The Indians’ Incompatible Pitching and Defense

If, before the season, you said that the Indians’ staff would have a 4.48 ERA, 24th in the majors, I might not have believed you. The 2009 Indians finished with a 5.07 ERA, 29th in baseball, and that was with the benefit of 22 Cliff Lee starts. The 2010 staff would get back Jake Westbrook and had a maturing Justin Masterson, but that hardly seemed like enough to compensate for the loss of Lee. The Indians, it seemed, were in for another rough year.

While 2010 hasn’t been exactly pretty, it hasn’t been quite as bad as 2009. Fausto Carmona has realized a rebound year, Rafael Perez hasn’t been atrocious out of the pen, and Mitch Talbot has been a welcome surprise. Even Masterson has been death to righties. That doesn’t add up to much of a staff, but it’s certainly one better than the 2009 version. Yet this unit could be quite better if the Indians surrounded it with more compatible players.

The Indians lead the league in groundball percentage and have the lowest flyball percentage in the league. That’s good news for a staff that ranks last in the league in strikeouts and second to last in walk rate. The ground balls might lead to more hits, but not more hits for extra bases. To that end, the Indians have the sixth highest batting average against in the majors, but just the 19th worst ISO. To that extent, the plan is working.

At the shortstop position the Indians rank dead last, by no small margin, in UZR. They also rank dead last in DRS. They rank 26th with a -5.2 UZR at third base and rank 21st with a -4.2 UZR at second. The team outfield also ranks worst in the majors, though that’s not as big a problem because of the low flyball rate (though clearly still isn’t preferable). So while Masterson, Carmona, and Westbrook — who rank second, fifth, and 13th in the majors in groundball rate — serve up potential outs, the infield cannot convert them.

The Indians are no one’s idea of a good team. They’re 40-55, last in the AL Central and things don’t appear to be getting much better. Sure, they stormed out of the gate after the All-Star break and beat up on the Tigers and won the first two in a series with the Twins, but that’s hardly indicative of their long-term outlook. They face Tampa Bay and New York for their next six games, and we’ll likely see them knocked back down to earth. Chances are they’ll finish the season in last. Yet they can still take away something positive.

Like most small-market, rebuilding clubs, the Indians are placing their hopes on the strength of their farm system. While they wait for their lower-level prospects to develop, though, they can limit the damage by employing those groundball pitchers. They might even find a few mid-rotation starters for when they’re really ready to contend. The problem is that they don’t have the defense to make that scheme work. It’s baffling, really, because their infielders have all hit for below average numbers. If they’re already getting that low level of production, is it that hard to find similar offensive producers who can actually play defense?

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

23 Responses to “The Indians’ Incompatible Pitching and Defense”

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  1. Matt Walsh says:

    In fairness to the Indians, they had Cabrera penciled in at short…

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  2. Ken says:

    Can someone explain why DRS has Cleveland comfortably in the top half of the league defensively while UZR has them dead last? The difference in these stats is troubling.

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    • hank says:

      Because UZR over one season (yet alone less than one season) has a high degree of variability and the fangraph writers (despite knowing this?) continue to use the stat as if it is reliable in all circumstances.

      Because while they are considered statistics, they are probably better described as modeled data with a bit of subjectivity. Useful in certain circumstances, however when the info is readily available it gets used without understanding the limitations (or not caring about the limitations)

      I’m less familiar with DRS so I don’t know how much variability is in that stat.

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  3. Jake says:

    There’s only one thing left to do…win the whole effing thing.

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  4. Andrew says:

    This article pretends as though Cleveland has been running the same guys out there on a day-by-day basis and are leaving them in despite lower production.

    They lost Asdrubal Cabrera with a broken arm, which cripples their defensive production from shortstop. They replaced him with the combination of Anderson Hernandez and Jason Donald, both of whom are below average defensively especially the latter.

    The 2nd base position has been a revolving door consisting of Luis Valbuena (demoted), Donald, Hernandez, 437 year-old Mark Grudzielanek and now Jayson Nix.

    3rd base is below average both offensively and defensively, but at this point Peralta is likely out the door and they could find a capable replacement at that point until Chisenhall is ready from the minors.

    The defensive prowess is not as bad as this article makes it seem. Cabrera is a plus defender despite what his UZR says, and I Donald is certainly athletic enough not to hurt you down the line as he learns the nuances of the position.

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  5. jrogers says:

    At the beginning of the season, there was a post about how the Indians’ infield was well-designed to their groundball-inducing pitchers, playing shortstop-capable players at 2nd (Valbuena), 3rd (Peralta), and SS (Cabrera). How things change.

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    • Hot Dog says:

      Great point… Cabrera’s a nice fielder, but Valbuena and Peralta are shortstops in name only (SINO) maybe even infielders in name only (IINO)

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      • Hermie13 says:

        lol, Valbuena is NOT a SS in name only. He’s not a SS in any shape or form.

        The kid is a 2B, period.

        Just because he was forced to play some SS last year and did it a handful of times in Seattle,people need to stop acting like he’s anything but a 2B.

        Yeah, eventually he’ll proably be a utility infielder, but he’s a natural 2B who can backup 2B.

        SS in name? what? lol

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  6. Jay says:

    I got two words for you, Yankees fan: Salary Cap.

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    • Hermie13 says:

      one word from and Indians fan: NO!

      Salary cap = worst idea ever for ML baseball. worst than IL play. wore than making the All-Star winner decide WS homefield advantage. Heck, even worse than the Wild Card.

      A salary cap will only hurt the small markets more, not help them. You need a salary floor whenever there is a cap. People love to forget (or ignore) this.

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  7. isavage says:

    The article does leave out the fact that the Indians have dealt with injuries, Laporta at 1b, Cabrera at short. And the Indians would love to get rid of Peralta, but were hoping he’d have a good year and they could deal him for something, it’s not like there wasn’t a valid reason to hang onto him. But I agree completely with the main point: if you’re going to field a staff full of sinkerballers, wouldn’t it have made sense to acquire infielders who are actually good defensively, instead of ignoring this aspect of the game completely? They went out of their way to get Donald from Philly, signed Russell Branyan, who could/would barely move at 1b, and were previously fine with carrying Peralta at SS and Garko at 1b. Mark Shapiro has this reputation in the media as a GM who looks at advanced stats, but he’s completely ignored defense and has generally failed at creating a balanced team. The Indians have a groundball pitching staff with bad defensive infielders behind them, and they have an offense that can’t hit left handed pitching.

    I disagree with the comments about Cabrera: he’s iffy as a fielder. He certainly is a vast improvement over Donald and Valbuena and has better range and a much better arm than them, he’s the only real shortstop the Indians have above AA, but he doesn’t have great range and he messes up easy plays too frequently. The more I’ve seen of Cabrera, the less I like his defense and the more accurate UZR seems on him.

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  8. Delino's Ghost says:

    Can I get a Grady Sizemore here, people?

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  9. fgbomber says:

    The Indians are waiting for Laporta, Weglarz and Brantley to catch up to Santana (most valuable player in baseball) and Choo. Asdrubal just needs to be Asdrubal when he returns. When Hafner is off the books, that will free up a lot of money to plug holes.

    In the rotation, they are hoping Masterson, Talbot and/or Huff will fill in the gaps between Carmona, Rondon and Carrasco.

    Dealing Sizemore and Westbrook will bring in some monster talent and free up more money. They also intend to cut “dead Wood” any way they can, freeing up more money.

    Everything until these events occur is just noise. There is not another small market team that is better positioned for long term success. Most of the guys playing right now are battling for a bench spot on the real team they are building.

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    • Chad says:

      There are other small market teams positioned as well, some may be better. The Indians’ pitching is still a big issue, and there is nothing close to a slam dunk that can fix that issue. Maybe guys like Rondon and Carrasco can be front of the rotation starters. They aren’t yet though.

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      • fgbomber says:

        Sizemore = An A pitching prospect, a B pitching prospect and a power reliever.

        Westbrook = 1 B and 1 C pitching prospect.

        Didn’t mention White and Knapp. The pitching pipeline measures up to anyone out there.

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      • Chad says:

        Sizemore isn’t getting you that right now. Only if he gets back to where he was two years ago, you know, the Sizemore you would rather keep around. I don’t think Westbrook is getting you that much either, I think if that was offered (maybe suggest some names next time) the Indians would have already pounced on it. Knapp hasn’t pitched this season and is a long way off. Texas, Boston, Tampa all have young pitching that I would take over Cleveland’s in a heartbeat. It’s solid, and there are plenty of arms, but the best front of the rotation candidates seem to be Carrasco, who has some legitimate flaws, and White, who just hit AA and needs to get a few more strikeouts.

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  10. Hermie13 says:

    I agree Chad, Sizemore isn’t getting that now….but the Tribe will likely wait to deal im after the 2011 season or summer 2011.

    People were saying the same thing about Victor Martinez after he 2008 season. then he got us Masterson, Hagadone, and Price. An absolute coup.

    And I love how people rip on White’s K-rate in AA…..yet they talk up Drabek is this great prospect. Since June 1st, they are both sitting at a K-rate of 6.3 per 9 innings.

    Difference is White has a MUCH better walk rate and a slightly better FIP (though they’re close overall).

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  11. Mike B. says:

    Don’t forget, Drew Pomeranz is also about to enter into the system.

    Does anybody know off-hand who scouts prefer as a defensive 2B between Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis?

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