“What you got in your defense, son?”
The Indians made their 95th error of the season Sunday, 23 more than the league average. Lonnie Chisenhall committed the infraction – his 16th in just 89 games at third base.
Were there some sort of bizarre award for defense this porous, the Indians would drop that, too.
While the errors themselves are quantifiable, what’s more difficult to determine is how much of an impact they’ve had on the Tribe’s still-present playoff hunt, which we’ll expound upon in a minute.
First, just know that the Indians have the worst defensive runs saved mark (minus-85) in baseball, and it’s not even close. The Twins are next on the list, at minus-45. Also know that the Indians’ are, per FanGraphs.com, on pace to post the second-worst Ultimate Zone Rating since 2002.
This is advanced analytical history in the making, folks. And it’s all the more amazing considering the Indians have a pitching staff posting one of the greatest strikeout rates (8.68 K’s per nine innings) in history and, ergo, limiting the number of balls put in play.
The Indians can’t be completely shocked by what’s transpired. Not in a season in which Carlos Santana was their Opening Day third baseman (and more on him in a minute, too). Not when the advanced defensive metrics have pooh-poohed their efforts every year since 2008.
But really, just as no metric can truly assess how this detrimental defense has altered the bottom line, none could have forecast this much frustration, either.
“With defense,” said general manager Chris Antonetti, “there’s still a lot more uncertainty with how you even evaluate it, let alone getting into projecting it. I think it’s come a long way. I think we’ve spent a lot of time internally getting our arms around it. But I think the case with us this year is that no matter how you evaluate it, it hasn’t been as good as we hoped or expected.”
Now, about that impact. Consider that third-inning Chisenhall error against the Orioles. Moments earlier, second baseman Jason Kipnis had made a heads-up play on a Nick Hundley liner to turn two for starter Danny Salazar. That brought up Jonathan Schoop with none on and two out, and Salazar got him to hit into what ought to have been the inning-ending groundball.
Alas, Chisenhall booted it, and Schoop advanced all the way to second. Salazar would expend another 12 pitches to walk Nick Markakis and get Steve Pearce to pop out to end the inning. Salazar would later show signs of fatigue in the sixth, when he left with two on and none out, and reliever Scott Atchison would give up the tying and go-ahead runs, and the Indians went on to lose, 4-1. Whether Salazar would have been any more fresh in that frame had he not needed that fourth out earlier is an open-ended question, and perhaps it’s a stretch to assume such an impact.
It is, however, no stretch to assume that the Indians have cost themselves some bullets, leads and, ultimately, wins. And now that they’re in a position in which literally every loss feels like a threat to their Wild Card livelihood, the sins of the gloves stand out all the more.
Again, the Indians knew they were taking on a defensive risk when they installed Santana as their starting third baseman at the outset of their season, but the irony there is that Santana has suddenly emerged as their most adept infield defender — albeit at first.
“He’s really good at first base,” Antonetti said. “His hands work well. His feet work well.”
Or as Terry Francona put it: “He doesn’t always look athletic. His pockets are hanging out, his shirt tail is out. But he is very athletic.”
As for the rest of the infield, well…
Chisenhall’s defensive lapses were forgivable when he was hitting .332 in the first half to seize the starting duties at the hot corner, less so now that he’s hitting a buck-sixty-five in the second half.
At short, Jose Ramirez is a definite improvement over Asdrubal Cabrera, who, by the time he was traded to the Nats, had about as much range as a dead moth. But it’s still too soon to tell if Ramirez is a staple at short, particularly with Francisco Lindor looming in Triple-A.
The defensive metrics, meanwhile, are not kind to Kipnis, though his plate power dip (.350 SLG) is still the greater source of concern.
In the outfield, Michael Brantley rates better in center field than his regular spot in left, and the Tribe’s regular center fielder – Michael Bourn – hasn’t been very regular at all because of the hamstring issues that have hamstrung his season and, it turns out, his defensive metrics. David Murphy, now out with an oblique injury, was acquired in part because of his glove in right, but his advanced numbers also went backward this year. Nick Swisher, who could be done for the year with a knee injury, played three positions in the field (first base, left and right), all of them poorly. Chris Dickerson has been serviceable. Ryan Raburn made an out-of-nowhere diving grab last week that defied his otherwise adventurous output.
Anyway, the only number that truly matters to the Indians at this juncture – 123 games into the season — is 4 1/2. That’s their deficit in the AL Wild Card hunt. Interestingly, the 2013 Indians, after 123 games, were also 4 ½ back. That Tribe club went on to go 21-6 in September to grab the Wild Card top spot, and a soft September schedule didn’t hurt. This year, the Indians have just 14 of their remaining 39 games against clubs with winning records, but they’ll also play 30 games in 30 days from Aug. 26 to Sept. 24 — no small test.
The Indians might yet have a run in them. By this point, they know what they’re getting every fifth day from Corey Kluber, who is stoically pitching his way into the Cy Young conversation. Behind him, Salazar, Trevor Bauer and now Carlos Carrasco are flashing power arms with plenty of potential.
None of it matters, though, if the gloves don’t cooperate. The Indians still have a slight opportunity to make a surge.
Will they seize it or drop it?