Will the Indians’ defense hold them back in 2015?

The Indians’ defense cost them a playoff berth in 2014.

Whether you watched every game or merely looked at the performance data, this is a conclusion that most fans come to.

This is, of course, a bold claim that cannot be established, though the metric defensive runs saved would cause us to estimate that their defense cost them an estimated seven wins, which allows us to make such a claim.

Defense is a continual frontier. Though we may be better able to estimate defensive skill, defensive value, we accept that at the margins, some flaws are imperceptible. This discussion of the Indians’ defense in 2015 will discuss defensive issues, which are easy to perceive a la the Indians leading MLB in errors with 116 in 2014 or issues which are harder to perceive like the unquantifiable range.

Indeed, many errors are glaring, imprinted into our brains by the horror of the experience itself:

Despite a thoroughly rewarding season, which was exciting down to the final week, I must confess that this play may have been the defining image of the season.

Digressing, though not many errors cause such visceral reactions of anger and frustration, errors are highly discernible as misplay/inadequacy is clear.

One of the assumptions is that with repetition, or alternative practice, such mistakes can be improved upon at the margins. Further, the narrative exists that with practice, combined with a some sort of “regression to the mean,” the Indians will just be significantly better defensively in 2015.

I wholly expect that the Indians will make less errors in 2015 but as to whether or not they are substantively better defensively, that will depend on how much this roster turns over; how much certain players are forced to play certain positions.

I would submit that there are three central skills of a player defensively, though their importance shifts by position. Not including catcher, these skills are range, consistency of hands and arm.

The problem has long been that though we can assign value to consistent defenders and stable arms, assigning numerical values to range is not simple.

And often our visual perception of range can differ from the numerical outputs, especially with the increase of shifts.

Yet, I am of the volition that with multiple seasons of DRS/UZR data and aligning agreement from the eye test, that is allowing watching a lot of games to shape our perception of a player’s range, we can classify fielders in certain ranges.

(UZR and DRS are two defensive statistics which attempt to estimate defensive player value via play by play data which assigns a value to each play made or not made by a fielder. There is some judgment based issues but it offers a more complete picture than errors.)

Therefore, lets walk through the positions, evaluate the defensive options in terms of expected skill and playing time, in order to evaluate the possibility of improvement.

Catcher: Be it UZR, DRS or just the eye test, we know that Yan Gomes is an elite defender. When one considers the growth of pitch framing data, and his skill, it is easy to expect a Gold Glove or two for Gomes before all is said and done. Simply, he is a plus receiver, an elite thrower, a good game caller: everything you could dream of from a catcher. However, in the cumulative consideration of run prevention, only minimal improvement is possible, if any.

1st Base: The first messy position. Swisher played 459 innings at first in 2014, which much like his offensive production, was a complete disaster.  Though we can note injury as a cause of decreased athleticism, one cannot simply expect athleticism to return. Indeed, it is worth noting that among skills, defense is the skill that peaks the earliest and declines rapidly as players age. That is because mobility or speed can decline quickly, which brutalizes performance. Brandon Moss has had significant reps over three seasons at first base. In each one, he has rated out as below average or just bad. Yes, the great defensive hope at first base is Carlos Santana.

Santana played 851 innings at first in 2014, essentially 95 games, both visually and statistically (too limited to draw large conclusions), Santana was mostly average. This leads to a timid positive, which is 120-130 games at first could make for a miniscule defensive improvement over 2014.

2nd Base: Kipnis will hold second base down as long as he is healthy, so quick conclusions. Kipnis has always graded out via DRS and UZR as average to a tick below. In 2014, both UZR and DRS had him as abysmal. It is possible that injury played a role, so runs saving could occur if he moves from poor back to just a tick below average.

Shortstop:  This situation offers complexity in terms of playing time but one thing is certain: no matter the ratio, Ramirez/Lindor for 140-162 is immensely better than a season that included Asdrubel Cabrera playing 92 games there.

In 2014, Jose Ramirez offered 4 runs saved over average, in only 56 games. In 92 games Cabrera posted -7. This data is volatile, and may overvalue Ramirez defensively at shortstop.

However, the marginal value gain of replacing a near league worst defender with an average to above average defender is a huge net value. Whereas, the marginal value between Lindor and Ramirez defensively won’t be near the savings but the combination of the two for a full season signals dynamic value gain defensively at shortstop.

3rd Base: Adam Burke discussed Chisenhall’s ceiling, including his ultimate limitations defensively at 3rd base. Chisenhall really struggled in 2014 defensively, barely outplaying a converted catcher. One of the issues for Chisenhall is consistency. Lonnie can be truly erratic defensively as errors often adequately express his issues, his range is not bad as he is quite athletic but he just makes too many mistakes on routine plays. However, significant improvement at third base likely only occurs if Giovanny Urshela plays significant time there. Urshela, as detailed on EHC and the Diatribe, is a true plus defender. However, health and sustaining plate discipline improvements will provide Urshela his opportunity. Projecting playing time, opportunity can be challenging which leaves 3rd as a big question mark as to whether it improves.

Left Field: Short and simple, Michael Brantley is on either side of average defensively but will likely play the entirety of 2015 in left, as he ages no improvement can be expected, perhaps the opposite.

Center Field: A little bit of foreboding, Michael Bourn enters 2015 at 32 years old, near on the cliff of the defensive aging curve. Can players defy the aging curve? Of course, it is a collection, which produces a trend, not a law. However, it does indicate the likelihood of decline, which should be considered when we look at right field as well. Bourn was once the best defensive center fielders in baseball, a player whose value was driven by defense. Can Bourn improve with sustained health in 2015? Yes. But betting on anything more than marginal improvement is silly and there exists the possibility that he gets worse as the injuries have the potential to sap his speed.

Right Field: David Murphy 33,  Nick Swisher 34, Brandon Moss 31, Ryan Raburn 33. These are your right field options. One is coming of hip surgery, one of multiple knee surgeries and the other two were horrendous defensively in 2014. Ultimately, Moss and Swisher should just not be on the field very often, as they should be relegated to DH to protect there bodies against injury. However, Raburn and Murphy were so bad defensively that is hard to not consider the other two. The only way this position gets marginally better in 2015 is if an injury or two occurs and one of Ramsey, Naquin, Holt or Moncrief plays significant time there.

Defensive Replacements: If Francona goes with an 8 man pen, as silly as that is, the Indians bench will include Raburn, Murphy, or both, Aviles and Perez. Perez can defend. The rest can’t. Aviles is at best average at any position he plays and ultimately his usefulness is on the decline. The only improvement will be if Lindor displaces Ramirez, and moves Ramirez to the Aviles role.

The only real improvements which are possible include more playing time for Santana at 1st, a full season of Ramirez/Lindor at short and a possible call-up at third base. Will the errors decline? Sure. However, unless significant changes occur along the way, this team will have defensive issues because bringing back a lot of the same certainly doesn’t make you rangier, in fact it might make you less rangy.

The Indians simply have to be proactive, with Urshela if he is ready, moving Lindor along, getting Ramirez maximum playing time and consider punting Murphy/Raburn for one of the guys in Columbus. If not, the defense could prove costly once again in 2015.

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