s got question marks. Bauer, as much of a phenom as he is, can’t be trusted yet to throw enough strikes, and I don’t need to review the issues with the major guys. We don’t know how Myers is going to re-adjust to the rotation, and this is a reason why the Indians still don’t seem like a probable playoff contender. But the Indians’ pitchers are going to be more effective going forward, because now the Indians’ pitchers will be pitching in front of these guys:

Make your rotation 40 runs better and you make your run prevention 40 runs better. Make your defense 40 runs better and you make your run prevention 40 runs better. The Indians might not have brought in a ton of new pitching talent, but they are providing aid for the talent they have.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

44 Responses to “Indians Improve Starting Rotation, Indirectly”

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  1. Pinstripe Wizard says:

    I understand that they have increased their defensive value, but does this really help Masterson that much? The infield is still poor defensively,and he’s a sinkerballer. I’m assuming if he’s giving up flyballs he really isn’t on his game.

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  2. Jaker says:

    Has anyone looked at correlations between team UZR and team ERA?

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  3. AJS says:

    Jeff, this article doesn’t add up for me.

    You’ve made the case that the Indians’ infield defense is still a mess, and that the outfield defense is much better. Fair enough.

    But then you suggest this will make a huge difference for a guy like Masterson, who is obviously a big ground ball guy. Same with Myers, and even Ubaldo to some degree (at least before last season). Doesn’t that dilute the impact of improving outfield defense? And if anything, given the makeup of their pitching staff, shouldn’t the Indians have focused more on infield defense than outfield defense?

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      Well, even groundballers still give up fly balls 40-50% of the time, and those distributions won’t be even. SO on a day where Masterson is on point, it won’t make much of a difference, but he’ll also be on point. On a day where he’s not, he’ll be giving up fly balls to a good defense instead of a bad one. If you save that staff 40 runs on their bad days, you’re going to win some more games.

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    • This is too sloppy, but a year ago, the Indians were in the middle of the pack in team groundball rate. Obviously the outfield defense will mean less for Masterson than it will for other guys, but it’s going to be a big help, and it looks like the outfield was easier for them to address than the infield. Only so much they could’ve done, for example, at shortstop.

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      • isavage30 says:

        Yes, the Indians staff is no longer that groundball-heavy. Along with Masterson, Myers/Carrasco are to an extent, but Zach McAllister, 91-mph Ubaldo and Bauer in particular will likely benefit a lot from the improved outfield. As would the bullpen, other than Joe Smith.

        I would expect Aviles to get some work at shortstop as well, with Asdrubal DHing sometimes. If Francona wants to really get creative, he could do this when Masterson pitches.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          I wonder if they would play Aviles at Short on the days Masterson and Myers pitch. I would think they would want to leave Cabrera at shortstop for reasons that are not necesarilly about winning that days game. Ithink Cabrera has greater perceived trade value to othr teams if he is seen as a shortstop. If you start moving him around and putting him at DH, 3rd etc., he all the sudden does not look quite as appealing. Not that other teams can’t look up his defensive numbers but I think even teams fall in love with good bats, with good enough gloves to stuff at shortstop.

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    • This guy says:

      I think Jeff’s examples went over your head.

      He’s not suggesting Masterson will get drastically better, results-wise. He’s making an example using one (and two) pitcher(s) to show how ~40 runs saved on defense can be viewed as equivalent to huge improvements in the starting rotation.

      And perhaps an improved infield defense would be more beneficial to some Indians pitchers, but you’ve got Kipnis, Cabrera, and to a lesser extent, Chisenhall locked up as young cornerstones of the franchise. The outfield was a much easier place to make improvements.

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  4. Forrest Gumption says:

    Why wouldn’t they use Swisher primarily at 1B and Reynolds at DH? The step backwards defensively from having Brantley-Bourn-Stubbs with Swisher at 1B seems pretty dramatic to Brantley-Bourn-Swisher with Reynolds at 1B.

    I know Stubbs stinks at the plate, but defensively he’s really good, isn’t playing him and his bad bat the lesser of two evils instead of playing Reynolds with his power and bad glove at 1B? It makes too much sense just to stick Reynolds at DH, in my opinion.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      I agree with this. My guess is that they’ll be rotating people all over the place to give rest, including putting Santana at 1B/DH a lot with Marson behind the plate. As a White Sox fan, hopefully Reynolds ends up with the lion’s share of innings at first.

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    • YanksFanInBeantown says:

      Reynolds is nowhere near as bad at 1B as Stubbs is at hitting, especially when you remember that Stubbs will be playing LF, not CF, for the Tribe.

      Stubbs had a 47 wRC+ against RHP last year. You can’t get that from a corner OF and expect to compete.

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  5. Stuck in a Slump says:

    The Indians have already announced that Swisher will be playing 1B and Reynolds will primarily be DHing. When asked about the move Swisher stated this: “That’s (1B) where I thought I was going to be playing when I signed”.

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  6. jdbolick says:

    40 runs is a lot to attribute to the outfield changes. To get that far I think you not only have to assume that the outfield will be a lot better, but that the infield will also be better than they were last season. Arbitrarily taking runs from individual pitchers and mentioning highly unrealistic ERAs was also pretty bizarre. The defense also won’t help Cleveland with the hideous walk rates their pitchers post.

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    • thank you for reading

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    • kjn says:

      I believe the point of taking runs from individual pitchers was simply to provide some hard numbers to help readers understand what that difference would mean. Based on my calcs, 40 runs would have reduced their team ERA from 4.78 to 4.53.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      Yeah, I think Sullivan is underestimating the incremental UZR losses you accrue during a year of having to occasionally field starstruck AAAA players and out-of-position veterans.

      Eg, the Indians’ 3Bs posted a UZR worse than -14 last year and, while you’d expect Aviles to be better than the guys Cleveland fielded there, he’s been pretty terrible at the position in his limited time there in the past. Asdrubal Cabrera is about a -10 fielder at short, but the fill-ins in very limited playing time brought the overall number down to -16.5.

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      • Nats Fan says:

        Aviles makes those bench innings on defense a little better than what they used last year. I think the infield will be better than last season overall because of the better bench, Swisher at first and some small improvement from Chisenhall and Kipnis and maybe the others.

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  7. AJT says:

    Makes me wonder how much Choo moving to CF will change the Reds pitching staff.

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  8. Why a -5 for Kipnis/2B? His UZR last year was -0.1 and he’s shown improvements at the position since switching from the outfield near the end of 2009. It seems he’s due a better mark than -5.

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    • I was trying to be conservative. You can go ahead and give him a boost; it doesn’t make much of a difference.

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      • It would make a very big difference if Kipnis’ mother were reading this. She wouldn’t like her baby being called a below average fielder. Why won’t you ever think of the players’ moms when you write about them?!

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    • Jeff was trying to be conservative. He showed with the Bourn example of the wide range that even a good fielder might fall to. So how do we know that the -0.1 that Kipnis had in 2012 isn’t the high of his range, perhaps he’s lower.

      However, to your point, Jason, Kipnis had a 3 DRS/Year in 2012, suggesting maybe 0 is a better estimate for him.

      But back to Jeff’s point, Kipnis had a UZR/150 of -23.3 in 2011. Sure, he’s new to the position and getting better (hopefully), but given the Bourn example and how badly he played in 2011, I think Jeff’s estimate was on the mark, particularly since he noted that it really means a range of 0 to -10, which covers what you were arguing for.

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      • Thanks for the additional info.

        I know Jeff’s estimate is reasonable, and I know why he chose to be conservative (because the overall numbers STILL point to a big improvement. I guess I (perhaps biased as both an Indians fan and a Jason) just see 0 as a reasonable estimate, which would give a range of 5 to -5, with Jeff’s number still fitting into it.

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        • Antonio bananas says:

          Jeff could have been more conservative. Could have made 1950s pop culture references and called Bourn “colored”.

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  9. Gareth says:

    The defensive projections did come across as conservative and to still get a 40 run difference is amazing. Thanks for your analysis Jeff.

    As an Indians fan, I am so happy the Black hole we had in left field for 10 years is finally addressed. Michaels, Delucci, Francisco, Carrera, Canzler and many more over the years have made the position a wasteland (Posters: please feel free to mention others that I forgot).

    I’ll never forget that The Indians employed Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon far too many times in Left field in 2012 (I sometimes still wake up with cold sweats). Our Best Defensive player last year (Michael Brantley) is now our left fielder and is projected as one of the WORSE Defensive outfielders for us, comparably. I can live with that.

    Asdrubal Cabrera is maddening. He is a talented Shortstop and makes a ton of difficult plays look easy (See: ESPN Highlight reel). The issues however come when he occasionaly has a mental relapse for the basic plays. He also has weight issues which exaserbate his on field issues as the season progresses, hampering his movement. Hopefully being on a competitive team again will drive him to maintain his weight and concentration.

    1st Base has als been a revolving door since Hall of famer Ryan Garko left the organization in 2008. The depth we have for 2013 is frankly a breath of fresh air. Swisher, Reynolds, Santana, Giambi, McGuinnes, McDade, Laporta, Aguilar. Not Too Bad. Especially over the All glove no hit Casey Kotchman who was the primary starter there last year.

    I could quibble and say we need a better Catcher as a back up, a quality Lefty for the Bullpen and a few good starting pitchers. But Hey. The fact is they have already gone from Zero to Hero this offseason and as a fan I am fully on board to enjoy the ride in 2013.

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    • Amen. If you’d told me in September that PECOTA would project 80 wins for the team and THEN they would sign Michael Bourn too, I’d have wondered if the team had been sold and moved to Brooklyn (oh god, that would suck…). I think the Tribe is still a ways behind Detroit, but within the margin of error, so to speak.

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  10. Mike Green says:

    Kipnis and Cabrera are marginally on the positive side for their careers according to DRS. The career disparity for Cabrera between UZR and DRS is large, and makes one wonder. The subjective reports suggest that he is probably a little below average taking into account both his glaring weaknesses and his strengths.

    If you use Aviles in a platoon/late inning defensive sub role and Swisher at first base, it looks to me like the Indian defence overall should be a smidge above average. My theory is that in addition to having value of its own, it may assist in the development of a young pitcher.

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  11. Loved your article, mostly.

    I agree with the comment about just applying the full 47 runs saved to one or two pitchers. Presumably, it should be split across the pitching staff. A better shorthand look at ERA improvement would have been to split the 47 runs by 5 for the five starters, reducing 9 runs from each pitchers total.

    To be more precise, I would then take the 9 runs and multiply it by the pitcher’s expected IP/G then divide by 9 (for the total number of innings in a game, normally). But, of course, you noted all along the impreciseness of what you are doing, so the above is the more appropriate step.

    Though most pitchers don’t pitch that many innings anymore so we could just assume 6 IP out of 9, making the run reduction 6 runs for each starting pitcher. This would put Masterson from 4.12 to 3.85 and Ubaldo from 4.45 to 4.17, or roughly 0.27 per starting pitcher.

    Still, I think most people are missing the big point of your article: the Indians greatly improved their “pitching” by boosting their defense greatly. 47 runs reduction in RA results in roughly 4-5 wins for the team. That pushes an average two WAR pitcher to roughly a 3 WAR pitcher, a 3 WAR to a 4.

    I would also note here that BP’s research on success in going deep into the playoffs found that it was the great defensive teams that did better relatively. So improved defense is clearly a key component of any team that hopes to be a regularly competitive team. Jeff shows here the the Indians took a huge leap in improvement, and that’s by his conservative estimating. This is great news for Indian’s fans.

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    • This guy says:

      Jeff’s point with applying the runs saved to two pitchers (as a rhetorical tool!) was a way to show how upgrading the defense can save as many runs as adding two aces, because the resulting numbers for the two pitchers were ace-like performances.

      I’m not sure why people found this so difficult to understand.

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      • B N says:

        It’s not overly hard to understand, though didn’t you kind of wonder why he didn’t just present what last year’s ERA would look like with 47 less runs scored? We could have just as easily titled this article: “Indians improve relievers to god-like levels” and talk about how if their closer scored 47 less runs he would have somehow scored over a dozen runs for his team while on the mound (since his ERA would be strongly negative…).

        Improving your defense is not the same as acquiring an ace starter. Why? Short series. Eventually, if you get into the playoffs, only your top 3 starters matter much. And each pitcher condenses all of their WAR into about 30 starts (rather than 162). If you have a good player and you’re hitting the playoffs, do you want the guy who will save you 0.1 runs per game (which is a great +16.2 UZR) or the guy who saves 0.54 runs per game (which is that same runs saved, spread over only 30 starts).

        While I’m not saying every team should sign guys on the assumption that they’ll make the playoffs (especially if they’re the Indians this year), it’s also not accurate to say that it’s like signing an ace starter any more than it’s like signing a closer who never gives up a run, ever. It’s a nice rhetorical device, but at the end of of the day, I want to see what that means in terms of the aggregate performance (since that’s where we’ll see it).

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      You wouldn’t only look at starters, it helps relievers too. Look at total innings for the entire staff to find a run saved/inning.

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  12. WahooManiac says:

    Ill never forget the “groundball” throw from Shelly Duncan on Opening Day last year. The ole ten footer. We never have to see that again, THANK GOD. Go Tribe!

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  13. Mr. Matsuzaka says:

    Hey, maybe I can help the Indians starting rotation!

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  14. Antonio bananas says:

    Fun article. As a Braves fan I could tell the difference last year when Simmons replaced Pastornicky. Then BABIP backed those numbers up. Perhaps the added boost in the outfield gives the pitchers an added boost as well mentally. If you know your defense is awful, maybe you try to be too perfect and don’t go after hitters as much and nitpick more. Also, less people on base ,means less stress. So it could be a 45 run swing defensively and a 5-10 run pitching swing based on shorter innings and confidence to pitch to contact when needed.

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  15. BG says:

    Totally agree with jdbolick. Chris Antonetti is doing his best to create a roster with more certainty (Swisher, Bourn) but will still need to leverage 2012 Orioles-esque luck to get anywhere. If Ubaldo + Masterson continue to give up tons of BB–the Indians have no chance at a relevant increase in wins. I can nearly guarantee they’ll score more and give up less than last year, but the only scenario that puts them in the playoffs is luck (Tigers take on tons of injuries) or outliers (Masterson + Ubaldo find the plate / team incurs no injuries).

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