In his most recent ESPN Insider column, Buster Olney ranked the top defenses in baseball, including the Cleveland Indians at number eight. If you had told me in April that the Indians would finish the year with a top-10 defense you would sound crazy, but a couple of defensive-minded call-ups and a re-tooled outfielder do wonders for a defense.
The Tribe finished 2015 sixth in defensive runs saved (18), seventh in ultimate zone rating (21.0), and they committed the fifth least amount of errors (79). All of these solid rankings despite being one of the worst defenses in the league through the first few months of the season.
On May 1, Owen Watson of FanGraphs wrote a lengthy post about the Indians and their dwindling chances at catching up to the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers (ha!) in the American League Central through the rest of the season. Included in the post was a damning visual showing the huge delta between Indians starting pitcher’s earned run averages and their fielding independent pitching -- a clear indication that the poor defense behind them was not keeping up with the excellent pitching staff. At that point in the season, the Indians also had a DRS of -13, fourth worst in the league.
However, over the course of just a couple months, the Indians completely turned around their defense into one of the league’s best. They called up shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Giovanny Urshela in June, two players who could be some of the best defensively at their position in the next few years (if they are not already). Lonnie Chisenhall, who spent the first few months of the season struggling at third base, was sent down to Triple-A. When he re-emerged late in the season, he was a right fielder and a damn good defensive one at that.
The improved defense’s impact on the pitching staff was immediate and very clear. Carlos Carrasco, for instance, carried a 4.42 ERA through his first 10 starts in 2015, but a 2.70 FIP. From June 19 (Carrasco’s first start since Lindor was called up on June 14) throughout the rest of the season, Carrasco’s ERA dropped to 3.12, while his FIP actually increased to 2.93.
The Indians defense was great in 2015 and it could theoretically be even better in 2016. Mike Napoli, who the Tribe signed in December, will be playing the majority of his time at first base. Not only is he a plus defender on his own, but that also means Carlos Santana will not be degrading his own value with his poor defensive play at first base as he will most likely spend a significant amount of time at designated hitter.
Buster Olney's top defenses list is led by the Kansas City Royals with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Miami Marlins rounding out the top three. Just behind the Indians, at numbers nine and ten overall, are the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles.