Indians' historically bad defense at root of Cleveland's awful start
Are the 2015 Indians the worst-fielding team in modern major league history? There’s a lot of season left before they can claim that dubious distinction, but with the first month in the books, their play in the field has been poor enough to argue that they very well could.
Fielding is, of course, extremely difficult to measure, but it’s a bit simpler to sort out on a team level than it is to figure out the value of one fielder from the man next to him on the field. The blunt instrument here is defensive efficiency, which measures the rate at which a team’s fielders turn balls in play (except for home runs) into outs. Thus far this season, Cleveland is dead last in the majors in defensive efficiency, converting just 64% of its opponents' balls in play into outs. That number may look bad, but put into historical context, it looks a lot worse.
Comparing that raw figure to the full-season numbers from the last century of baseball, the Indians’ defensive efficiency (.641 to be precise) is the worst since the 1930 Phillies posted a .631 mark, which is the game's lowest figure since the start of the twentieth century. Within the context of their respective times, however, Cleveland has been even worse. In 1930, 67% of the balls in play in the major leagues were converted into outs; this year, that figure has been 69%. Compared to league average, then, the 1930 Phillies turned balls in play into outs at 93.8% of the league-average rate, but this year’s Indians have done so at just 92.5% of the league-average rate.
For more context, here’s a look at the five worst defensive efficiency ratings since 1902. "Lg. Def. Eff." is the league average of defensive efficiency that season.
Several things leap out of that table. The first is that, other than the Indians, the teams on this chart all played 85 or more years ago, with three of the five being Dead Ball-era teams. Those teams played on uneven fields with primitive gloves, often with a dirt-covered, soggy and misshapen ball. Accordingly, the league-average defensive efficiency back then hovered around 67%. It’s also worth noting here that the 1902 Orioles were a lame duck team whose manager, Hall of Famer John McGraw, spent the first half of the season earning suspensions from American League president Ban Johnson, then asked for and was granted his release at midseason.
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That leads to the most notable point: These were all terrible teams. All of them finished in last place with winning percentages even worse than that of this year’s Indians, who are themselves in last place in their division. That’s not a coincidence. That’s evidence that teams with this level of incompetence afield simply cannot win. Part of that is likely due to a good portion of the bad fielders on these teams being bad players in all aspects of the game, but just as significant is the importance of turning balls in play into outs.
Outs are the most precious commodity in the game of baseball, and the only way to prevent your opponents from scoring runs is to get them to make outs. There are only two ways to do that: strikeouts and plays made by your fielders. In the Dead Ball era, strikeouts were relatively uncommon: The league-average strikeout rate in 1903, for example, was 3.6 per nine innings. With very few balls leaving the yard, as well—there have already been twice as many home runs in 2015 as there were in all of 1903—that placed a paramount importance on fielding.
However, even with strikeout rates higher now than ever, 72% of the outs recorded this season have come on balls in play, and that doesn’t include dropped third strikes that require a tag or throw to first base. Fielding is thus an incredibly important aspect of the game, so a team that converts just 64% of its opponents’ balls in play into outs can’t expect to be competitive.
Compare Cleveland’s fielding to that of the Royals, who lead baseball with a .735 defensive efficiency and, not coincidentally, are tied for the third-best record in baseball at 18–10. Royals pitchers have faced 1,016 batters this season, and if you eliminate strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen and home runs, that works out to 714 balls in play. At the Royals’ rate of 73.5%, Kansas City would make 525 outs on those balls in play. Cleveland, at 64.1%, would make 458 outs, or 67 fewer. If the Royals were as bad in the field as the Indians, they’d have already given their opponents another 2 1/2 games worth of outs to work with this season, or roughly 2 1/2 extra outs per game.
Cleveland can’t be that bad in the field and expect to win, and one need look no further than their ace, Corey Kluber, for evidence. Kluber is 0–5 with a 5.04 ERA this season, but those numbers don’t reflect the quality of his pitching at all. He has been sharp, striking out more than a man per inning with a walk rate (2.2 per nine) comparable to his last two seasons (2.0 total), producing a strong 4.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s getting just as many ground balls as he did last year (48.4% versus 48.0 last year), and his line-drive rate is in line with his previous two seasons (23.4% against 21.4). Opponents aren’t hitting for any more power against Kluber than they did the last two seasons, and he's throwing just as hard as ever and working just as efficiently. By most measures, he’s every bit the pitcher he was last year when he won the Cy Young award.
The trouble is, Kluber's fielders aren’t turning balls in play into outs behind him. His batting average on balls in play thus far this year is .373 and, accordingly, his Fielding Independent Pitching figure is 3.20. The same thing is happening to breakout candidate Carlos Carrasco. He is pitching as well as he did in the second half last year—when he had a 1.72 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings—but his opponents are hitting .356 on balls in play, resulting in an ERA (4.71) more than a run and a half higher than his 3.02 FIP.
As a team, Cleveland has allowed the fifth most runs per game in baseball (5.00) despite having the tenth-best team FIP (3.68). Often we’ll say that a team with a poor defense needs to get more outs via strikeouts, but Cleveland leads the league in strikeout rate (9.6 per nine as a team) and it isn’t helping. The inflated walk rate (3.5/9) that has accompanied that strikeout rate is partially to blame, but ultimately, no team can strike out enough batters to overcome fielding as inept as that of the 2015 Indians.
Cleveland may experience some mild improvement by virtue of statistical correction as the season improves. The team will also benefit from the return of catcher Yan Gomes next month and, ideally, slick-fielding shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor soon after. Still, it will take more than Lindor, who is just 21 and slumping at the plate in Triple A, to make this even an average defensive team. And given the Indians' very average lineup, even a mediocre defense might not be enough to make them contenders.