Sunday, April 26, 2015

Playing Defense on a Lazy Sunday

Nearly three weeks into the season, the Indians have scuffled their way to a 6-10 record and find themselves at the bottom of the very competitive AL Central division. Just when it looked like the Tribe had found some momentum after a 13-1 shellacking of the Tigers, Trevor Bauer came down with food poisoning before yesterday’s start and the Indians were unable to get anything going in yet another loss to their AL Central foes. TJ House made an emergency start and held the Tigers to three runs in three innings of work, a decent outing considering the circumstances. But the offensive outburst from Friday night didn’t carry over to Saturday, and Brandon Moss (who’s OPS spiked nearly 200 points after his 2 HR, 2B, 7 RBI game on Friday) failed twice go score a runner from 3B with less than 2 outs in a 4-1 loss. It’s still early, but the 2015 Indians seem to have the same problems that plagued the 2014 Indians; poor defense, lack of timely hitting and a complete and utter inability to beat Detroit on a regular basis.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri checked in with his weekly power rankings on Monday, slotting the then 4-7 Indians in at #15 overall. Since Keri’s weekly focus was on defense, it’s no surprise that he chose to expound on the Indians ranking. Keri notes that, following a season in which the Indians were the worst defensive team in baseball, they’ve opened the 2015 season as the second worst defensive team in baseball. So…they’re trending upwards? Keri goes on to note that while the Indians have and will continue to suffer with defensive limitations, it might not matter as much due to the propensity of the Indians rotation to strike out everyone in the world.

It only takes a quick look at the AL pitching leaderboards to confirm this theory. After Friday night’s games, the Indians led the AL in strikeouts with 158 (one ahead of the Yankees 157). The AL average was 125. The team ERA however, is a more robust 3.88 (league average 3.98). Since it’s 2015 and not 1985 though, let’s dig a little deeper on that one and note that the Indians have the 2nd best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in the AL at 3.25, and that 0.63 disparity is the 2nd highest in the AL, behind the fellow strikeout-heavy NYY. The Indians pitchers are (again) controlling what they can control, but the defense isn’t picking them up. If this sounds like a familiar story, it should, as the 2014 Indians led the AL with a 3.42 FIP but were tied for 6th with a 3.56 ERA.

So how do we fix this? How do we take advantage of what could be the best top to bottom (especially if TJ House can right the ship) pitching staff in the league? Well, it just so happens that I have a plan:
      1.   Call up James Ramsey to replace Little Jerry Sands. Ramsey, unlike Sands, can play all three outfield positions and will prevent any future situations where Mike Aviles plays CF. He’s a better defender than Murphy, and should be able to hold his own at the plate. 
      2.   Swap out Jose Ramirez for Francisco Lindor. Ramirez has been OK at short this year, but his range factor and defensive runs saved are both down from 2014 (small sample size alert). Combining those stats with years of scouting evaluations that suggest Ramirez will be at best an average shortstop pushes this one over the top for me. Ramirez can go back to AAA and play SS, 2B and 3B, then come back in a couple of months and take over the Mike Aviles role. Meanwhile, Lindor takes over at SS and immediately becomes a plus defender at short, shoring up a shaky infield D even if he can’t do much with the bat at the outset. Ramirez is hitting .204/.245/.286 right now…can Lindor really do much worse than that?
      3.  At some point in mid-late May, if Lonnie Chisenhall still isn’t hitting, call up Gio Urshela to play 3B. Even after hitting his first HR of the season on Friday against the Tigers, Chiz was hitting a paltry .204/.245/.306. That includes a .167/.212/.300 line against southpaws. He’s been better in the field this year (in a small sample), but came in at -1.5 WAR in the field in 2014. Urshela could be an elite defender at 3B, and even if he manages a .550 OPS he’d at least be giving the offense the same “help” that Chisenhall has provided this year. As an added bonus, Urshela hits right handed, which would help settle some of the villagers with pitchforks lining up outside of Chris Antonetti’s house demanding a less lefty-heavy lineup.

Will any of these moves actually happen? Probably not in the near-term, especially with Urshela just coming off the DL for AAA Columbus this past week. But something needs to be done to improve the defense before it’s too late. The Indians cannot win the AL Central in April/May, but it’s possible that they could lose it if this skid lasts much longer. What’s funny to me is that they Indians very quickly recognized that they had a more talented pitcher in AAA (Salazar) who could take a rotation spot from a guy who was scuffling out of the gate (McAllister), and immediately made a move to fix it. That move has proven effective thus far, with Salazar making two superlative starts, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 21 K in 13 innings. Why the team’s brain trust can act so quickly to fill a hole in the rotation but can’t seem to do the same for the defense is baffling to me. Hopefully a fix comes sooner rather than later. It’s a long season and this is still a very talented baseball team, but the defense could again prove to be the Achilles heel that keeps them for making a run deep into October.

With all that being said, Mike Petriello of Fangraphs ran an interesting article earlier this week suggesting that the Indians defense might not be as bad as the numbers would indicate early this season. The Indians rank 28th in baseball with -12 defensive runs saved, but -7 of those come directly from the pitcher position. That’s ridiculously high, the worst in all of baseball. As Petriello explains:

24 of the 30 teams are within a relatively narrow -2 to 2 range, simply because it’s so early and no one’s had the time to be that bad. But Cleveland’s pitchers have dragged down the overall team score to such a degree that if we looked only at non-pitcher DRS, they’d be tied with the Pirates at 23rd. Not that ranking 23 out of 30 in anything is something to be proud of, but when you’re coming from as far back as this group was last year, you’ll take what you can get.
What we know, certainly, is that the defensive numbers aren’t perfect, especially this early. What we know, even more certainly, is that defense has been an ongoing issue for this team for a few years. Right now, it’s just too simple to look at “close to last place in DRS” and make the judgement of a disaster. Pitchers and minor leaguers and out-of-position infielders are making that look worse than it needs to be. It’s not the same thing as having a playoff-caliber defense, though. Not the same thing at all.

So the defense, while not great, has been better than last season. It’s still not where it needs to be, but if the AAA cavalry can come up and improve the overall profile even more, that could be enough to vault the Indians back into contention in the AL Central. The starting pitching is going to give them a chance in virtually every game this season, and the lineup should come around eventually. The big question mark remains the D, and that’s something that can be improved with cheap, young, internal options.

While the majority of Clevelanders were busy letting their blood boil over an idiotic column from an idiot (Dan Shaughnessy, who I will not link to here under any circumstances and that rule was in place before last week’s travesty of a column), there was another Boston reporter who was writing a complementary column about Cleveland, and the Indians in particular. Baseball Prospectus’ Brian Joiner took a nice look at the Indians roster construction in the context of how Boston has torn down and rebuilt their roster over the past couple of years. Joiner is becoming quite the Clevleophile (I just made up a word, go with it), having written the Indians section of the Baseball Prospectus Annual and in general having lots of nice things to say about both the city and team here on the North Coast:

I did not write about the Indians because I love Cleveland, but because I was asked to write about Cleveland. That was lucky. I love Cleveland, starting with Major League, duh, and continuing to this day. I have gone to Cleveland for fun on several occasions, and I have had such delirious good times that I have nothing but good things to say about it.
Anyway, this year’s Indians are a construction marvel. Nearly the entire starting roster spot is filled by a reasonably paid, above-average baseball player in his prime. What the front office, led by Chris Antonetti, lacks in maneuvering room with its roster, it makes up for in construction efficiency, save for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the albatrii in the outfield.
It’s so simple that it’s brilliant, and in a way it renders a lot of analysis — well, not meaningless, but certainly less dense. The Sox’s rotation is one you could make from reading the stats on old baseball cards, and the Indians have shown that if you get guys who are just good enough, one of them might go from relatively anonymous starter to Cy Young Award winner, and a second to do it the next year, and, voila, you’re contenders, at least to your enthusiastic biographers. To them, to me, the Indians are exciting: a team primed to reach its peak.

The Indians have won 177 games in the two seasons since Terry Francona took the helm, with the Red Sox claiming 168 victories. Each team has claimed one playoff appearance. The Red Sox are off to a better start this season, but I’ll take the Indians pitching over the Red Sox by a landslide. It’ll be interesting to see how these two clubs stand at the end of the season. The Red Sox have a better lineup and will be able to trade for pitching reinforcements (possibly Cole Hamels). The Indians have better pitching and have prospect help on the way for the lineup and defense (Lindor, Ramsey, Urshela). Both clubs figure to be better in September than they are right now. With they each claim a playoff slot as they did in 2013?

It’s not directly Indians-related, but we’ll stick in the Central Division for a look at just how thoroughly the Royals embarrassed themselves in their series with the A’s last week. Much digital ink has been spilled on this topic, but for my money the best effort was from Giants SB Nation writer Grant Brisbee. Brisbee is normally both funny and insightful, so it’s not too much of a surprise that he was able to nail this particular topic. He provides two very helpful videos illustrating just how bad things were back in the “good old days,” one of Joe Morgan and one of Hal McRae. Each of these instances, were they to occur today, would likely melt the internet and cause Twitter to explode. Literally, not figuratively, explode. Please go watch them if you haven’t already. Brisbee correctly judges Lawrie’s slide as bad but not egregious, and Yordano Ventura’s ensuing HBP as silly, but predictable. Ventura’s fake tough-guy walk towards Lawrie after the HBP inexplicably escalated the situation, but Lawrie pretty much just took his base and the whole thing was over. Or so we thought.

The next day, Kelvin Herrera inexplicably threw at Lawrie again, in the 8th inning of a 2-1 game. He threw at him twice, and the second pitch was at or above the shoulders. Regardless of what Lawrie did or did not do, this foolishly re-ignited a situation that was over and done with. He also threw at Lawrie’s head, something that is both extremely stupid and extremely dangerous. Fellow fake tough-guy Salvador Perez then got up in Lawrie’s face when he (rightly) took exception to being targeted for assassination, but only after the umpire got between them and prevented any actual physical altercation from taking place. Lawrie again remained calm until Herrera pointed at his head, as if to say to Lawrie “I just tried to kill you by striking you in the head with a 100 MPH fastball,” to which Lawrie pretty naturally took exception to and started yelling at Herrera. I feel like this can’t be stated enough; Herrera’s pitch to Lawrie registered triple-digits on the radar gun. It could have literally killed him.

Lawrie seems like a bit of a nutcase. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the Royals matched and then far-escalated his nuttiness in some misguided attempt to…well, I’m not sure what exactly they were attempting to prove. That they’re tougher than the A’s? Crazier? All of the above? Herrera should be suspended for 50 games, but he won’t because steroids are somehow worse than trying to kill someone with a 100 MPH fastball. He got a 5 game suspension, which clearly didn’t send the message to KC because Yordano Ventura felt the need to start a fight against the White Sox this past Thursday. Ventura fielded a comebacker to the mound off the bat of Adam Eaton, and inexplicably felt the need to hang on to the ball and scream at Eaton while he was running to first. When this (naturally) escalated into both benches clearing, Ventura ran away and looked downright confused as to what he did wrong. The Royals are becoming the least-likeable team in baseball, and they show no signs of relinquishing that title any time soon.