The Cleveland Indians Are an Odd Team
No, I’m not referring to racist mascot Chief Wahoo, though that’s pretty weird too. Rather, the Indians are notable for their run-prevention group, and the increasingly lop-sided division of labor between their starting pitchers, who have been remarkable, and their fielders, who have been remarkably bad. It feels like we should keep these two facets of the Indians separate, if for no other reason than one has been going on a long time, while the other is quite recent. But as with most things about how pitching and fielding interact, I’m not really sure that they ARE separate. I have no idea, so I’m just going to throw some things out there, and we can all guess. I feel that’s a bad opening for a baseball post, but I also feel it’s an unstated and important prologue to *any* baseball post.
Here are the two distinct-but-possibly-related-in-ways-I-can’t-really-fathom facts: 1) The Indians have failed spectacularly at catching the baseball this year, and the entire UZR era suggests that this is pretty common for the Tribe. 2) The Indians, and their starters in particular, are historically great at striking out opposing batters.
Let’s delve into these two things in order. This year, the Indians team DER is a laughably bad .678, meaning they’ve turned just under 68% of balls in play into outs. The Rays and Royals are way up over 73%, so while the range isn’t huge here, it’s pretty important given the sheer numbers of balls in play. Last year, the Indians ranked 25th, and they were 23rd the year before. Baseball Prospectus calculates a park-adjusted team defensive efficiency percentage, which measures the percentage of balls in play above/below league average a team converts into outs. The Indians have been below average now for 10 years, and ranked dead last back in 2002 as well.
Now, DER is a simple team-based stat, but it can’t tell you as much about the quality of the balls in play. Turning 60% of line drives into outs would be remarkable. Turning 90% of pop-ups into outs would be atrocious. So, we could also look at UZR, which Fangraphs reports going back to 2002. Over the entire history of UZR, 2002-2015, the Indians have given up 300 runs more than average, 29th in baseball behind only the Yankees (who fielded one of the worst fielding teams in recent memory in 2005, which, incidentally, was the Indians sole really good defensive season). If you look at their outfield over that 2002-2015 span, it rates OK – they’re slightly above average, but nothing incredible. If they were awful, the problem must be on the infield. And it is. The Indians shortstops rank 29th in baseball over that time, giving up more than 100 runs more than average, and finishing a bit ahead of the Yankees and sabermetric whipping-boy, Derek Jeter.
Well, that’s understandable, right? They had Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera there for a bunch of that time, and neither was a gold glover. This is where it gets interesting, at least to me. The Indians have had essentially four full-time shortstops since 2002: Omar Vizquel, Peralta, Cabrera and now Jose Ramirez. The data for Omar starts in 2002, near the end of his tenure in Cleveland, and when Vizquel was 35 years old, so maybe it’s not a huge surprise that UZR didn’t think much of Omar’s defense. He ranked a tiny bit below average in 2002, then did quite well in 2003 as Peralta’s back-up, and back to average again in 2004. All told, Omar was essentially dead on league average over three seasons. After the M’s voided a trade for him, he moved on to San Francisco in 2005 for his age-38 season. From that point through the end of his career, so, from age *38 to 45* Omar saved over 50 runs more than the average shortstop.
With Omar gone, the SS job fell to Jhonny Peralta, a much better hitter than little O, but not someone who looked like a great defensive SS. So no one thought much was amiss when Perlta racked up -28 runs over 5-6 full-time seasons. But interestingly, as soon as he was traded to Detroit, at the age of 28, Peralta started running well-above-average UZRs. Since LEAVING Cleveland, Peralta’s career UZR at SS is +36.1. Asdrubal Cabrera took over from Peralta after a little while as his double play partner; Cabrera really started seeing the majority of time at SS in 2009, at the age of 23. In his 6 full seasons at SS, Cabrera was the Indians worst offender, yielding nearly 50 runs more than the average shortstop. Tiny sample UZRs aren’t great, but you’ve seen the pattern here, so it probably won’t shock you that Cabrera’s done a bit better than average this year at age 29 for Tampa – one of the league’s best defensive teams.
After a decade-plus of bad SS play, the Indians turned the position over to Jose Ramirez, a guy who’d played all over the IF in the minors, and not someone scouts saw as an Omar Vizquel-style slick fielder. After a brilliant half-year in 2014, he’s fallen back to earth in 2015, ranking below average. I have no idea what Ramirez’s true talent at SS really is, but the larger point is this: I have no idea what ANY of these guys’ true talent is at this point. The numbers suggest that Omar really was a brilliant defender, and that Jhonny Peralta’s pretty good too, despite some ugliness when he was with Cleveland. Maybe Asdrubal Cabrera *wasn’t* a bad SS, which is nice, because I rated him pretty highly in the minors. What the hell is going on? Dave wrote an article about the disconnect between Peralta’s numbers in and out of Cleveland last year, but that was focused more on Peralta himself. I don’t care too much about Peralta – I want to know about *Cleveland*. Again, the simple thing would be to say that UZR is wrong, or that it’s just broken when it comes to the Indians. But Cleveland’s DER, calculated in a very, very different way, shows that they’ve been poor too. I feel confident that *something* was wrong with Cleveland’s defense, but I’m not confident at all about who caused it.
The second thing that stands out about Cleveland is their starting pitching. Thus far in 2015, their starters have struck out over 26% of opposing batters, a startling 10.10 K/9. They probably can’t keep that pace up, but they finished 2014 at 23.4%, the highest mark I’ve found – ever. That’s not surprising, given the increase in strikeouts overall, and that for most of baseball history, starters hitting 20% seemed nearly impossible. No team did it until the Indians hit 20.8% in 1968, the year of the pitcher, and then the Astros hit 21% the year after. From there, you get the top teams settling in around 18% through the 70s, dipping down to 15% or so around 1980, and rising back to 18% in 1985 (Dwight Gooden’s big year) and 20% in 1986 (Mike Scott, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan). From 1987-2000, the best teams were around 19-20%. That changed in 2001, when 4 teams topped 20% and the Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling Diamondbacks shot up to 22.4%. The D-Backs actually bettered that figure the next year, and 2003 saw the Prior/Wood Cubs jump to 22.5% before fading a bit in 2004-5 (they led MLB in all three years). 2009 saw Tim Lincecum’s first big year, and that pushed the Giants over 21%, the first club to do that since ’04. And then the pace of increasing strikeouts picked up league wide, as some group’s been above 21% each year. In 2013, the historically dominant Tigers pushed past 23% for the first time, as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and a career year from Anibal Sanchez led the Tigers to the pennant. But their record would be topped the next year by Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. Who the hell are these guys?
Unlike the Rays/Orioles/Astros, there’s less of an overall, unified approach, at least to my eye. Trevor Bauer famously loves pitching up in the zone, and high-fastballs followed by curves or splitters can play tricks on opposing hitters. But Corey Kluber throws a sinker, not a rising four-seamer, and while he certainly doesn’t keep it at the knees, he doesn’t use his fastball the way Bauer/Chris Young do. He’s had some success when throwing high, but it’s not a defining approach the way it is for Bauer. Kluber and Carrasco have good hard sliders that have proven very effective, including against opposite-handed hitters. But Bauer’s was slower than his teammates’, and he’s known more for throwing 7-8 pitches, not one true weapon. Moreover, while all had decent stuff, none of these guys were elite K% pitchers before 2014. Carrasco had a K% under 16% in 2011. Bauer was at 21% coming into the year, and Kluber was at 19% in 2012.
Now, it makes some sense that if you see your teammates can’t reliably catch the baseball that you might take some steps to reduce the number of balls in play you allow. But it’s somewhat doubtful that mediocre defense is more of an incentive than the incentive that exists for all pitchers, from little league on, to get strikeouts. The question is, do the Indians DO something that results in an abnormally difficult-to-field set of balls in play? Is there some kind of trade-off where batters swing and miss all the time, but hit the ball well when they catch up to it? Are the Indians trading low contact for high contact quality? For one thing, they lead baseball in Zone%, the percentage of pitches in the zone, and contact on pitches *in* the zone is obviously better than contact on out-of-zone pitches.
But given the dominant K% numbers and above-average velocity, we’d expect the Indians BABIP to be *lower* than league average. That’s not what we see, as we’ve discussed. Instead, the Indians BABIP is awful, and that turns their eye-popping FIP into a mediocre group ERA, and that was true last year as well. Corey Kluber’s the poster child for this, as his FIP last year was lower than anything Felix has ever put up. But due to balls-in-play, his ERA came in above his FIP (and above Felix’s). This year, Kluber’s FIP is even lower, but his BABIP luck is worse, and thus the gap between his ERA and FIP is huge – but not as big as Carlos Carrasco’s.
So what’s going on here? Are these things related, or is the 2014-15 strikeout thing unrelated to Cleveland’s reliably lousy defending? If they’re separate, what accounts for the defensive performance? Is there some odd park effect at work here? Is the infield subject to more shadows than other parks? Is there a “fielder’s eye” behind the plate that slows an IF’s first step? If they’re related, what causes it, and why don’t we see it for other teams? The other teams that gave up really high BABIP last year – the Twins, D-Backs, Rangers, etc. employed low-K starters. I’m open to theories, conspiracy or otherwise, here.