Despite the Indians 21-game win streak a few questions have been raised about how to best construct the postseason roster. There are two key flashpoints.
First, who should play centerfield in the post Bradley Zimmer world?
Second, will the Indians keep Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela to play third base in the playoffs?
With Jason Kipnis transitioning to center field in a slapdash attempt to solve the problem, it is easy to understand that one decision could impact the other. With that in mind, it is time to establish some parameters.
While the Indians regularly carry 12 pitchers, the postseason alters the combinations. If Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, and Clevinger are all healthy, those will be the Indians four starters for the ALDS. Then the bullpen will carry Miller, if healthy, Allen, Smith, Shaw, Salazar, and Olson. Those 10 should be sufficient but if one wanted to add Goody or Tomlin, so be it. Goody makes sense to get to 11. The pitching staff should be shallower in the postseason for a couple of reasons with the most important being that they have more days off and you want to leverage your best arms with greater frequency. Therefore, Tomlin, Otero, and McAllister types become superfluous.
Time to transition to position players. The locks are Gomes, Perez, Santana, Encarnacion, Ramirez, Lindor, Chisenhall, Guyer, Jackson, Bruce. This places the postseason roster at 21 with the following position players in the mix: Allen, Diaz, Urshela, Kipnis, Brantley, and Gonzalez.1
The question’s raised are guided by what the organization will prioritize. Center field then becomes a more compelling question. On the surface, there is a strong argument for going defense first in center field, which would make Greg Allen an absolute must. He is the best defender in center field currently healthy by a decent margin. For a team carrying the scar tissue of a Tyler Naquin center field meltdown in the World Series, a proclivity towards defense first is to be expected. However, considering the pitcher-defense interaction may challenge this assumption. The pitching and defense have interplay which combined speak to a teams larger run prevention skills. While Zimmer offered exceptional value in terms of outfield defense, the Indians are a team which may be least influenced by the value of outfield defense.
The Indians do not allow many fly balls in the center field zone for a few different reasons.
First, the Indians have the highest strikeout rate in baseball at 27.4%. In the playoffs, with your best pitchers pitching a higher proportion of inning this will likely rise.
Second, the Indians have the 8th lowest fly ball rate in all of baseball.
Third, the Indians have the sixth highest infield fly ball rate in Major League Baseball. Thereby a significant amount of fly balls against do not even enter the outfield’s zone of responsibility.
Finally, as players and teams become more pull side dominant, center field zone becomes less frequent.
In totality, the Indians demand for above average defense in center field is possibly the lowest in baseball. This is not to diminish the value of good center field defense which is a nice advantage but to note that the Indians pitching staff limits usage and responsibility of the center fielder.
With this background, the Jason Kipnis experiment makes a bit more sense. A center fielder who can post average defense and lineup depth is entirely useful. Of course, as WFNY scribe Michael Bode has pointed out, Kipnis is not particularly fast and despite his experience, running routes in center field takes an adjustment period. Thus, expectations should be set low.
However, these decisions must also weigh platoon splits and opponents. As previously detailed, a series with the Red Sox heavy rotation would dictate certain decisions. First, Kipnis is poor against left-handed pitching. Thus, starting him in center field against Boston would be foolish. If the Indians face a more balanced rotation in New York, Minnesota, or Houston, Kipnis makes much more sense. His offensive upside seemingly covering the defensive risk.
Where Kipnis would be diminished in value against Boston, Yandy Diaz would become more valuable as an assassin of left-handed pitching. Boston is the simplest series to lay out in terms of the back end of the roster.
In brief closing, here are my suggestions regarding how the final four slots should shake out. First, I do not expect Michael Brantley to be healthy enough to be relied upon in the division series, and with left-handed hitting outfielders Bruce, and Chisenhall on the roster, there is no need to force Brantley into this spot. Second, I do not believe Giovanny Urshela should be on the postseason roster. Urshela is a plus defender at third base and no where else. Further, Diaz is an average defender and not a bad one. Urshela is awful offensively, perhaps the worst bat on the 40-man roster with a lack of plate discipline, below average power, and little contact authority in general. Erik Gonzalez is the better or equal defender to Urshela at second base and shortstop as well as holding a much higher offensive ceiling. Finally, any idea of Urshela being a defensive replacement at first is horrendous. Santana is a competent defender and the Indians cannot afford to pull a Santana or Encarnacion level bat for Urshela in a close playoff game.
The roster survivors are Diaz, Kipnis, Gonzalez, and Allen. Allen makes sense as a speedy pinch-runner and defensive substitution who can also handle the bat well enough to put the ball in play in a pinch. There is plenty of time for the roster to change based on injury and opponent but for now obsession over center field defense is picking nits on a loaded squad.
- Tyler Naquin as well though he is a longshot [↩]