Statistics in small samples can be dangerous. Because Baseball is a phrase that reminds us that wonky things happen constantly. Figuring out the difference between new trends and statistical outliers remains an issue until a large enough swath of data is accumulated. The importance of noting items to track though remains such as the early overall poor play of the Indians defense.
The Tribe has thus far been ranked as the 26th team in the defensive component of fWAR, 20th in defensive rating, 27th in UZR/150 though a hearty 12th in DRS. Some of the components of these measures are luck such as having enough balls hit just within the zone of the player so that they can add to their range score. Some can spike early in the season as a single error can be a higher percentage of overall plays. The team-wide poor rating though indicates a malaise early in the season. After Jose Ramirez’s amazing 46.4 UZR/150 score at third base, the next highest rank on the team (minimum of 50 innings) is Brandon Guyer at 9.1 in right field. Heck, due to already having three errors, Francisco Lindor sits in the negative (-0.6).1
The infield defense has been teetering around league average with an upside of being quite good. Yandy Diaz and Ramirez held down third base (4th overall in MLB). Lindor’s errors haven’t stopped him from being useful (16th), and anyone who has followed the Tribe the past two years understands the defending gold glove winner should rank near the top by season’s end. Jason Kipnis and Ramirez combine for a decent second base (15th) option. Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion are more bat than glove, and it should be expected to continue (21st).
The bigger issue is in the outfield. No player among Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Austin Jackson, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, or Brandon Guyer is considered an above average defender. Many of them would embrace being called league average there. So far the metrics agree with the perception, which agrees with the eye test. The Indians rank last in defense in right field (Guyer and Almonte), last in defense in center field (Chisenhall, Naquin, Jackson), and 19th in defense in left field (Brantley). There is some hope that Chisenhall can improve his rating given he is learning the position on the fly. Perhaps Almonte is not quite as wretched as he has shown in the field thus far. However, the outfield is fortunate it contains four of the top six hitters (Brantley, Jackson, Chisenhall, Almonte) through 27 games to help mask their issues catching the ball.
The internal options of Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen are not quite ready to show their wares at the MLB level, so gauging the trade market might be the way to go if the bats cool off and the Tribe wants to improve their defense. Burning River’s Gavin Potter was the latest to recommend finding a way to land Kevin Pillar in a Cleveland uniform:
One quality option would be reaching out to former Indians’ President Mark Shapiro in Toronto to inquire about Kevin Pillar. The Blue Jays are 9-17 in the AL East, and seem to be prime candidates to enter a rebuild phase. If Pillar – one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball – is made available, the Indians should have no reservations about pursuing him. At 28 years old and controlled affordably through 2021, Cleveland could afford to (and would have to) give up some quality prospects.
The Indians can assume the infield defensive issues will sort themselves out as Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis are under-performing their historical metrics. The outfield defense though is behaving only a bit worse than expected, and there is no guarantee it gets much better. For a World Series contending team, it seems worth pushing for an upgrade.