Cleveland Indians: The Outfield Has Suddenly Become a Strength

The Cleveland Indians have seen their outfield turn into a surprise positive

When the season began, it seemed that the Cleveland Indians’ outfield was going to be an absolute disaster.  Michael Brantley looked to miss a few months, and the Indians attempted to plug holes with players like Rajai Davis and Marlon Byrd.  To add insult to injury, Lonnie Chisenhall missed the first month of the season with a wrist injury.  Certainly, it seemed that the outfield would do nothing but hold the Indians back. 

Instead, something incredible has happened.  When I last touched on the subject just over two months ago, the outfield was doing nothing to help the team, but at least it was average.  At that point, the outfield ranked 17th in offensive output and its defense was only slightly worse than the average team.

Since then, Michael Brantley has come and gone, only stoking the fears of doom.  The 29-year-old only appeared in 11 games, and his .231 batting average did little to help the team.  Instead of being the savior on whom fans had pinned the team’s hopes of contending, he failed to stay healthy and has been back on the 15-day disabled list ever since.

Instead of Brantley being the one to save the outfield, the outfield has collectively saved itself.  Over the course of the season, the FanGraphs ranks the outfield fourth in the American League by wins above replacement, and the unit leads all of baseball in base running.  Its offense has not resembled anything that most fans expected it to be, with its batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage all placing among the top five teams in the American League.

How has this incredible feat occurred?

First, Jose Ramirez has played a big part in the resurgence.  Over 68 games he has rebounded from last year’s down season to put up a .292/.354/.424 slash-line.  Furthermore, he has managed to be more or less average defensively at a new position while still being a menace on the base paths.

Speaking of bounce-back players, Rajai Davis has played nothing like the typical 35-year-old.  For one, his speed has gone nowhere, and he leads the American League in stolen bases despite having nearly 100 plate appearances less than second-place Jose Altuve.  If he keeps up the pace, he could become the third player since the year 2000 to swipe more than 40 bases while having more than 35 years of age.

Not only has Davis been a plus on the base paths, but his offense and defense have league-average or better.  His .263 batting average is nothing to sneeze at, and he has shown a healthy amount of pop by slugging seven home runs.  In fact, he only needs to more homers to set a personal best for the most home runs in a season.

Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Now, Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez have been great, but perhaps the biggest reasons for the success of the Cleveland Indians’ outfield have been Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall.  Naquin, 25, has been nothing short of dominant since reaching the big leagues.  He leads all qualified AL rookies in weighted on-base average, which measures total offensive output, while simultaneously being average with his defense.

A former third baseman, Chisenhall has continued his career revival since transitioning to the outfield.  The left-handed batter has shown an ability to hit the ball with confidence since returning from the disabled list.  Over just 54 games, he has already been worth one win above a replacement player while posting All-Star caliber offense.

If one were to travel back in time to before the season and tell someone that the outfield would actually be one of the better parts of the team this season, the recipient of that message would almost certainly find the deliverer crazy.  At the very least, it would seem that a quick return by Michael Brantley would save the day.  Instead, the collective of former infielders, rookies, and aging veterans has somehow combined to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Whether this trend will last for the rest of the season is difficult to tell.  Projection algorithms tend to take a pessimistic view of the outfield, but these formulas will almost always regress players to their career averages.  It seems probable that Tyler Naquin’s bat will cool down a bit; but even with that change, the outfield should continue to be a quality one.  Nevertheless, it is pretty cool that what was once thought to be a debilitating weakness has become a surprising strength.