The Coaching Corner
If pitching wins championships, then the defense must be the complementary piece to that puzzle. Defensive baseball starts up the middle with the catcher, shortstop, second baseman, and the centerfielder.
The Cleveland Indians have two solid defensive catchers in Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, a spectacular shortstop in Francisco Lindor, and while center field is still not at the top of the league defensively, Tyler Naquin and Austin Jackson aren't going to hurt you. That leaves second base.
The Cleveland Indians expect to compete for a championship this season behind one of the league's best rotations with an ace at the top, Corey Kluber, followed by Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and depth all the way down to the AAA Columbus starters, Mike Clevinger and 2016 ALCS surprise hero Ryan Merritt.
Jason Kipnis, who started the season on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, and rehabbed at Akron, is due to return this week and presumably at second base. While extremely athletic and hard-nosed, Kipnis should move to the outfield in the best interests of the team to allow Jose Ramirez to continue playing second base.
Kipnis isn't a terrible second baseman, but his defense has declined each of the last five seasons. Statistics don't show everything, but in baseball they sure do show a lot. Range Factor (developed by the original sabermetrician Bill James) shows Kipnis on the decline defensively (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/kipnija01-field.shtml). Fourth in the major leagues, and second in the American League in most errors by a second baseman, Kipnis' fielding percentage has decreased each of the last three years. This is not an anomaly, it is what economists and statisticians call, a trend.
Also, the seven-year veteran has struggled turning the double play. Kipnis often fails to have his hands in the correct position when receiving the front end throw in a potential double play. The throwing hand needs to be in closer proximity to the glove hand in order to make a quicker exchange. Kipnis has relied on a strong arm and athleticism to compensate in the past, but as he is getting older, this weakness is showing up more and more.
This isn't just the coaching eye on this, but statistically Kipnis is below average in turning the double play as well. As evidenced by the outrage of some fans and media types, analytics can't be used as the only qualification for judgment on players, ahem Browns fans, but it cant be used as a tool in conjunction with the trained coaches and player development types.
According to BaseballProjection.com and Baseball-Reference.com, Kipnis has a -1 Total Zone Infield Double Play Runs Above Average rating. Basically, this means he's slightly below average at turning a double play. In the previous four seasons, the 4-time all-star had a 0 or 1 rating, but this is also trending poorly for his future at second base.
The 30-year old Kipnis is under contract through 2019 with a club option for 2020 according to Spotrac (http://www.spotrac.com/mlb/cleveland-indians/jason-kipnis-8508/). This means he will be 33 entering the final season of the contract. The Arizona State product played mostly outfield in his college years before being transitioned to the infield by the Indians after being their 2nd round pick in the 2009 MLB Draft.
Outfield may be one potential landing spot for Kipnis, as the Tribe could find playing time for him in right field. Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer is the planned platoon for the time being, but there may be room for dealing Chisenhall or Tyler Naquin while their value is relatively high. Chisenhall committed 3 errors in right field (5th most in ML) during the regular season as well as a range factor (1.64) well below the league average (2.08), in addition to a few circus plays in the playoffs, including falling down during game two of the World Series. The Indians also have potential star outfielders in the pipeline in Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen coming up the ranks quickly. Making a move with Chisenhall and/or Naquin looks to be more and more possible as the season goes on. The front office may wait to see which holes develop elsewhere before making this type of move, but in the long term, this is a move that should be made.
Brantley, coming off of a lost season due to a shoulder injury, will not be able to play a large number of consecutive games, could also be spelled by Kipnis in left field. It's clear that Francona values versatility or Michael Martinez wouldn't be anywhere near this 25-man roster. Kipnis also is athletic enough and has a strong enough arm to play third base, where he wouldn't have to make the quick turn of a double play. Many veteran shortstops slide over to third base later in their careers, and Kipnis has the ability to do the same. Kipnis, also could spend some time at first base, where Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana are splitting time with the designated hitter slot. Encarnacion, signed in the offseason to a long-term deal is not a stellar defensive first baseman, and Santana will most likely be playing elsewhere after playing out the last year of his contract this year for 13 million dollars. This could pave the way for Kipnis to slide over to first base after this season, with Ramirez slotting in at second base.
The ballclub has the leverage in this situation, but Manager Terry Francona traditionally favors his veteran players and gives them a ton of room. For example, with Kipnis on the verge of returning to the lineup, Francona already said he would meet with him and Michael Brantley to discuss their positions in the offensive lineup. Not all managers would do this. Although the payoff of managing such situations is often positive, there are downfalls to allowing the players too much input. He treads lightly in these type of situations, but these tough decisions are why managers in the big leagues are compensated well. Tito has his faults, one of them, as evidenced by the end of his time in Boston, is the large amount of slack allowed to the veteran players.
There may be a compromise of waiting to move Kipnis out of his second base position until next season when several factors change, but it should be made now.
Although Ramirez initial foray into the major leagues didn't set the world on fire defensively (8 errors,3.40 range factor, 46 games), he was at shortstop and could feel the footsteps of Francisco Lindor at AAA behind him waiting in the wings as the inevitable successor at shortstop. The sample size thus far this season is too small to judge, but Ramirez hasn't made an error yet through his first five games.
At the age of 24, and now under team control through 2023 (age 30), the diminutive Dominican has the time to improve and grow defensively at second base. His soft hands and strong arm were assets at third base last year as he tied for the major league lead in fielding percentage (.979), but his range and size translate better to second base. Lindor and Ramirez also spent parts of three seasons together playing the middle infield, so there's already some chemistry between the two rising stars.
With the arrival of the talented and athletic Yandy Diaz on the scene at third base, the Indians have the makings of a solid, if not spectacular defensive infield...well, except for maybe first base, but that's another story.