For the time period beginning in 2015 through 2020, Cleveland baseball had the best pitching production in baseball, leading in fWAR, tied for 1st in K% (percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeout), and carrying the second lowest walk rate. Run prevention is a harmonized endeavor, influenced heavily by pitching, be it strikeouts, contact management, and command. However, as pitching, and the proportion of outcomes have changed, investing in optimal defense has become a bit more complex.
In 2017, at the Hardball Times, I wrote about increasing defensive versatility as a tool to get more offense in the lineup, as the number of defensive opportunities declined. Essentially, I highlighted a few key changes which were diminishing the impact defense in general, and certain positions specifically, were becoming less impactful defensively. First, rising strikeout rates, have significantly diminished the number of balls in play.
As an example, in 2020, the pitching staff which placed 29th in K% was at 20.4%. As recently as 2010, that would have placed the team 5th best in baseball in K%. In 2000, that pitching staff would have been in 1st place by nearly a full percentage point. In 2020, the league K% was 23.4%. In 2010, it was 18.4%. In a 10 year period, the amount of balls in play has been reduced by 5%.
Something else happened too, at the margins, more balls are being hit to the pull field to max out launch angle value. Even the small gap following, Pull% in 2010, 39.2%. 2020-41% resulting in a 2% change is significant. Additionally, usage of the shift has been radicalized. At the start of the 2010s, the league-wide shift rate sat around 10%, now teams shift more than 25% of the time.
So three key factors. 1. A materially fewer number of balls are put in play. 2. A growing plurality of balls are hit to the pull field. 3. Teams are using, and mastering defensive positioning better than ever before. Defensive positioning outside of shifts is huge, it makes it far easier to hide the slower athletes at corner outfield spots, and places like second base.
Now, how does this specifically apply to Cleveland baseball. Lets look first at outfield options. The team plans to provide , Josh Naylor, Eddie Rosario, and to a lesser extent Franmil Reyes, with numerous innings in corner outfield spots in 2021. By almost any measure, each is a fringe defender at best. Further, defensive minded types like Oscar Mercado, and Bradley Zimmer look endangered on the cut line. Further, the team is providing Amed Rosario an opportunity to transition from shortstop to center field. Does all of this make sense?
It is worth noting that stylistically, the 2021 Cleveland rotation is different than the past half-decade of Cleveland pitching. Shane Bieber-Trevor Bauer- Mike Clevinger-Carlos Carrasco- Corey Kluber all ran plus-plus strikeout rates (which is why playing Carlos Santana in LF in a World Series game made sense). Now only Bieber remains, and the amount of contact will very likely increase.
Using 23.4% as the league average strikeout rate bar, Bieber-Zach Plesac-Triston McKenzie should be above average. Aaron Civale, Cal Quantrill, and Adam Plutko will all likely be south of average. The bullpen should run plus strikeout rates with James Karinchak, Phil Maton, and to a lesser extent probably Emmanuel Clase. The team should still sit at a slightly above average rate but more likely 24%-25% instead of 2020’s 28%.
The batted ball profile in terms of ground balls versus fly balls will like be somewhere near average, perhaps leaning towards a few more fly balls than average.
With all of this in mind, the case for Amed Rosario is particularly fascinating, and the 2020 Delino Deshields Jr experience particularly galling. Center field has seen one of the most significant decreases in balls in zone. Indeed, in the past decade, the number of plays in the center field zone has decreased approximately 20%; even more than that since 2005. This is not to say that center field defense does not matter but rather that it matters far less than it ever has before.
In many ways, the corner outfield positions are similar though not as extreme. There are fewer plays to make in corner outfield positions than a decade ago, and defensive positioning makes it even easier to hide the more clunky athletes like Naylor, Rosario and Reyes. When you have fewer plays in total, better positioning in general, the number of plays where an elite defender could distinguish himself from a poor defender significantly decreases. Whereas, the net number of plate appearances has changed marginally if at all year over year.
In Cleveland, the roster has a significant offensive shortage, above average infield defense with Ramirez-Gimenez-Hernandez-whoever plays 1st base, and impact catcher defense. With diminishing returns on outfield defense, this is the perfect time to run out Reyes-Rosario-Rosario. There will be bad days. There will be days where the corner outfield athleticism hurts you but the wager is, the offensive value it provides on the whole will outweigh the bad days.
Categories: Cleveland Indians