The Cleveland Indians, Strikeouts, And Adequate Defense

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There are plenty of ways to describe the Cleveland Indians’ front office, but ignorant isn’t one of them. As a rule of thumb, any magnificently groundbreaking baseball theorem that appears on websites such as Baseball Prospectus or Fangraphs is likely something that the Indians’ front office is already aware of.
This idea really comes in to play with regard to the team’s defense. It’s no secret that the Indians were terrible defensively in 2014, least of all to the people that put the team together. Chris Antonetti doesn’t wake up one day, open up his laptop to Fangraphs, and all of a sudden learn that his team is historically bad defensively. If you know it and I know it and baseball writers across the internet know it, then Chris Antonetti knows it, and he in all likelihood knew it before the rest of us did.

That leads to the question of why would such an analytically savvy front office put together a team it likely knew would be, if not historically bad, at least one of the worst five to ten defensive units in the league? And after a season in which the defense did turn out to be historically bad, why would the same front office go into the following season with a defense that still projects as a bottom ten unit?

Well, the answer is pretty obvious: strikeouts. Major League Baseball has become a league dominated by strikeouts, and the Indians are at the forefront. The league average strikeout rate has been trending upward year over year for a while now.

Strikeout Percentage

In 2014 the Indians tied the Tampa Bay Rays for the highest team strikeout rate (23.4%). The Indians are also tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the lead through April 13 (27.2%), though that doesn’t mean a whole lot considering it’s just a week of games.

Regardless, it’s pretty clear where the Indians are casting their lot when it comes to run prevention. Whether it was by choice, by luck, or some combination thereof, the Indians have taken up a strategy of using pitchers who generate a lot of strikeouts and trying to put together a defense that can merely be competent.

The strategy makes sense. The truth is that right now, across the entirety of baseball, defense is less important than it was when strikeouts rates were lower. That’s especially true for the Indians. Since less balls are being put in play against them, it minimizes the potential impact, both good and bad, the defense can have. A team like the Kansas City Royals is reliant on converting batted balls into outs to support a pitching staff that finished 25th in strikeout rate in 2014 (19.1%). The Indians can reach the same place by racking up more strikeout and simply being adequate defensively.

The benefit of this kind of run prevention strategy can also be seen in the team’s allocation of resources. This offseason the Indians were able to acquire a major lineup upgrade in Brandon Moss. Rather than work to add a major defensive upgrade in right field, they added Moss’ potent bat knowing that his league-average or slightly worse defense in right field should be fine when paired with the team’s pitching staff. The resource allocation flexibility afforded by the young (read: cheap), strikeout-producing pitching staff is a huge plus for a team operating at the Tribe’s payroll level.

Adequacy is the theme that has arisen for the Indians’ defense. They simply need adequate performances across the diamond. They need Michael Bourn to be adequate in center field so that Michael Brantley doesn’t have to be stretched in a role he’s not suited for. They simply need Jose Ramirez to be adequate at shortstop while Francisco Lindor gains more experience in the minors. They simply need Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall to be adequate in the infield so they can keep their bats in the lineup every day.

Save for catcher, the Indians probably don’t have a great defensive player at any position. But the standard for what the Indians’ defense needs to be isn’t the same as it is for other teams. By a combination of good planning, good coaching, and a little bit of fortune, the Indians have built a pitching staff that can rack up the punchouts. Simply adequate team defense behind them should be enough to complete the run prevention equation.
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