Coming into Thursday night, the Cleveland Indians offense has been absolutely lackluster. Having scored 12 runs over their past 8 games, they outscored themselves during that time span on Thursday alone with their 13-0 drubbing of the Cincinnati Reds.
Man, that had to feel good. It must have felt like a step in the right direction. But what got us here? What caused what was considered to be a very competitive ballclub to average just 4.25 hits per game over the course of more than a week? Better yet, which is the aberration? The 13-run onslaught of Cincinnati, or the 8 games that came before it.
To answer, let’s take a deeper look at the stats that the Tribe have put together early in this short season. For clarity, all stats mentioned from this point on come from before Thursday night unless mentioned otherwise.
Let’s start with something basic. So much of today’s game comes down to the Three True Outcomes: home runs, strikeouts and walks. The only team that has played a full schedule and hit fewer homers than the Tribe are the Washington Nationals, who have been without their premier power hitter for most of the season. Additionally, the Indians are striking out in 25.7% of their plate appearances, which is 7th worst in the league and nearly 4% more often than last season. In contrast, bases on balls are also up. They have walked on 10.6% of this season’s plate appearances (ranking 8th), and honestly, walking is the best thing this offense has had going for it.
With that acknowledged, let’s look at little closer at their strikeout rate and why it may have risen from last season. This conversation will need to start with OF/DH Franmil Reyes. Reyes, with his all or nothing style, will hurt the Indians K-rate solely by the fact he is on the team for the entirety of this season, as opposed to last year when he joined the team at the trade deadline. It’s only been 12 games, but Reyes has stuck out in 34.1% of his at bats, that’s the 19th worst rate in baseball. Obviously that number isn’t great, but it becomes worse when you consider that the only player of the 18 worse than him that has a worse walk rate is Braves infielder Dansby Swanson. He also has the 4th worst slugging percentage of any of the top 20 most K-able guys in the league. That’s not exactly what you were hoping for out of an integral piece of the heart of your order every day.
The strikeout-woes don’t stop there though. Four other main building blocks of the every-day lineup: Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Oscar Mercado are all also striking out at greater rates than they did last season. With Reyes included, this group is 5 of the top 6 players on the team in terms of plate appearances- the players your are depending on every day.
Ramirez and Lindor in particular seem to be swinging and missing more often in certain situations. Ramirez has swung and missed 12% more often this season on balls in the strike-zone than he did last year. In contrast, Lindor is swinging at balls outside the zone just as often as he did last year, making it seem as though he isn’t chasing any more or less than he has historically, but he is swinging and missing on those balls outside of the zone 23% more often. For his part, Mercado isn’t swinging and missing more, but rather taking more strikes, 13% more in total. All of these are likely contributing factors to each players increased K-rate.
Still, that brings us to when Cleveland actually does put the ball in play. The Indians came into tonight in dead last in all of the following categories: Isolated Power (.081, and a 32 point gap between them and 29th place Arizona), Batting Average (.181), Slugging Percentage (.262) and weighted Runs Created+ (59, 100 is average). Thursday night came at just the right time because these numbers are abysmal. What they tell us is that when the Indians make contact, they likely aren’t hitting the ball with much authority. Base hits are hard to come by, extra-base hits are even rarer. I have already mentioned the team’s inability to homer. In addition, the only teams with fewer doubles than the Tribe coming into tonight were the Phillies, Marlins and Cardinals- all teams who have had their schedules halted by COVID-19.
So, is this poor contact here to stay? The Indians also rank 27th in Batting Average on Balls in Play. Most statisticians consider this statistic to be at least partially luck-based, and that is the point. Ranking so low, with a BABIP of .233 when the standard is between .250 and .300, would suggest that the Indians are having bad luck at least some of the time when they put the ball in play. They are getting the baseball equivalent of facing the highest scoring team in fantasy football each week.
The known lack of power (another thing to suggest a lack of authority when making contact) is a very real concern though. Coming into Thursday night, the Indians ranked dead last in baseball in Hard Hit % as calculated by Baseball Savant. Essentially, the rate at which the Indians hit balls with an Exit Velocity of 95 MPH or greater is worse than any other team in the league. But that brings us to a new question. Which individual players are contributing to this bad funk and how? The obvious answer is “everyone”. No one looks good when you can’t muster 2 runs per game, but let’s be a little more concrete than that.
At first glance stalwarts of the lineup like Ramirez, Reyes and Cesar Hernandez are doing their part and have hard hits at a rate much better than the 29.5% team average, the same cannot be said for Carlos Santana. Just a quarter of his contact has been hard contact. For comparison’s sake, the median player in the league for hard contact would be Phillies shortstop Didi Gergorius, who is making hard contact 36.8% of the time. Santana ranks 218th and only two Indians rank above the median- Ramirez and Hernandez. Neither of them ranks in the top 90.
This proves that the performance data at large has been poor. The players that the Indians were dependent on to produce in this lineup have not performed in a way that would encourage you to want to continue to send them out to the field every day.
So, what has changed? Santana struck nearly 45% of the balls he hit in 2019 at 95 MPH or better. For Reyes it was more than half! We know for a fact this is a funk and not bad luck. What’s the problem?
One possible reason for this poor performance is that the Indians are all seeing less fastballs than they did in last year’s campaign. Lindor saw a combination of fastballs and cutters for 57.4% of the pitches he saw last season, according to Fangraphs. This year that number is just 43.8%. Lindor is most emblematic of the Indians problems in this regard, seeing nearly 14% less fastballs, striking out nearly 7% more often and having both worse hard hit% and average Exit Velocity than he did in 2019. The Indians as a team are being served up straight fastballs on just 45.7% of the pitches that they see. That’s the 3rd fewest in the league.
The Indians have also seen the 3rd lowest rate of pitches in the strike-zone in the entire league. This would explain their strong walk rate, but it would also show that pitchers are willing to allow those walks in the effort to generate strikeouts. A 1-out walk doesn’t matter much when the runner is stranded on first following 2 Ks. This pattern also likely ties into the heavy use of harder to control off-speed pitches.
Something strategic is happening here. Most notably over the last three full seasons, no baseball team has not had at least half of the pitches they’ve seen be fastballs. Yes, I’m sure some small sample tomfoolery is at play here, but there also seems to be a game-plan to attack the Indians hitters with the off-speed. At large, baseball is trending towards more off-speed pitches. The Tribe’s lineup is going to need to be able to adjust in order to succeed.
There have been few silver linings. Cesar Hernandez has been impressive in an Indians uniform. He hits the ball hard at an impressive rate and while an average launch angle of -0.4 degrees isn’t desirable for mos,t he wears it well when you consider his speed. There should be lots of base hits at the top of the order coming from him if he can keep it up. His .302 Batting Average and .412 On Base % show just that. Also, when Mercado has made strong contact, he’s absolutely been robbed. A good rule of thumb is that half of all balls hit at 95 MPH or more should land for some sort of hit and are especially likely to go for extra bases. Mercado is just 2 for 8 on such batted ball events and has yet to record any extra-base hits. The biggest silver lining of all of course is the 13-run rampage of the Reds which highlighted the Indians ability to take pitches and included a bases-clearing double by Hernandez on an off-speed pitch in the 10-run 7th inning.
Largely though, the actions on the field are supported by the numbers we garner from those actions. It hasn’t been pretty.
That brings us to what we have learned. I came into this hoping to find some reasons for hope; something that would suggest the Indians early doldrums were obviously fake and easily a matter of some force of bad luck. Instead, what I’ve found is bleak. Fueled by an inability to counter act a combination of off-speed pitches and pitches out of the zone, the Indians strikeout more often in 2020 but more importantly, when they do put the ball in play, they make the weakest contact in baseball. Both the best and worst of this scenario though is that it has been the stars of the lineup who have failed just as much as everyone else. That type of poor performance will absolutely tank this season if it continues, but the fact that proven commodities on this team have under-performed means that if they start playing at a level they are known to be capable of then there is a ton of room for improvement for this offense.
Personally, I will trust the proven commodities. Let’s see if they can take some momentum into the weekend series with Chicago.