After years of putting the worst defensive team in the American League on the field, the Indians made a dramatic midseason turnaround in 2015 thanks to the callups of Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela, the acquisition of Abraham Almonte and the transformation of Lonnie Chisenhall from shaky third baseman to quality right fielder.
But then Urshela failed to win a job in spring training, Almonte got suspended for 80 games and Chisenhall has battled injuries (and can’t stay on the field versus lefties).
We aren’t exactly back to where we started in 2015, but the defense is not playing at the same level it was late last season.
The primary issue: center field.
Almonte has shown flashes of greatness in center field during his young career. Over the previous two seasons, splitting time between the Tribe, Padres and Mariners, he generated 10 defensive runs saved, according to Fan Graphs. 10 runs is accepted as roughly equivalent to one win in the standings, so in the course of 142 games over two years, Almonte’s defense alone contributed to at least one victory for his teams.
Naquin (-10 DRS) and Davis (-8 DRS) rank as the two worst centerfielders in all of baseball, with the next lowest coming in at -5.
Other defensive metrics yield similar results in an evaluation of Naquin and Davis’ defensive struggles.
ESPN Stats & Info tracks Good Fielding Plays and Bad Fielding Plays. These simply-named stats are tracked based on player positioning on the field and the rate at which the fielder generally makes plays in areas where the ball lands. For example, if a a center fielder is playing straight away and a ball gets roped into the gap, this isn’t going to count against him. But if he somehow gets there and makes the play, he’ll get credited with a Good Fielding Play, since a low percentage of those balls get caught.
Naquin has been credited with just one good defensive play this season against eight bad plays and one error (.11 Good to Bad ratio). Davis has three good, six bad, three errors (.33 G/B ratio). To put that into perspective, the MLB average for centerfielders is .75 Good to Bad. Naquin ranks dead last, by a considerable margin.
These are particularly troubling numbers for the Indians given the makeup of their pitching staff. None of the Indians starters have a high Ground Ball to Fly Ball ratio, which means the outfielders inability to cover ground has a greater negative effect on the Tribe’s pitching staff than if they featured some Jake Westbrook or Charles Nagy type starters.
Almonte is eligible to return after the Indians play 80 games (they play No. 64 tonight). Will his added value on defense be enough to earn him an immediate starting job?