By MARK SIMON
Circle June 21, the first day of summer, as a notable day in the Indians’ season, especially if they find their way from 34-33 (their record a few days prior) into the postseason.
The Indians scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to take 7-5 lead over the Tigers into the ninth. But it took only six pitches for the Tigers to chop a run off the lead and they threatened for more with their best hitter, Nicholas Castellanos, at bat.
Castellanos hit a low-arcing line drive into right center field. It looked like a ball headed on a few hops to the wall, which would give the tying run a chance to score from first base.
But right fielder Tyler Naquin had none of it. He cut across, dove, and caught the ball an inch from the ground. Not only did he make the play, he got up quickly enough and made a strong enough throw to first base to turn a double play. One out later, the Indians had a win.
That the Indians are 23-8 in their last 31 games and back in contention for the AL Central lead is a credit to many things. One of them is the team’s defense. The Indians rank second in MLB with 18 Defensive Runs Saved since June 18. Let’s pinpoint three reasons why.
Naquin for the Win
The Indians are 37-17 when Naquin starts. Yes he can hit, but his glove has been valuable too.
Naquin has saved 5 runs this season with his defense, including 4 since June 18. It has been a solid conversion to right field for Naquin, who struggled in 2016, finishing with -17 Runs Saved in center. He had 6 Runs Saved in 39 games in right last season.
Most impressive this season is that he rates well in our Good Plays & Defensive Misplays system. By video review, he has 14 Good Fielding Plays (think Web Gems) and only two Misplay & Errors in 2019, after posting 3 & 5 respectively there in 2018.
He had two more Good Fielding Plays in their last series against the Royals, giving him seven since June 18. Only Kole Calhoun (9) has more among outfielders in that span. The Indians rank among the leaders in Good Fielding Plays in that time.
|Most Good Fielding Plays Since June 18|
Naquin isn’t the only Indians outfielder contributing positive value. Jake Bauers, who was at -4 Runs Saved in left field through June 17, has posted 3 Runs Saved there since then.
The Indians are sparing in their shift usage, one of the few teams whose shift total hasn’t increased much since 2018. Shift usage is up about 30% from last season in MLB, but the Indians rank 26th in the number of shifts observed when a ball was put in play.
But when the Indians do shift, it’s a strategy that gets the intended result. The Indians have turned 81% of ground balls and bunts against their shifts into outs, the highest rate in MLB by two percentage points. During this hot streak, they’re converting outs at a similar rate – 78%.
|Ground Ball & Bunt Out Rate|
|When Indians Shift||81%|
|When Indians Don’t Shift||72%|
The Indians’ success in shifts isn’t unusual. They ranked first, second and eighth in this stat the previous three seasons.
As noted previously in The Athletic, an integral part of the Indians shifting success is second baseman Jason Kipnis, whose non-shifting numbers are unimpressive (-5 Runs Saved). Kipnis’ plays have accounted for six of the Indians’ 18 Shift Runs Saved. In looking through the different plays, Kipnis doesn’t usually do something spectacular, but he’s reliable if the ball is hit in a spot that he can reach.
We previously mentioned Naquin’s Runs Saved total during this hot streak. But the player who has the most Runs Saved in that time is his teammate, catcher Roberto Perez (8).
Perez may be the most well-balanced defensive catcher in baseball. He’s an excellent pitch-framer (7 Strike Zone Runs Saved ranks tied for second overall), a great pitch blocker (96% block rate on potential wild pitches, best among everyday catchers) and is solid at deterring potential basestealers (32% caught stealing rate).
With the departure of Yan Gomes in the offseason, Perez has gotten increased playing time and made the most of it. Like many hitters, his power numbers have increased. His 16 home runs are three more than he hit in the last three seasons combined. He may not get any MVP votes, but Perez has been one of the Indians’ most valuable players in this run and in 2019.