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The flaw in Cleveland’s infield defense

Amed Rosario sticks out like a sore thumb at shortstop

Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Cleveland Guardians infielders are quietly putting up very good defensive performances ... except for the player who is manning the most important defensive position.

For starters, let’s take a look at the stats to see how each regular starter has performed in defensive runs saved, outs above average, and ultimate zone rating (averaged out over 150 games) so far in 2023.

  • Andrés Giménez: 7 DRS, 2 OAA, 0.2 UZR/150 (1st in AL in DRS among second basemen, 4th in OAA, 8th in OAA)
  • José Ramírez: 2 DRS, 5 OAA, 3.2 UZR/150 (4th in AL in DRS among third basemen, 3rd in OAA, 7th in UZR/150)
  • Josh Naylor: -1 DRS, 4 OAA, 1.4 UZR/150 (8th in AL in DRS among first basemen, 2nd in OAA, 6th in UZR)
  • Amed Rosario: -9 DRS, -11 OAA, -6.5 UZR/150 (37th in AL in DRS among shortstops, 37th in OAA, 30th in UZR/150)

It’s a welcome sight to see the Guardians’ second, third, and first basemen consistently ranked in the top five for the three most common public defensive metrics among American League infielders with 200 or more innings. While only Andrés Giménez has a strong case to be a Gold Glove leader at the moment, José Ramírez and Josh Naylor have put themselves in the conversation for the award as well. However, It is not difficult to identify the odd player out in the current infield configuration.

Amed Rosario has never been a good defender at shortstop in the majors, but his numbers have collapsed this season. If we take a look under the hood on Baseball Savant, his biggest change shows up when he has gone “in” on balls hit to him. He was two outs above average on those plays in 2022 and has gone to seven outs below average on them in 2023. He has not been good at moving laterally, but that’s no different than his historical performances. The primary defensive issue in 2023 has been his inability to go in toward a ball and successfully record outs.

We don’t have a lot of information about how players attempt to address their fielding issues, so it’s hard to say exactly what Rosario is doing poorly or how different it is from previous years. Interestingly, the Mets in 2019 worked with widening the space between his feet, pre-pitch, so that his hips could open up for better lateral movement. Manager Terry Francona connected Rosario’s improved defense in 2022 to “learning to leave his feet a little bit more”, saying it was something he didn’t do when he first came to Cleveland.

The recurrent issues mentioned for Rosario’s defensive performance seem to be getting caught flat-footed and needing to improve his jump on balls. So, is poor reaction time responsible for the problems fielding balls hit in front of him in 2023? The answer doesn’t appear to be a clear yes.

A lot of Rosario’s mistakes coming in on balls are going to be recorded as infield hits. For example, this “single” off the bat of the Mets’ Mark Canha:

This play illustrates the repeated issue I notice with Rosario this year, in which he has difficulty digging the ball out of his glove. If you go to MLB Film Room and search “Amed Rosario error” or “Amed Rosario infield hit”, you’ll have a chance to see a dozen or so plays where Rosario was able to get to a ball but had trouble transferring it to his hand, often resulting in a rushed throwing error.

As another example, Rosario does a little dance while trying to fish the ball out of his glove resulting in an infield “hit” for Manny Machado:

In reviewing Rosario’s defensive plays, I don’t think he will continue to be as bad as he has been fielding balls hit in front of him, primarily because I see no reason to think he will continue to struggle as badly as he has in trying to transfer the ball from the glove to his hand. These seem mostly like small sample size issues that magnify the flaws of a player whose track record as a major leaguer has proven that rosy defensive scouting reports on minor-league prospects can be very misleading.

My primary concerns entering the season were on how much the shift restrictions would affect Rosario’s struggles to move laterally and they have yet to show much impact so far. The analysis of his defense leads me to good news and bad news. First, his defensive performance is likely to improve on balls hit in front of him — good news! Second, those improvements may be moderated by some regression on balls hit laterally, especially toward first base, where he was 11 runs below average in 2022 by OAA and is only two runs below average so far this season — bad news! These factors will likely average out to being mostly what he was in 2021: firmly in the bottom third of the rankings of defensive shortstops in MLB but not the worst defensive shortstop in baseball as he is currently.

Of course, the frustrating context in which analysis of Rosario as a defender occurs is the existence of Gabriel Arias and Brayan Rocchio as Guardians. Both players have flashed a special defensive talent. Arias put on a clinic at third base for the Guardians in May:

And Rocchio showed his special range in this play for Columbus this spring:

With Rosario putting up only a 68 wRC+ so far in 2023, it is certainly fair to wonder if Arias, Rocchio, or Tyler Freeman should be getting more playing time at shortstop with Rosario taking a seat for more games.

If Rosario’s bat isn’t going to provide a run value that can help offset the run prevention he has been unable to provide as a defender, the Guardians will eventually need to consider one of the alternative options at shortstop. Until they do, there will be a noticeable exception to an infield assembly of excellent Guardians defenders as the team looks to right the ship and compete for a playoff berth.