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Tuesday, March 9, 2010
FanGraphs: Cleveland's bold strategy

By Bryan Smith, FanGraphs

While losing 97 games last season, the Cleveland Indians were the worst team in baseball at the two facets of run prevention. No other team ranked in the bottom five of Major League Baseball in both Fielding Independent Pitching (28th of 30) and Ultimate Zone Rating (26th), signaling problems with their pitchers and fielders alike. That's bad, but is it fixable?

A lot of last year's pitching problems can be blamed on trial and error, as the Indians tried an AL-leading 29 different pitchers on the mound. The hurlers projected to make up this season's rotation, led by stalwart Jake Westbrook, provide a telling comment on the organizational philosophy for better run prevention in 2010: groundballs.

An average Major League Baseball team turns a groundball into an out about 67% of the time; it's the most pitcher-friendly ball in play. The Indians rotation, not coincidentally, is built around pitchers that throw sinkers and induce grounders. Westbrook's return from injury paves the way for this strategy, but he's joined in practice by Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Aaron Laffey. Together, the four have a career GB/FB rate of 2.46 versus the approximate league average of 1.7.

To collect all the wormburners this staff is sure to produce, the Tribe have put together an infield of shortstops. Along with incumbent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, third baseman Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Luis Valbuena both have experience at that position. Like the Mariners, an organization that has built an outfield with two centerfield-caliber defenders (Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez), the Indians are hoping an infield featuring three players with experience at shortstop will be far more efficient at turning grounders into outs. The key to Cleveland’s success is whether these are the correct three infielders. All three ranked below average in Ultimate Zone Rating a year ago, combining to cost the Indians 15.6 runs with their glove.

However, most statheads will tell you that you need at least three years of fielding data to reach an accurate conclusion, and none of these three infielders have played more than 127 games at their current spot. Therefore, we can't say they are below-average fielders based on UZR just yet. But if you put any faith in the fan projections featured at FanGraphs, there isn’t much reason for optimism: The trio is projected by our readers to cost the club -3.6 runs collectively. The jury's still out on this threesome, and the groundball-inducing staff will be praying that all of them can live up to their shortstop pedigree. If not, it's going to be another long year at Jacobs Field.

Bryan Smith is an author of FanGraphs