The Cleveland Indians are poised to enter the 2008 season with at least two sinker-ball pitchers (Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook) on their starting rotation. The emergence of Aaron Laffey threatens to add a third groundballer to the starting mix. Fielding such a rotation would mean that the Indians' defense will play an even greater role in 2008 than in years past.
For reasons that don't need much explaining here, we'll disregard a player's fielding percentage in evaluating the Indians' defense. While I know many you are fans of the `range factor' metric, I'm disinclined to use it as an evaluative tool because it depends heavily on the tendencies of a team's pitching staff. For example, shortstops like Michael Young and Jhonny Perlata, who are adequate at best, rank near the top of the league in terms of range factor. Jose Reyes, who in the view of most scouts is a superior defender, possesses one of the lowest range factors in all of baseball. This discrepancy is easily explained when you consider that Michael Young and Jhonny Peralta played behind pitching staffs with GB-rates of 47% and 45% respectively. Conversely, Jose Reyes was stuck behind a Mets staff that had one of the lowest GB-rates at 40%. There many other metrics less prone to this weakness, like the plus/minus scores or BP's fielding-runs-above-replacement (FRAR). However, I will stick to using the relatively well understood zone rating when evaluating defensive performance. In particular, I will use the Revised Zone Rating (RZR) developed by John Dewan, now with Baseball Info Solutions.
How did the Tribe fare defensively in 2007?
Now that we know on what basis we'll be analyzing the Indians' defense, let's see how their individual starting position players fared compared to the league medians at each position -
Most of the Tribe's starting position players fared relatively well compared the median players at each position. If the Indians replace Barfield (RZR 0.784) with Cabrera (RZR 0.850) in 2008, six of the eight fielding positions will be manned by players with RZRs near or above league median. Of the six - Martinez (C), Gutierrez (RF) and Cabrera (2B) would provide the Tribe with defense distinctly better than that of their peers at each position. Positions most sorely in need of upgrade are shortstop and left field.
In considering replacements for LF and SS, the Indians are not limited to candidates who played only those positions in 2007. Cabrera's versatility (plays both 2B and SS) allows the Indians to consider options at 2B, and the less demanding nature of LF allows them to consider replacements that played CF or RF in 2007.
Let's approach our search for candidates with the goal of finding a defensive upgrade without sacrificing more than 5-10 runs in offensive production. Peralta created 86 runs in 2007, while the Dellucci/Michaels platoon would have created a prorated 70 runs of offense in the same period. Given that we have no compelling reason to expect either a sharp improvement or a sharp decline at these positions, let's assume that these players can be counted on for similar production in 2008. With these parameters in mind, we can further limit our consideration to players whose names have been linked to potential trades or players who play for basement dwellers like Washington or Texas.
Let's meet the candidates:
Randy Winn, RF (90 RC, 0.916 RZR)
David DeJesus CF, (86 ERC, 0.910 RZR)
Austin Kearns, RF (96 RC, 0.905 RZR)
Alex Rios, RF (105 RC, 0.905 RZR)
Shannon Stewart, LF (78 RC, 0.883 RZR)
Mark Teahen, RF (81 RC, 0.871 RZR)
Jason Bay, LF (76 RC, 0.842 RZR)
Brian Roberts, 2B (108 RC, 0.840 RZR)
Josh Willingham*, LF (101 RC, 0.836 RZR)
Raul Ibanez, LF (104 RC, 0.813 RZR)
Orlando Hudson, 2B (79 RC, 0.798 RZR)
* - anyone from FLA is available, right?
note: $10M+ salary players were excluded (Griffey Jr., Matsui, Dunn, Matthews Jr.)
A Glimpse into 2008
Based on 2007 production and playing time, the projected 2008 RZR for each position is:
First Base: 0.754 (Garko/Martinez/Hafner)
Second Base: 0.851 (Cabrera/Carroll)
Third Base: 0.708 (Blake/Marte)
Shortstop*: 0.770 (Peralta/Carroll)
Leftfield*: 0.787 (Dellucci/Michaels)
Centerfield: 0.880 (Sizemore)
Rightfield: 0.900 (Gutierrez/Michaels)
* - targeted positions for improvement
By counting the Ball In Zone (BIZ) and the plays made Out Of Zone (OOZ), we can get a rough idea for the distribution of `playable' balls across different positions. In 2007, the distribution was as follows:
First Base: (8.9%, BIZ + OOZ = 263)
Second Base: (17.5%, BIZ + OOZ = 516)
Third Base: (14.2%, BIZ + OOZ = 418)
Shortstop: (18.6%, BIZ+OOZ = 548)
Leftfield: (13.5% BIZ + OOZ = 397)
Centerfield: (15.8%, BIZ + OOZ = 465)
Rightfield: (11.7%, BIZ + OOZ = 344)
This should give you a rough idea for how often each position is called in to make a play on defense.
Once a replacement candidate has been identified, it is a relatively simple matter to get an idea for how many fewer hits (and runs) would have been given up in 2007. I'll save that juicy goodness for a few days from now. First, I'd like to see which of the aforementioned candidates LGTers think is most likely (and suited) land on the Tribe's 2008 roster.
While I don't expect much to change by way of the Jason Bay/Brian Roberts bandwagons, it might be worth considering easier to acquire components like Winn and Stewart. Plus, some of you might find it easier to settle a Roberts v. Bay debate in light of any new information contained above. Personally, I was surprised to find that Bay would also represent a big defensive improvement over our projected LF starters. Or rather, I was surprised that almost any LF would have been a defensive upgrade over the Dellucci/Michaels platoon