Indians Breaking in Gloves for Postseason

The only sunshine the Kansas City Royals saw over the weekend was on the back of the opposing starter’s jersey on Saturday night.

Players from around Major League Baseball donned jerseys with nicknames spread across the back in lieu of the traditional last name. Even the New York Yankees, of the pretentious ‘no names allowed on the back of our jerseys’ mold, were permitted to partake in the fun. Placed strategically in late August, the Player’s Weekend broke up the monotony of following a sometimes monotonous 162 game season with a dose of youthful exuberance. For example: Indians starting pitcher Mike Clevinger, who would go on to fan a career-high nine batters in six scoreless innings of work, took to the mound with “Sunshine” stitched from shoulder to shoulder.

The Kansas City Royals, on the other hand, exuded the opposite of exuberance. Riding into a series in Cleveland, the 2015 World Series champions were six games back in the AL Central chase. Enter the Cleveland Indians pitching staff. Tribe hurlers hung 27 zeroes on the scoreboard, stifling Royals hitters in every frame.

The Royals eked out 18 hits, including four extra base hits, but could not muster a run. This is in part due to the effectiveness of Tribe pitching, but also can be attributed to some sequencing luck. Serenading readers with sweet statistics about Tribe pitching would be easy, but crediting Tribe defense is necessary. The underlying heroes of the weekend shutout were the guys using their gloves.

Injuries have caused problems for the Indians in 2017, but they have also allowed fans the opportunity to see pristine glove work. Without Jason Kipnis’ (“Kip”) repeated injury issues, there would be no Jose Ramirez (“Ramirez”) and Francisco Lindor (“Mr. Smile”) double play connection, and we would have been robbed of the ability — nay, privilege — to witness third base wizard Giovanny Urshela. Those three, and Bradley Zimmer (“Machine”), repeatedly prove worthy of being mentioned with their top peers at their respective positions.

Giovanny Urshela

It is well known that he is an elite defender. He has made that known repeatedly this season, despite limited playing time. Gio has accumulated 3 defensive runs saved in only 239.1 innings. One would reasonably expect that if those innings were extrapolated to categorize a full season, he would rank among the likes of defensive stalwarts Nolan Arenado and Evan Longoria in that category. Urshela’s propensity to make difficult plays look routine is perhaps his most redeeming quality, from a subjective standpoint.

Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor

Jason Kipnis has made strides defensively over his career in the majors. In fact, he ranks sixth among second basemen in UZR/150 since the beginning of the 2015 season. These strides have been buoyed by plus his plus range, where he made a drastic improvement in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There are transparent issues, though. His arm strength and quickness on double play transfers are noticeably lacking.

Throughout Kipnis’ absence, watching Jose Ramirez patrol his natural habitat has been euphoric. Though he has been no slouch at third base, Jose’s increased comfort level at second base is transparent. Defensive metrics offer very little insight in such small sample sizes, but Ramirez has accumulated five defensive runs saved over only 350 innings at second base. Not only does this equate to roughly one half of a win, it’s a mark that Jason Kipnis has not eclipsed over any full season.

One of the most under-discussed story lines of the year lies on the other side of second base. Francisco Lindor has zero defensive runs saved through eighty percent of the season. The 2016 platinum glove winner has been far too close to mediocre at shortstop, to a noticeable degree. This not necessarily alarming for future seasons, per se, but it is a noticeable trend worth monitoring. Over the weekend, there were a couple of plays that mitigated these concerns, though. Primarily, the clip below where the middle infield defense shines.

A Real Centerfielder? Meet Bradley Zimmer

His strikeout percentage lends itself to prolonged slumps at the plate. His plate coverage is insufficient, especially versus pitches on the outer-lower portion of the plate, as WFNY’s own Michael Bode has previously demonstrated. That being said, Bradley Zimmer’s speed and vision provide enough value defensively to endure rough stretches in the batter’s box.

Chart courtesy of Statcast’s

On Saturday night, Lorenzo Cain smacked a Clevinger offering 98.5 miles per hour at a 17-degree launch angle. Similarly batted balls have a batting average of 0.383 this season. That may not seem high, but reference the chart above. Not all 98 miles per hour, 17-degree launch angle balls are created equal. While most of these balls become outs, the majority of the outs fall into the relative range of where one would expect outfielders to be playing. The Cain hit was one of the deepest batted balls of this variety to go for an out this season.

These defensive strengths are an important part of the Indians playoff campaign. A reasonable argument could be made that defense plays a bigger role in the postseason, considering the value of runs in the varying outcomes of a five- or seven-game series. If Jason Kipnis has not regained 2015-2016 form at the plate, Giovanny Urshela’s defense at third combined with Jose Ramirez’s abilities at second base may be a large enough defensive upgrade to overtake the offensive gap between Kipnis and Urshela. Injuries have pushed the Indians into levels of depth that may make management a bit uneasy, but the experience and knowledge gained in the process have strengthened an already elite team.