Cleveland Indians Defense: It Can Only Go Up From Here

aingraham
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Tribe looking to re-string their gloves in 2015

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Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.

Kansas City Royals. 2014 American League champions. Led the majors in team UZR (Ultimate zone rating).

San Francisco Giants. 2014 World Series champions. Tied for fourth in the National League in fielding percentage.

Cleveland Indians. Third place in the AL Central. Worst fielding percentage in the majors. Most errors in the majors. Worst team UZR in the majors.

And a right-handed power bat is their biggest need? Maybe if he’s swinging a fungo.

Quite a bit of the optimism surrounding the 2015 Indians season focuses on one phrase: “bounce-back”. Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Ryan Raburn are at the top of a long list of players hoping to improve after a disappointing 2013 campaign. But even if the majority of that list does indeed right the ship, it’s hard to imagine the club will even sniff the playoffs in 2015 if their league-worst defense doesn’t do the same.

On the surface, it seems like a pretty realistic expectation. Yan Gomes had some uncharacteristic mistakes early in the season but was much better in the second half. Carlos Santana has nearly a full year under his belt at first base and the third base experiment is officially over. It won’t be difficult to be better than Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and Jose Ramirez should have no problem doing it. If Brandon Moss is healthy, he can give the Indians much more defensively than anything they got out of their right-field platoon in 2014.

What are the odds of this actually happening, though? How difficult is it for a major-league team to drastically improve their defense from one year to the next? Were the Indians actually that bad, or did things start off on the wrong foot and snowball from there? Was it less physical and more mental by the end of the season?

The Indians were bad with the gloves in 2013 as well. They were 19th in the league in fielding percentage and 25th in UZR. Let’s look at the past five years:

  • 2014 – 30th in fielding %, 30th in UZR
  • 2013 – 19th, 25th
  • 2012 – 9th, 29th
  • 2011 – 19th, 28th
  • 2010 – 20th, 26th

I know that defensive statistics from season-to-season are about as significant as a player’s career numbers against a certain team (different players every year), but there’s enough carryover to paint a little bit of a picture. So the Tribe have been pretty mediocre defensively for a while now. Just not historically bad like in 2014.

How about other teams — do they have “outlier” seasons defensively (the snowball theory)? Below are the past 5 teams to be last in the league in fielding percentage, with the year prior and year after’s rankings in parenthesis:

  • 2014 – Cleveland Indians (19th, ?)
  • 2013 – Houston Astros (28th, 24th)
  • 2012 – Colorado Rockies (13th, 16th)
  • 2011 – Chicago Cubs (29th, 22nd)
  • 2010 – Pittsburgh Pirates (1st, 22nd)

In essence, yes. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider 2014 an enormous “outlier” for the Tribe since they’ve been consistently pretty bad defensively, they haven’t consistently been the worst. Neither have any of these five teams. The Rockies were solid in 2011 and 2013, and the Pirates went from FIRST TO WORST from 2009 to 2010. I understand fielding percentage isn’t the perfect gauge for defensive effectiveness, and that there are a ton of variables here (different players, the performance of other teams affecting the rankings, etc), but the point is this: a team can simply just have a bad year with the leather. Did the Tribe just have the yips in 2014? I don’t know. But it’s certainly possible.

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