Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs. Three center fielders roaming the outfield in Progressive Field. It was supposed to be an elite trio that would help out the Tribe’s pitching staff.
So did the Tribe’s pitchers benefit from the defense?
Surprisingly, not only did the defense fail to help out it actually may have hurt the Tribe’s pitching performance.
The Indians pitching staff ranked 19th in opponents batting average on fly balls (excluding home runs). It’s impossible to pin that all on the defense, but by eliminating home runs the defense plays a fairly significant role in the stats.
Take a look at the top three pitching staffs in opponent’s batting average on fly balls this season, in addition to those teams’ Defensive Runs Saved in the outfield this year.
Athletics – .115 Opp BA, +7 DRS
Rangers – .116 Opp BA, +29 DRS
Yankees – .118 Opp BA, +16 DRS
It’s tough to say to what extent defense plays a role pitching performance, but it’s fair to say – based off these numbers and simple common sense – that defense factors into the equation somewhere.
So take a look at how the Tribe’s outfield faired in these metrics…
Indians – .142 Opp BA, -3 DRS
The Indians rate below average in both categories, with the DRS metric estimating that the outfield’s performance actually cost the Tribe a few runs over the course of the season.
It’s worth noting that the high wall in left field factors into the equation. The Indians ranked 22nd in opponents average on fly balls to left (for obviously similar reasons, the Red Sox ranked dead last).
But the Indians worst defensive effort actually came from Drew Stubbs in right field.
Stubbs ranked 20th out of 28 qualifying right fielders in defensive runs saved this season. If Ultimate Zone Rating is your defensive metric of choice, he didn’t fair much better (16th out of 28).
Based on these stats, it should come as no surprise that Tribe pitchers ranked 24th in opponents average on fly balls to far right field (chart on right shows the exact location of the “far right field” balls).
As you can see in the hit chart, there’s a cluster of balls that appear to drop just in front of the right fielder, perhaps indicating that Stubbs plays too deep.
But if Stubbs is intentionally playing deep, one would expect a decrease in extra-base hits. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, as the Tribe’s right field slugging percentage ranked 26th overall.
I imagine some of you are skeptical as to the correlation between defense and pitching performance on fly balls to these locations. After all, some balls simply land in places where the fielder can’t make a play.
Hopefully these numbers can win you over… The following is a list of the top five teams based on opponents average on fly balls to far right field and their primary right fielder’s rank in Ultimate Zone Rating.
1. Yankees – Ichiro Suzuki, 4th (out of 28)
2. Diamondbacks – Gerrardo Parra, 1st
3. Athletics – Josh Reddick, 3rd
4. Dodgers – Yasiel Puig, 11th
5. Royals – David Lough, 6th
And now the bottom five…
26. Cubs – Nate Schierholtz, 15th
27. Rockies – Michael Cuddyer, 27th
28. Tigers – Torii Hunter, 20th
29. Phillies – Delmon Young, 26th
30. Twins – Chris Parmalee, 18th
So how much could upgrading the outfield defense impact the pitching staff?
Even if the Indians only upgrade Stubbs, it could have a significant impact. If we take the MLB average number of plate appearances which end in a fly ball to right field, the difference between the Indians’ and the MLB average is five hits over the course of the season (small, but potentially enough to impact a game or two).
The difference between the Indians and the top-ranked Yankees, however, is equivalent to 26 hits. Over the course of the season – a season in which the Indians lost the division by one game – it is highly likely such an upgrade could play a significant role in the win-loss column.
Given Stubbs’ issues in the field it would be nice to see an upgrade in 2014. And since neither Brantley nor Bourn excelled in their roles, the Tribe shouldn’t limit themselves to looking for a right fielder. Either Brantley or Bourn could shift to right if the Tribe can find an adequate upgrade in either left or center.