If Moneyball taught us anything, it is that small market teams need to take advantage of market inefficiencies to be successful. While the Indians are extremely quiet about how they analyze players, it is known that they are at the forefront of statistical analysis. This is further shown by the fact that there are more people with masters degrees in the Indians front office than those Major League playing time. While their secrets remain that way, there is one trend that seems to have appeared in recent seasons. The Indians are building an army of outfielders with great arms.
While this might not entirely be an underrated quality in a player, the point is that the Indians are overvaluing this when compared to the rest of the league. There is more than one way to increase run differential during the season and the Indians are not going to pay for the league's top hitters and pitchers. Since defense is generally cheaper, they have been building up their defense for at least two years, with an emphasis on strong outfield arms. In just the past two seasons, the Indians have added Drew Stubbs (30 career assists, 8 season high), Nick Swisher (44, 10), Michael Bourn (43, 11), Ryan Raburn (25, 9), David Murphy (43, 10), Jeff Francoeur (119, 19) and Nyjer Morgan (24, 13) to join Michael Brantley (21, 11), who ranked fourth in the Majors in assists in 2013.
While not all these players are typical flame arms, they do have accurate arms and include some of the best players at throwing out base runners over the past decade. Right now, the Indians control the fourth (Brantley), seventh (Murphy), 23rd (Bourn), 54th (Francoeur) and 57th (Raburn) ranked players in terms of outfield assists from last season, all of which were in the top half of Major League outfielders. One thing all these players have in common is that they were all available cheap after a sub-par season. While Alex Gordon, Leonys Martin and Dayan Viciedo may have had better arms in recent years than Francoeur and Murphy, they were not available. Of the players they did sign, Fracoeur, Murphy and Stubbs were renowned for their arms strength long before joining the Indians.
This also seems to be an organizational concentration. Carlos Moncrief is currently considered the best arm in the Indians farm system and was given a quick look during the first two weeks of Spring Training. In addition, the Indians last two first round draft picks were highly touted, not just for their offense, but also for their defensive abilities. Both Tyler Naquin and Clint Frazier are primarily center fielders who have incredibly strong arms as well. Naquin, in fact, was largely considered the best outfield arm in his draft class.
While we don't have access to the statistical analysis that made the Indians put so much emphasis on great outfield arms, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Generally, the Indians have had good arms in right, like Shin-Soo Choo and Stubbs, average arms in left, like Austin Kearns and Jason Michaels, and absolutely terrible arms in center, like Coco Crisp and the poster child for noodle arms, Grady Sizemore.
In eight seasons with the Indians, Sizemore through out just 18 base runners and made 14 errors, most of which came on throws. Compared to the current speedy, high flying, defensive minded outfielder, Michael Brantley, there are obvious differences. In three less seasons, Brantley has thrown out three more base runners and made seven less errors. While two more outs and one less error per season may not seem like much, mistakes and outs are amplified when they take place in the outfield. While an error committed by the short stop may allow a runner to reach base or even get to second, outfield throwing errors often occur with a runner already at second or further. Because of this, outfield assists are probably the single biggest run eliminating play, while outfield errors are one of the biggest in allowing runs to score.
After decades of weak armed outfields (essentially since the 1980's with Cory Snyder and Brett Butler), the Chris Antonetti and the Indians are trying to turn things around. The Indians might not be able to out-homer every team out there, they will at least not allow unnecessary runs to score when the ball stays inside the park. While the 2014 outfield might not be as fast without Drew Stubbs, the arms should be even greater, especially if Francoeur makes the team. As always, it is yet to be seen, but the combination of Brantley, Bourn and Murphy is the best defensive outfield group the Indians have fielded in a long time and could eventually be one of the greatest in team history.