CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – There are many examples in baseball where players are given everyday jobs based solely on their offensive production, even if they are an defensive liability.
For example, Mariners All-Star outfielder Nelson Cruz and Nationals All-Star first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are among the best offensive players in the league, but carry negative defensive values. With 28 home runs, a .346 wOBA and 120 wRC+, Athletics outfielder Khris Davis can bring the thunder on offense, but his 11.5 value at the plate is nearly negated by his -10.5 fielding value.
A better example is Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy who carries a career -30.5 defensive value, but a 63.7 value at the plate since the start of 2016.
So with Jason Kipnis returning to the Indians’ lineup on Sunday against the Yankees, the question arises as to whether or not the team is actually better off with the former All-Star in the lineup as opposed to the defensive exploits of Erik Gonzalez and Giovany Urshela.
While battling injuries throughout 2017, Kipnis has struggled at the plate, posting a .232/.292/.402 slash in 66 games with a .296 wOBA and 81 wRC+. That could likely be due to injury, as he has been dealing with shoulder, neck and now hamstring injuries all season. His lone season with a below average wRC+ was 2014, in which he dealt with injuries all season en route to 129 games.
Kipnis’s offensive struggles this season obviously complicate the situation, as any player with negative offensive (-4.7) and defensive (-0.8) values would appear as a detriment to a team. Considering Kipnis has carried double-digit offensive values in three of the last four years (the lone outlier being a -11.2 mark in his injury plagued 2014 campaign), hoping he will recover from injury and return to form makes sense.
But the second baseman carries a -7.5 career value at the position, though carrying positive values the past two seasons. Among the 16 qualified second basemen since Kipnis entered the league in 2011, he places 12th at the position with -9 defensive runs saved.
In summary, Kipnis is an average to below average fielder, albeit at a position with low value. When he does not produce the offensive numbers he is capable of, there seem to be better options.
Enter Gonzalez and Urshela, whom Manager Terry Francona calls “elite defenders.”
The former was the man optioned to make room for Kipnis as he returned from the disabled list. Gonzalez is almost assuredly not a better option than Kipnis given that he racked up a -2.6 oWAR in just 82 plate appearances, carrying a 1.2 BB% and 34.1 K% while slashing .263/.272/.400 on a .380 BABIP.
Gonzalez did post 3 defensive runs saved in 146 innings at second base.
The more interesting proposition is whether or not Urshela poses a better threat for the Indians, not just because of what he contributes, but also because of the ancillary effect of his presence.
There is no doubt that the team’s best defensive lineup is Urshela at third base, with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez up the middle.
Though you should always be weary of defensive metrics in small samples, Ramirez has -1 DRS at third base over 671.2 innings entering Sunday, and 2 DRS at second through 260. For his career, those marks are 3 DRS at third in 1651.1 innings, and 8 at second over 646.2.
Urshela’s defense needs no metrics, as the eye test has been good enough to see that he is in fact “elite,” as his manager suggests. For fun, however, take into account that Urshela already has 4 DRS at third base in 130.1 innings.
Combined with Lindor’s -1 DRS at shortstop, an anomaly in itself considering his incredible marks of 17 and 10 in his first two seasons, and Carlos Santana’s 6 DRS at 1st; an Urshela-Lindor-Ramirez-Santana infield boasts a mark of 11 DRS compared to 3 DRS in a Ramirez-Lindor-Kipnis-Santana look.
That extra 8 DRS comes in a much smaller sample size, and given that the statistic is cumulative, it says a lot.
Offensively, Urshela is yet to make any sort of a consistent mark, which is why the situation remains open for debate. The 25-year old’s career 63 wRC+, .267 wOBA, -19.5 oWAR and -14.8 batting value all suggest that no matter his defensive exploits, he will be an albatross at the dish.
The Indians cannot afford to have offensive liabilities at third base and catcher if they want to make another deep run in the playoffs. But if Kipnis keeps up his well-below average marks of 2017, injury or not, at what point does Francona punt and fight runs lost with runs saved?
Kipnis will get another shot to perform at the plate given his potential to drive in runs and that Urshela will most likely not morph into a big league hitter overnight.
Francona is always loyal to his veterans, and Kipnis has a proven track record, but at some point that could prove to be a detriment.
Unless Kipnis hits.