An abbreviated timeline of the Indians' defensive season:
In April, Jonah Keri wrote, "Given Cleveland's severe defensive limitations, those strikeouts pretty much have to be the key to any serious 2015 success."
In May, Cliff Corcoran asked, "Are the 2015 Indians the worst-fielding team in modern major league history?"
In June, the Indians recalled third baseman Giovanny Urshela and shortstop Francisco Lindor within a five-day span.
Know what's funny? Here in July, the Indians' defense has become a strength. The transformation started with the arrivals of Urshela and Lindor, the prospects with (arguably) the best gloves at each position. Split the season into two, using Lindor's presence as the line of demarcation, and the extremity of the turnaround becomes more apparent: With Lindor at shortstop, the Indians entered Sunday with a .733 defensive efficiency; without him, the number dips to .684. Put another way, if those rates represented full-season marks for individual teams, then those teams would rank first and 28th in the majors at converting balls in play into outs.
There are caveats. For one, the sample is small; for another, the Indians' rotation has helped the defense by pitching well (or whatever adverb best captures taking a perfect game deep in three consecutive starts). As such, it would be dishonest to credit Urshela and Lindor for all the gains, or pretend the gap will continue to be that wide; heck, by Tuesday the "with Lindor" ranking had slipped to eighth. But the past few weeks have made one thing clear: Time and exposure are the only hurdles between Urshela and Lindor and recognition as one of the best defensive left sides in baseball.
Smoothness has become the go-to descriptor for great defenders. The word applies to Urshela and Lindor, as both field the ball without anxiety; it's almost as if they knew the play beforehand, allowing them to plan and rehearse their acts before the curtains rise. Perhaps the best way to put it is that these two make the abnormal plays look normal.
The less heralded of the two for obvious reasons, Urshela is built like a third baseman from a daguerreotype, with broad shoulders and a strong frame. His arm is of the double-plus variety, but what makes him stand out are his hands and fluidity. Urshela is more than sure-handed; he has the ability to adjust to tough hops without issue. What's more, he serves as a reminder that athleticism isn't about straight-line speed alone: He's a below-average runner, yet the precision with which he moves is impressive. Consider this backhand play, in which he cheated toward the line before the play, leaned down and across and stabbed the ball, changed directions, and ran down the baserunner:
Then there's this charge play, a trademark of elite third basemen, like Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria. Urshela is allowed more time on the play than if, say, Billy Hamilton had pushed a bunt his way. Nonetheless, his balance and body control are evident, along with his quick transfer and release and his arm strength: He nails Jordy Mercer by what appears to be a full Jordy Mercer:
Put it all together and it's clear why some talent-evaluators consider Urshela a 70-grade defender.
Lindor's elite defense has received attention throughout his development arc, making him the rare player whose long-term viability at shortstop went unquestioned. As with Urshela, Lindor has a well-rounded glove. His arm is plus at minimum and he can make all the tough throws asked of a shortstop: Last week he threw out Logan Forsythe, a solid-average runner, by more than a step from the shortstop side of the bag … with both feet on the outfield turf:
Additionally, Lindor's hands and feet work well, to the point where he's smooth even if the play isn't or the results go against him, as below. (The call was challenged and overturned.)
Consider the next play more evidence of this phenomenon. That Lindor even gets to the ball is impressive, given how the Indians' overshift leaves Jason Kipnis in closer proximity when the broadcast director changes camera angles. Yet Lindor ranges to his left, sprawls out, sticks the ball at the apex of its hop, and then hurries to throw out Evan Longoria:
Rewatch the play and keep an eye on the ball. See how it pops out of Lindor's glove as he's getting to his feet? It's just sitting on the turf like an Easter egg. It's a testament to Lindor's skill that he's able to overcome this nuisance to the extent that it might have gone unnoticed without closer examination.
Something that shouldn't go unnoticed is how well the Indians align their defenders. Throughout the past week (and before that) Ushela and Lindor were placed in perfect position to snag otherwise unplayable liners or grounders. Everyone is trying to suss out how shifts affect defenders of various talent levels, but the Indians' equation is straightforward: Put these two where the ball is most likely to be hit and they'll find a way to do the rest.
Of course no matter how Urshela and Lindor have defended, it's worth acknowledging their struggles at the plate. Lindor's .170 True Average is the fifth worst in the majors among hitters with 75 or more plate appearances, and Urshela's .224 mark isn't much better. Both are thought to have promise as hitters, with Lindor possessing the higher upside thanks to his bat speed, surprising strength, and sound approach; Urshela is more of a bad-ball hitter whose perfect-world outcome sees him make enough quality contact to overcome his on-base and power deficiencies. A good-to-great glove doesn't buy a lifetime pass at the plate (ask Jackie Bradley Jr.), but Indians fans should give their young and inexperienced duo time to adapt and adjust.
That's not to suggest it'll be easy for Cleveland's fanbase to remain calm. Despite a stellar rotation and okay offense and bullpen, the Indians are on the outskirts of the playoff race; nine AL teams entered Wednesday with superior postseason odds. Even if regression could be in store—the six-win gap between their third-order and actual records is the second-largest in baseball, behind the A's—the Indians still have a tough path between them and the postseason. Presuming the Indians fail to reach October, at least there's solace in knowing they've fixed their biggest weakness.
Special thanks to Craig Goldstein for the GIFs.
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Also it's interesting to see how much impact just two players can make to a teams defensive efficiency. Would be curious to see how much they would improve if they had a better defensive CF.