Duo locking down infield for Indians
Kipnis, Cabrera sparking memories of Vizquel and Alomar
Baseballs have a way of finding Asdrubal Cabrera's glove. And when the glove won't suffice, the All-Star's bare hand typically will.
Cabrera stepped out onto the soggy outfield grass to corral a chopper off of Brandon Wood's bat during a game on June 19, 2011. The way Cabrera's body was positioned, his only chance was to snag the ball with his free hand and fire an over-the-shoulder throw to first.
"Everyone was going crazy," said Indians starter Justin Masterson. "We reminded him that he did have a glove. That was incredible."
Two days later, Jason Kipnis, playing second base for Triple-A Columbus, made a throwing error, his ninth miscue of the season. Though derailed by injuries and desperate for offense, the Indians had hesitated to summon Kipnis to the big leagues, unconvinced that the 2009 second-round Draft selection had mastered his transition from outfield to second base.
The club finally budged in late July. Nearly a year later, thanks to Kipnis' defensive progress and Cabrera's defensive prowess, the two have developed into quite the formidable double-play duo.
Kipnis and Cabrera aren't yet replacing memories of double plays turned by Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar, who collected a combined 21 Gold Glove Awards and manned the center of the diamond in Cleveland from 1999-2001. They are, however, making it easier to forget the countless middle-infield combinations the Indians have filtered through since Alomar and Vizquel departed Cleveland.
"That was the greatest duo I've witnessed, in regard to range, acrobatics and athleticism," said Tribe bench coach and former catcher Sandy Alomar, about his younger brother and Vizquel. "It was easy to sit back there and call a game knowing that if the ball was hit on the ground to those guys, a play is going to be made."
Thirty-four players have started a game at second base since the club traded Alomar following the 2001 season. Ricky Gutierrez, Brandon Phillips, Ronnie Belliard and Josh Barfield all came and went. Even Cabrera joined the big league club as a second baseman in 2007 to pair with shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who succeeded Vizquel.
Cabrera was deemed too talented defensively to keep sequestered at second, so the club shifted him to the left side, which reopened the black hole next door. The Tribe shuffled through Luis Valbuena, Jamey Carroll and Orlando Cabrera before finally settling on Kipnis last July.
In his first season at second base in 2010, Kipnis committed 23 errors in 121 games. He cut that down to 11 gaffes in 80 contests in 2011 before his promotion. The Northbrook, Ill., native made six errors in 36 games with Cleveland last season, and he has committed just one through 41 contests in 2012.
Kipnis' gradual reduction in defensive miscues is no coincidence.
"I think I've put in the time and have made a bunch of routine plays that I might not have last year or the year before that," Kipnis said. "I'm just getting more comfortable with the glove. I think it's starting to show."
That progress has eased the burden on Cabrera. The two have fostered the necessary chemistry to make tricky double plays appear routine. That companionship blossomed in Spring Training, when the pair spent extra hours working on their middle-infield camaraderie.
"It takes a little bit of time," Cabrera said. "But we used Spring Training to try to get comfortable. I have fun with him at second base."
Kipnis isn't one for complacency. Alomar said the 25-year-old is constantly asking Cabrera where and how he prefers to catch the ball.
"You start to learn which balls he can get to, his range, his arm, his arm slots that he likes to throw to on certain balls," Kipnis said. "I think it's starting to show on the field where we feel comfortable with each other with the speed of the game and how each other reacts and where we'll be on the field. It's starting to turn into more double plays for our team."
Tribe pitchers won't argue with that sentiment. The two have routinely bailed out the Indians' slew of sinkerballers and have turned the fifth-most double plays in baseball.
"You're never upset when someone gets on first base, because you're always one pitch away," Masterson said. "They've been turning a lot of double plays and making great plays, and [they] understand where they are. At the beginning, you could see they were unsure of each other at times, but now they've figured it out and understand what they can and cannot get."
The Indians shored up their infield defense with the offseason addition of first baseman Casey Kotchman, who holds the Major League record for fielding percentage at his position (.998). Third baseman Jack Hannahan, who boasts a reputation as a wizard at the hot corner, made only five errors in 104 games at third base last season.
Kipnis found motivation in wanting to fit in with his infield counterparts.
"Those three are all great defenders," he said. "It sets the bar high, and I definitely don't want to be the one to bring that down or to not match them. So I'm trying to be even more locked in to hang with those three to make sure I'm not the weakest link there."
Consider Vizquel impressed by the Tribe's collection of defensive talent. He expressed the most admiration for Cabrera, who hails from his native Venezuela and dons the same uniform number Vizquel sported in Cleveland for 11 years.
"He's done things in the field that are amazing," said Vizquel, now a 45-year-old reserve infielder for the Blue Jays. "I don't think they were even expecting him to be the shortstop. He broke in as a second baseman. He just turned out to be this unbelievable player. I'm pretty happy every time I come to Cleveland and see No. 13 and see how well he's doing."
It's too early to speculate what Kipnis and Cabrera might be capable of. Indians manager Manny Acta simply hopes the duo remains intact for a long time.
"Kipnis has less experience, but he isn't afraid out there," Acta said. "It's developing and it's good to see. And they better, because they're going to be there together for a few years."
Vizquel and Alomar played three seasons together in Cleveland. Cabrera and Kipnis might not create as many flashy defensive gems, but they have started to establish their own identity.
"There probably wasn't a better middle infield than those two guys," Kipnis said. "Definitely from what I've seen, it was unbelievable watching those two.
"We're not close to that, but we like where we're at at this point, and we're working to get better each day."