19 games into the season, the Indians are 13-6. One huge reason the Tribe has been playing so well is the performance of the defense. The Indians starting rotation is heavily dependent on getting ground ball outs, making the infield defense especially important. Defense is often overlooked, because there aren’t very many accurate statistics to show how good a defense really is. Three ways I judge a defense are the traditional way (dividing assists and put-outs by total chances), with advanced defensive metrics (like UZR, explained here) and with my own eyes (watching every game and making a note of all non-routine plays).
One thing that makes judging the team’s defense easier this season is that the starters have played almost every game at every position except left field. So far this year, only two Indians players have 2 errors (Matt LaPorta and Josh Tomlin), and no one has more than 2. All the rest of the starters have exactly one, except Carlos Santana, who is yet to make an error. Jack Hannahan, Asdrubal Cabrera are each 4th in fielding percentage at their positions, only trailing players that have yet to make an error. Carlos Santana is obviously in first place with a 1.000 fielding percent among catchers. He is tied with 7 other backstops.
I believe there is a lot more to defense than this so, while official scorers only record errors and outs, I record a few other statistics for my own uses, most notably for use in my ‘Player of the Game’ equation. The numbers I keep track of are opinion based and are in ranking of severity, Amazing Play, Great Play, Above Average Play, Misplay, Stupid Play and Bad Play. Amazing Plays are basically reserved for full extension diving plays and triple plays. Great Plays usually include outfield assists and other plays that aren’t quite amazing. Above Average is exactly as it sounds, any play that is good enough to make a note of. A Bad Play is a play that should have been called an error, but wasn’t. This can be a dropped double play (you can’t assume a double play, so there can’t be an error) or a play like Adam Everett’s double clutch yesterday, which was somehow not called an error. Misplays are plays that could have been made, but should not have been called errors and a stupid play is something that doesn’t make any sense, like throwing to the wrong base or being out of position.
According to my numbers, the two most spectacular defenders are the same as noted by their rank in fielding percent, Hannahan and Cabrera. Both players have 8 plays on the good side of the spectrum. Next best are three players tied with three positive plays, Adam Everett, Matt LaPorta and Shin-Soo Choo. On the negative side, only two players have more than one bad play, both Matt LaPorta and Asdrubal Cabrera have 3. By my mark, the best defensive play of the year so far was Carlos Santana’s triple play on a pop-up bunt while he was playing first base.
The most legitimate representation of defensive play at this point in time is the UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating. UZR is based on stats gathered by Baseball Info Solutions, of how many balls a defender gets to in a certain specified zone on the field. Players are then rated, with an average defensive player getting a score of zero. Right now in all of baseball, the number one player in UZR is none other than Jack Hannahan, Indians third baseman. Jack has a score of 4.2 and is followed closely by Shin-Soo Choo who is 5th in the American League with a score of 3.2.
All these stats go together to show a couple things. First, Jack Hannahan has been vastly under appreciated to this point, and should be considered a more than capable place holder at third base until Lonnie Chisenhall is ready. Second, other than Matt LaPorta, this team is not only strong defensively, but has players among the best in the league all over the field. Finally, there has been one thing missing from this report, the same thing that was missing from the Indians first two weeks of 2011. Two-time Gold Glove winning outfielder, Grady Sizemore has returned to the team, removing the question mark that has been left field and moving Michael Brantley, a very good center-fielder, to left field. It has been pretty well documented that center-fielders who move to left-field see a dramatic bump in defensive statistics, because they have less field to cover. Not only is the Indians defense good (5th in the AL in fielding percent), but it could be getting even better.
UZR statistics are from http://www.fangraphs.com/