For the third time in four years, the Cleveland Indians are coming off a season of at least 93 losses. General manager Chris Antonetti, having already fired manager Manny Acta before the 2012 season ended, spent the winter remaking the face of his club. That meant bringing in two-time World Series champion Terry Francona to manage and bidding farewell to longtime offensive cogs Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, part of what ended up being a surprisingly active offseason for a small-market team seemingly so far away from contention.
After acquiring Drew Stubbs in the Choo deal and signing Mark Reynolds, Cleveland then forfeited two high draft picks to sign Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher to expensive four-year deals. The new quartet — along with returning bats such as Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana — should make for an immediate upgrade to a Cleveland attack that finished 22nd in runs scored.
Yet for all the effort Antonetti put into reshaping his offense, he seemingly did little to improve a pitching staff that ranked as the least effective run-prevention unit in baseball (non-Colorado division). Needless to say, the offseason strategy has left many confused. Why, after all, make commitments of more than $100 million and two draft picks to improve the offense immediately, but fail to upgrade one of the worst rotations in baseball enough to make a real playoff push?
The answer: Antonetti may not have made a prominent addition to his rotation, but he did help his team take a huge leap forward in preventing runs.
Addition by subtraction
You might be wondering: How is a team that is bringing back the underwhelming trio of Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister, and fortifying it with Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir — yes, him — going to be any better than last year’s group? It’s because the responsibility for run prevention doesn’t fall entirely on the pitcher, and the offseason moves haven’t only upgraded the Cleveland offense — they’ve made a large impact on the team’s defense as well. Simply turning more balls into outs should help the pitching staff look better, even if the pitchers aren’t actually performing better.
Advanced defensive statistics remain admittedly imperfect, but they’re light years ahead of the generally useless fielding percentage, and they all agree on one thing — Cleveland’s 2012 defense was one of the worst in baseball. Whether you prefer defensive runs saved (28th, at minus-51 runs), UZR/150 (30th at minus-57 runs) or just about anything else, the team’s fielding was ranked poorly. It isn’t just a single-year problem, either; the Indians haven’t ranked above fourth worst in UZR/150 since 2008.
Extra outs in the field pile up on a team’s arms, and it’s not difficult to see how that affected Jimenez and Masterson, the only two Cleveland starters to throw at least 150 innings last season. Each ended up with ERA marks (5.40 for Jimenez, 4.93 for Masterson) that exceeded their FIP (5.04 for Jimenez, 4.16 for Masterson) by a considerable amount. In fact, six of the seven Cleveland pitchers to make more than five starts ended up with an ERA higher than their FIP, indicating a defense that was not making the plays it needed to. The pitching staff wasn’t good, but the defense made it seem even worse.
Taking the staff as a whole, only the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers ended up with larger differences between their ERA and FIP than Cleveland’s did. It’s a serious problem, and it’s one that might have still existed even if Antonetti had spent more of his time on improving his pitching.
Instead, the new-look Indians’ defensive corps is in position to actually help their staff rather than hinder it, and that’s in part simply due to addition by subtraction. Choo and Shelley Duncan were the two corner outfielders with the most playing time last season, and both were subpar defenders; Choo in particular rated as being especially poor (minus-17 UZR). If Antonetti had merely replaced them with average fielders, that would be an upgrade, but he has done much better than that — the 2013 Indians are likely to be one of the only teams in baseball playing three center field quality defenders in their outfield.
The new crew
Bourn is the real prize here, because he’s one of the few players universally acclaimed in the field by both traditional methods (two Gold Gloves) and advanced stats (DRS and UZR/150 each ranked him as 2012’s best defensive outfielder). DRS has Bourn has saving 24 runs on his own, and that alone would take a major chunk out of the 51-run defensive deficit the team saw last year.
The addition of Bourn also creates a domino effect that moves last year’s center fielder, Michael Brantley, over to left. Brantley ranked as a slightly below-average center fielder, and he should be more effective as he slides down the defensive spectrum to a less demanding position. When Brantley last played left field regularly, logging 558 1/3 innings there in 2011, both DRS and UZR/150 considered him above-average. He’ll look even better this year when compared to Duncan.
Rather than the subpar Choo in right field, Stubbs figures to see most of the playing time there. Despite hitting only .213/.277/.333 with Ohio’s other team, Stubbs still was worth 1.3 wins above replacement simply because of his excellent defense and baserunning (30 steals in 37 attempts). Like Brantley, he’ll be moving to a corner after having been a regular center fielder, and he’ll be a massive improvement over Choo.
Due to Stubbs’ huge platoon split, Swisher could see time in right field as well, but he’s expected to get most of his playing time at first base. That’s for the best, not only because it keeps the defensively challenged Jason Giambi and Reynolds as the designated hitter platoon they really ought to be, but because Swisher is a capable defender as well. If Swisher is even average at first base, that’s an improvement; despite the sterling defensive reputation of Swisher’s predecessor, Casey Kotchman, the metrics indicate he has been declining with the glove for several years now, posting a negative DRS and UZR for three straight years.
As for the rest of the infield, the Indians return the same primary starters who finished last season. Cabrera is not a good defensive shortstop, and Lonnie Chisenhall proved to be rough around the edges in limited play, but Kipnis was about average. Considering the inexperience and youth of Chisenhall and Kipnis, there’s the potential for improvement there, and Mike Aviles should take over the Jack Hannahan role. At the least, the infield — while not a strength — isn’t likely to be worse than last year’s version, and could be slightly better. Masterson, as a ground ball pitcher, stands to gain the most from any improvement here.
Again, advanced defensive metrics have not yet attained perfection, and so it’s reasonable if one were to quibble with some of the exact numbers. But the idea that an outfield of Bourn, Brantley and Stubbs comprises one of the best defensive groups in the game more than passes the sniff test. For a team that needed all the help it could get in preventing runs from scoring, an improved defense that will help every pitcher on the staff could be even more effective than having made a single big splash on the pitching market.
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