The Indians defense has put up some impressive numbers this season. They are last in all of baseball in fielding percent (.980), while being first in errors committed (92) despite the pitching staff being second in the Majors in strike outs (1,046) meaning they have had to make fewer plays than almost any other Major League team. There is no question the Indians have been the worst defensive team in baseball this year and have been since the first week, so the question remains, has there been an Indians team that was worse than this one?
First, it is important to note that all defenders are not equally responsible. Michael Brantley has been one of the best outfielders in the league, not just the best on the team. He has committed just a single error and it occurred early on in the season when another outfielder ran into him while he was trying to catch an easy fly. In addition, Michael Bourn and his replacements have been impressive as well. Bourn has a slightly reduced range compared to previous seasons and has committed just two errors this year with Tyler Holt, Nyjer Morgan and Chris Dickerson combining for one error between them in 227 plays. There have also been players who have been good at one position or another, despite being below average overall. This includes Carlos Santana at first base and Mike Aviles at second or short.
Away from the very little good, there has been plenty of bad. The worst of which has been anyone at third base, but especially Lonnie Chisenhall. Chisenhall has always been below average defensively, but this has been his first full season at the position. According to FanGraphs.com UZR, Chisenhall has allowed 11.1 more runs than the average third baseman and his -12.2 WAR has almost completely negated his 14.5 WAR at the plate.
While not a regular, Ryan Raburn has also been incredibly disappointing in the field. In addition to having a very limited range (1.52 range factor per 9 innings compared to a league average of 2.25), he has committed two errors in 47 attempts, leading to a terrible .957 fielding percent as an outfielder. In addition to Raburn, many other Indians players have been below average as well including Nick Swisher (9 errors), Jason Kipnis (6), Yan Gomes (12) and the now former short stop Asdrubal Cabrera (13).
On to the historical level, it is hard to compare previous seasons considering advanced defensive metrics, so we are forced back into the old fashioned simple errors and fielding percent. The current .9801 team fielding percent is the worst by the Indians since the strike shortened season of 1994 (.9796) and the lowest in a 162 game season since 1993 (.9756 FLD%). Of course, like most other stats compared throughout time, it is difficult to compare historical defenses. For example, this year, three teams have a fielding percent of .988 to lead the Majors with the Indians coming in last with a .980, placing the whole league within 8/10ths of a percent. Just a couple decades ago, in 1980, the league leading Indians had a .984 fielding percent while the Mets came in last at .973. Going back in time, things get continually worse all the way to Cleveland’s first season in 1901 when they committed 267 errors for a fielding percent of .943 while the league ranged from .922 to .956.
The point of all this is to say this is not literally the worst defensive team ever or even the worst in the past thirty years. In fact, compared to early baseball, it would be a team full of Gold Glovers. However, as all particulars of baseball have improved over the years the Indians have to compete against the present teams. Considering the modern game, the Indians have actually been one of the worst defensive teams for over a decade, never being able to return to their amazing year in 2000 that saw Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman and Omar Vizquel all win Gold Gloves as the team finished with a .988 fielding percent.
Looking at UZR (which includes range as well as completion of plays), defense has cost the Indians 71.2 more runs than the average team, 14 more than the 29th place Astros. Based on actual errors as decided by an official scorer, the Indians have allowed 60 unearned runs with the biggest culprit being Cabrera, who was at fault for 12, then Yan Gomes who has allowed eight.
Considering the cost of great pitching and hitting on the free market and in trade, it would seem that improving the defense would be one of the most cost effective ways to improve the team to a massive extent. Since the Indians have scored 525 runs and allowed 516 (expected Pythagorean W% of .509 for 82 wins), improving the defense to just league average would give the Indians a Pythagorean W% of .582 which would equate to 94 wins in a full season. This year, that would likely mean the difference between first and third in the Central Division.
The Indians have already made some improvements on their defense, but there is room for much more. Jose Ramirez is a huge step up from Cabrera at short and Santana is a major improvement over Nick Swisher at first. Gomes has improved his own defense back to his normal standard. With the injury to David Murphy, promotion of Tyler Holt and return of Michael Bourn, the outfield defense should be considerably improved . With that done, the biggest weaknesses are at third and second base, but at both positions the current player is producing more at the plate than they cost in the field. While it is likely too late to make any big differences this season, improving the defense needs to be the Indians number one priority going into 2015 if they expect to contend for the division and more.