Pitching and defense are inextricably intertwined, and that shouldn’t be a controversial statement. Any pitcher who isn’t striking out 100 percent of the batters he’s facing is relying on his defense for help. Any defense can only do so much to stop an opposing offense when their pitcher is giving up an endless amount of homers and line drives. It all comes together as run prevention, which is a team effort, and it’s why we have things like FIP & xFIP and de-emphasize or totally ignore things like ERA & wins that attempt to give the pitcher all of the credit (or blame).
That being the case, sometimes it’s fun to look at ERA-FIP, which shows you the gap between the two, and is a nice rough way to look at what pitching staffs are being helped (or not) by their defenses. Ideally, the teams with the biggest gaps, in either direction, should correspond to the teams with great or terrible defenses. If you look at starting rotations in 2014, you’ll see a few things stand out. First, you’ll notice that the Diamondbacks have an ERA 2.00 runs higher than their FIP, which is probably less about defense than it is about the fact that they’re a flaming dumpster fire that, if they keep things up like this, will give me a nice juicy “this is among the worst rotations ever” topic in a few days. But among teams functioning on some plane of reality, you’ll see that the Indians are the next-worst team, with an ERA 1.62 runs higher than their FIP, and that the Braves are the best, with an ERA 1.42 runs below their FIP.
Obviously, those numbers aren’t likely to maintain all season — Atlanta isn’t going to ride Aaron Harang to a 1.50 rotation ERA all year, and both Cleveland’s and Atlanta’s ERA-FIP numbers would be major league records through 2013 if they did — but at the moment, they pass the sniff test as far as support from defense goes. The Braves have Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons and the Upton brothers; they lead the game in just about every defensive stat, as we figured they would. They’re not necessarily making the impossible plays — on our Inside Edge scouting reports, they’re one of a handful of teams who has yet to convert a single play marked as 1%-10% likely — but they’re getting nearly all of the easy ones, having turned 197 of 198 90%-100% balls into outs. (For a refresher on how the Inside Edge numbers work, do check out this introduction post from last month.)
If you look at the 90%-100% ones, you’ll notice that 12 teams have converted 98 percent or more of those plays. 17 more have turned at least 96.0 percent of “the easy ones” into outs. And all alone at 94.4 percent, and dead last in DRS, are the Cleveland Indians.
|Cleveland defense, 2014|
|Play type||Chances||Made||Made%||MLB rank|
The Indians, like the Braves, haven’t turned any “remote” plays into outs. They’re also the only team who hasn’t turned a single 10%-40% play (“unlikely”) into an out– the Royals have done so seven times — and they’ve turned just one 40%-60% play (“even”), which the Giants have done 11 times already. But those plays, for the most part, are gifts. A pitcher hopes that his defense can bail him out of a tough spot, or save him some extra pitches. That’s not the only reason that Harang is putting up a .143 BABIP for Atlanta, but the plays his guys are making behind him are certainly a huge part of it.
The problem for the Indians is that they’re not making the hard plays or the easy plays. 11 missed easy plays might not seem like much, but were they to keep up that pace over the entire season, that’s 92 easy plays — plays that other teams are getting at a close-to-perfect rate — that turn into hits or runs or extra pitches. (“And Harang is on pace for the best season in baseball history.” I know. Just because the Indians have been X amount of poor to date doesn’t mean they will be the same X amount of poor going forward, though these games do count at the end of the day.)
You can already see how it’s hurting the Cleveland pitching staff. They have the second–best strikeout rate in baseball, and the third-lowest homer rate. They’re not immune to blame — they’re walking way too many — but they’re being saddled with a .331 BABIP that is not only the highest in baseball, but would be tied for the second-highest in the last century with a 96-loss 2007 Tampa Bay team that primarily had B.J. Upton and Brendan Harris as double play partners, behind only a 1930 Phillies team that lost 102 games and played in one of the most offense-friendly seasons ever.
That’s not to say that rate will definitely hold up, because it’s only April 23 and those numbers are unthinkably poor. I’m not really suggesting that this is going to be one of the worst defensive teams of all time — just that they’ve been really, truly awful so far, and they’re one of the reasons Cleveland has dropped 11 of their first 20, sitting in last in the AL Central. (Yes, that’s still only 2.5 games out of first in a tight division.)
To get numbers like that, it’s not limited to one particular problem spot. Pretty much everyone has to chip in, and as you’ll see, they have. David Murphy is already at -3 DRS. Nyjer Morgan was somehow worth -5 DRS in only nine games (he’s since been optioned back to Triple-A now that Michael Bourn is healthy), but even he didn’t miss an “easy one.” These guys have.
Nick Swisher, 1B
After a reasonably productive debut in Cleveland, Swisher has been one of the worst players in the game early in 2014, hitting .203/.289/.329 and doing things like this:
That ball came on April 8 against San Diego in the ninth inning, and it didn’t change the outcome: Cleveland won 8-6. But it would have been the final out of the night, and what it did do was turn an 8-4 game into an 8-5 game, force Vinnie Pestano to face two more batters, one of whom singled in another run to make it an 8-6 game, and require John Axford to enter to finish things off with the tying run at the plate. These things all add up. Swisher has missed two of the easiest plays in the game — remember, Atlanta as an entire team has missed only one — and has been worth -3 DRS on his own.
Jason Kipnis, 2B
Kipnis combines power, steals and on-base skills, so it gets glossed over that his defense isn’t a strength. And why not? He’s so valuable on offense that he was worth 4.5 WAR last year and 3.1 the year before; he’s already on the positive side this year, too. Of course, he’s already missed three of the easiest plays around.
As the announcer said, “probably 99 times out of 100 he’s going to catch that ball.” And he should. That’s why it ends up in the 90%-100% category.
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Cabrera’s defense has been an increasing issue for a while; he has been, arguably, one of the one or two worst regular defensive shortstops over the last two seasons. So far, he’s only missed a single “easy one,” but it came in the first inning of a game on April 9:
Michael Brantley, OF
Brantley is a great example of how different defensive stats can say something so differently about an outfielder. The play you see below broke Brantley’s 247-game errorless streak, which is admittedly impressive. By more advanced stats, he’s been essentially average since a brutal 2010. So far in 2014, he’s -3 DRS. And maybe one could attribute this more to left fielder Ryan Raburn:
It was charged to Brantley, however — for the purposes of examining the underwhelming Cleveland defense, it doesn’t really matter who got it — and it came in a 3-3 tie in Oakland. “Let’s hope that extra out doesn’t come back to haunt the Indians,” said the broadcast. A wild pitch and a groundout later, Brandon Moss would single in the go-ahead run, though the Indians would eventually come back.
Carlos Santana, 3B
You sort of figured Santana would appear here, because as a catcher attempting to move to third, he’s been the subject of our attention for months now. But you know what? He actually hasn’t been that bad, all things considered. Unfortunately, Tuesday night’s game showed the Cleveland defense at its, well, best? In the fourth inning, with a man on first, Billy Butler tapped one to the left side. Not only did it not turn into a 5-4-3 double play — Eric Hosmer, hardly Billy Hamilton, was on first — it got past Santana for what was charitably ruled a hit:
Danny Salazar managed to retire the next two Royals, and while you can’t assume with absolute certainty that another third baseman would have made this play, the young starter really should have been out of the inning at that point. Instead, he gave up a three-run homer to Mike Moustakas and allowed a single to Alcides Escobar, past a diving Cabrera, who wasn’t able to get to it. When Escobar tried to steal…
Yan Gomes, C
…Gomes did this:
This is cheating, perhaps; since a bad throw on a steal attempt isn’t a ball in play, I don’t believe it’s marked at all on the Inside Edge charts. No matter. It’s still a poor play that hurts the pitcher, and with Escobar at third, Jarrod Dyson‘s perfectly placed bunt brought home a fourth run. Salazar really should have been through the inning easily.
When Gomes signed his extension last month, it wasn’t just because of his 2013 offensive breakout, it was because of the value Cleveland felt he provided behind the plate. That’s largely through pitch framing, but so far he’s had some serious throwing issues, issuing a MLB-worst five throwing errors, plus an MLB-worst three passed balls. During all of 2013, he made only three errors, and so far in 2014, some have directly contributed to Cleveland losses – like this one on Friday. With two on, one out, and a tie score in the seventh, Gomes picked Munenori Kawasaki off first base… or so he thought:
Maybe it’s just a blip. Maybe it’s just a small-sample size thing. Or maybe this is what Eno Sarris said about the Indians in March, in looking at the back end of the 2013 Inside Edge numbers:
Hello, Indians’ infield. Maybe this has something to do with why the Indians had a negative team UZR/150 (-4.5) last year, huh? And if you’d like to see something about the relative value of sure-handedness, notice that the Indians were eighth-worst in batting average on balls in play allowed, 11th-worst in errors, and fifth-worst in team UZR/150. But at least few of their players can make the play if you hit the ball right at them.
Brantley, you shouldn’t really worry about. Gomes, hopefully you shouldn’t have to worry about, though we’ve seen guys come up with suddenly unexplainable throwing issues before. But really, that infield wasn’t very good to begin with, as Eno showed from last year, and it’s not playing like anything has changed. With Salazar hardly living up to expectations, and a division that looks to be enough of a dogfight that 90 wins may be enough to take it, the Indians can’t afford to be helping out their opponents. The way their defense has played so far, they’re making it much harder on themselves than it needs to be.
Print This Post