Going into this recent offseason, both the astute and casual fan understood that the starting rotation needed to be corrected to avoid another 90+ loss season in 2013. However, a quick glance over the thin and unimpressive free-agent list left most to wonder how the front-office would address the rotation.
The answer was, in grand small-market fashion, to address the defense instead.
They pulled a dual surprise by signing both Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, (and at the time of this writing are in the mix to sign Kyle Lohse). The Bourn signing has people thinking about the Indians as a dark-horse American League playoff contender. Everybody likes an underdog, the Indians have put themselves in the headlines, and are striving to become this season's equivalent to the the A's or the O's of 2012 .
When you look closer, the Indians seem to be well below the Tigers, and about on par with the Royals and the White Sox in the Central. Despite everything the Indians have done, people still question the starting rotation, and for legitimate reasons. On Cleveland sports talk radio, fans and "experts" express concerns regarding the Indians’ starters, and consensus seems to be that the Indians don’t have enough pitching. They did add Brett Myers and Trevor Bauer, but they still have a rotation fronted by Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez.
It’s true that starting pitching isn’t the team strength. If it were, the Indians would look a lot better than they do, and we wouldn’t be talking about them as a dark horse. In fact, they probably would have competed for a wild-card spot last season. As already noted, the Indians have not dramatically and directly upgraded their rotation with new personnel, and nobody knows what Masterson and Jimenez will deliver. What the Indians have
done is upgrade their staff indirectly, especially with the Bourn signing. A year ago, the Indians finished last in baseball in UZR
, at -57 runs. Not coincidentally, the Indians’ pitchers posted a collective 4.40 FIP
but a 4.79 ERA. The staff was already below league average, but the team defense made it look worse. Given the exact same personnel going forward, one would expect the Indians to regress closer to the mean, but the Indians’ defense was a big problem.
This offseason, the Indians have brought in Bourn and Swisher, and they also acquired Drew Stubbs in a trade. Bourn is one of the game’s premier defensive center fielders, Stubbs was one of them, too, and Swisher is a jack of all trades who can play any position (even quoted as telling Tito that he could spot Carlos Santana on a Sunday afternoon). I think it’s worthwhile to attempt a quick team UZR projection.
We can skip over catcher, as UZR doesn’t make an attempt. My suspicion is that Santana is an overall negative, but he’s not changing, and we’ll just write this off as a catcher mystery. They didn’t make any changes at catcher, so assuming something like similar performance seems pretty safe. Let’s move on.
First base looks like it could be occupied by both Swisher and Mark Reynolds, with Reynolds maybe playing more often. Swisher’s record is fine; Reynolds’ record is worse. Put together, I think we can give these guys a -5. Understand now that we’re estimating, and of course these targets are only ranges. A -5 is closer to 0 than -10.*
Second base will once again be Jason Kipnis, and because I don’t want to get into too much detail, I’ll just say that I’m giving Kipnis and the other second basemen an overall -5 as well. When we move on to shortstop, with Asdrubal Cabrera , I come up with a -10. Cabrera is a good hitter, for a shortstop. It’s a good thing that Cabrera is a good hitter, for a shortstop. In the field, he’s a big liability.
Third base could be a platoon between Mike Aviles and Lonnie Chisenhall, and as the lefty batter, Chisenhall should play more often. Here, I came up with another -5. You’re free to disagree with any of these numbers, but you’re probably not going to disagree by a huge margin.
So the infield is still something of a defensive mess. That’s without even considering Santana’s work behind the plate. But the outfield is where the Indians could shine. Let’s group the corner positions together. These should be occupied by Swisher, Stubbs, and Michael Brantley. Swisher's defensive track record in the outfield is pretty good. Stubbs’ numbers with Cincinnati were great, and he played in the middle. Brantley has been a center fielder, but the numbers don’t speak kindly of him. A corner position seems to be more up his alley. As a group, I’m putting these guys at +5, although it could be more like +10 depending on what you think of Stubbs and Brantley in easier positions. I’m trying to be conservative.
And then there’s Bourn in the middle. Bourn’s UZR last year was an insane +22. Before that, it was -6, and before that, it was +19. If you look at the UZR and the DRS figures, I think +10 is a reasonable estimate for this coming season adjusting for the mean. We have a good idea that Bourn is outstanding in the field, and he shouldn’t lose his legs over the course of one offseason.
Combine all those numbers and you get -10 runs. Of course that could be 0 runs, or -20 runs, or anywhere in between. There’s lots of error here because I am not exact as a computer, and we don’t know how often the backups will play, or how the team will take advantage of its flexibility. But while the team defense doesn’t project to be the best in the league, it does project to be better than it was a year ago, on the order of tens of runs. If you just want to use the numbers as presented, then the Indians could go from a -57 UZR to a -10 UZR. That’s a difference of 47 runs saved.
As you know, baseball isn’t about individual components, like power hitting or starting pitching. It’s about overall value, based on run production and run prevention in true Bill James spirit. There are concerns about how the Indians’ pitchers will contribute to the run prevention, but the defense should make a stronger contribution, helping the pitchers out. To say that the Indians’ rotation isn’t good enough is to say that the Indians will allow too many runs. But what the front office has done is add the equivalent of one or two front-of-the-rotation starters.
That’s a skewed way of looking at it, but think about what a 47-run upgrade looks like. Steamer
projects Masterson for a 4.12 ERA in 201 innings. Subtract 47 runs and now you have a 2.01 ERA projection. Masterson and Jimenez are projected for 4.12 and 4.46 ERAs. Subtract 20 runs from each and you’re left with 3.22 and 3.51. The advantage of better defense doesn’t apply to just one or two guys; it works across the board, a little bit for everybody. But the run prevention situation wouldn’t look better had the Indians upgraded to a couple strong starters, and put together another lousy defense behind them. Better pitchers generate more outs and throw more innings. Better defenders allow the pitchers to generate more outs and throw more innings.
The rotation is still not good by itself, and everybody’s got question marks. Bauer, as much of a "big time" prospect as he is, can’t be trusted yet to throw enough strikes, and I don’t need to review the issues with the major guys. We don’t know how Myers is going to re-adjust to the rotation, and this is a reason why the Indians still don’t seem like a probable playoff contender. But the Indians’ pitchers are going to be more effective going forward, because now the Indians’ pitchers will be pitching in front of these guys:
Make your rotation 40 runs better and you make your run prevention 40 runs better. Make your defense 40 runs better and you make your run prevention 40 runs better. The Indians might not have brought in a ton of new pitching talent, but they are providing aid for the talent they have.
For a small-market team, improving the defense is more cost-effective than improving the rotation as starting pitchers are usually at a premium.
*Please refer to the UZR scale provided by the link above.
(Special thanks to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, ESPN and CBS Sports)