Is center field still a problem for Tribe? Between Innings

The best news from Monday was that the Boston Red Sox showing dangerously bad sportsmanship saved the Cleveland Indians from a national embarrassment. Last week, Manny Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia sliding into second base—which he said was a pure accident. Two games later, Matt Barnes decided to retaliate by throwing at Machado’s head. Dumb quotes were given, Pedroia disavowed the actions. ESPN decided to use the potential controversy by dumping the Detroit Tigers versus Indians game from their Monday broadcast in favor of a rematch between the Orioles and Red Sox.1

Had the Manny-Peddy scandal not happened, the nation would have witnessed Trevor Bauer’s worst outing (4.0 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 5 BB, 3 SO) in what has been a poor season for him thus far. The rest of the game did not go according to any sort of plan the Indians might have had either. Left-handed pitching continues to baffle the Indians lineup. Brandon Guyer and Francisco Lindor added to the skyrocketing tally of Tribe errors in 2017. Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was not even activated for the Monday contest.2 Perhaps in a nod to Miggy’s absence, Indians non-slugger Michael Martinez started. Either that or second baseman Jason Kipnis had a scheduled day off—one or the other.

The end result was an ugly, sloppy 7-1 Indians (14-11) loss to the rival Tigers (13-12).

Ugh, let’s cleanse the palate by noting Edwin Encarnacion went 2-for-4 including register the game’s lone RBI with a single, and ignore that his strikeout rate continues to climb.

Is center field still the big issue for the Indians we all thought it would be?

A consistent topic during the offseason leading into the 2017 Indians season was the uncertainty surrounding the outfield. In particular, there were worries about Michael Brantley and the absence of a known solution for center field. Last week, Brantley’s resurgence with new power was detailed, so it is time to discuss the early results from center.

After Tyler Naquin managed to buy his bus ticket back to the Columbus Clippers, the Indians have deployed a Tito favorite mechanism to cover center in 2017: a platoon. Lonnie Chisenhall hits right-handed starting pitchers, while Austin Jackson (aka A-Jax) starts against the left-handed starting pitchers. The duo has combined (even adding in Tyler Naquin’s brutal six game stretch) to provide the Indians with the sixth best wRC+ (124) from center field in MLB.3

There were some initial struggles of reading the ball off of the bat from the new position, but Lonnie Chisenhall is looking more comfortable playing center field defense. The sample size is incredibly small, and he still has negative metrics with some interesting routes. However, there have been some glimpses that Chisenhall might just figure things out.

Chisenhall has also shown an effectiveness at the plate exceeding anything the Tribe has seen from him since the magical first half of the 2014 season (.302/.340/.512, 134 wRC+). Chisenhall’s .306 BABIP might not seem to indicate an impending regression, but there are some bad signs. He is hitting for more soft contact (32.5 percent in 2017, 22 percent for his career) than he has in recent seasons, while becoming a dead-pull hitter (45 percent pull rate in 2017, 40 percent for his career). The exit velocity on this batted balls is staying below 90 miles per hour. The new hitting profile does show a much higher occurrence of fly balls (47.4 percent in 2017, 40 percent for his career), which can lead to more bloop hits and home runs. Of course, as with all April statistics, the sample size is small but worth tracking moving forward.

A-Jax has had even more success at the plate than Chisenhall (.273/.368/.485 141 wRC+). Patience has helped A-Jax approach as he is walking at a far greater rate (13.2 percent) than at any point in his career (8.2 percent career average). Similar to Chisenhall, his batted ball profile does not appear to be one that can continue to navigate a high BABIP (.333) though the rates for A-Jax are closer to his career norms. His soft contact rate is up (16 percent in 2017 to 12.2 percent for career), while his hard contact rate is down (28 percent in 2017 to 30 percent in his career). The hard contact A-Jax is getting though has been bountiful as his isolated power is nearly 100 points better than his career average (.212 in 2017 to .125 for his career).

On defense, A-Jax has moved more towards the Michael Brantley approach to outfielding. His speed is not what it once was, so he relies on conservative routes that ensure the ball stays in front of him rather than spectacular grabs. While it will not help the overall defensive metrics show well in range or PCR, Jackson can help limit the amount of extra base hits with this method.

Monday, A-Jax went 1-for-3 with a walk, but it was hit sole hit in the ninth inning that gave Indians fans some pause. Running out an infield single, A-Jax stubbed his left foot on first base and had to leave the field. The initial thought was that he could have re-injured his surgically repaired left knee. Manager Terry Francona alleviated some of those concerns when he said that A-Jax had stubbed his toe, but he was still with the trainers at that time.

Before Tito’s injury update, the lack of suitable replacements for hitting off of southpaws side of the center field platoon became readily apparent. Yandy Diaz is not going to play center field for the Indians nor should Jose Ramirez be moved off the infield again. Neither Bradley Zimmer nor Greg Allen is ready to showcase their skills in MLB. Abraham Almonte is on the wrong side of the platoon and has not been good enough defensively to warrant play in center. If A-Jax does spend time on the DL (either now or in the future), Francona will have some interesting roster balancing to figure out.

Last Word

Chisenhall and A-Jax might not be able to continue their current trend of providing the Indians with some of the best offensive production in MLB from the cetner field position. However, if the platoon can continue their productivity, then the fans at Progressive Field will need to start chanting for them. A-Hall! A-Hall! A-Hall! Hmmm, on second thought, perhaps Chisen-Jax works better as a nickname.

  1. Machado’s Revenge as it will now be known as he hit homers, made defensive plays, and generally embarrassed the Red Sox. []
  2. Though there are suggestions he will be on Tuesday []
  3. Removing Naquin would give this platoon the fourth best center field wRC+ at 136. []

  • scripty

    Greg Allen only has 250 AA At Bats. He’s just far down the road.

  • scripty

    2017-18 free agent Center Fielders

    Lorenzo Cain (32)
    Rajai Davis (37)
    Jarrod Dyson (33)
    Craig Gentry (34)
    Carlos Gomez (32)
    Jon Jay (33)
    Andrew McCutchen (31) — $14.75MM club option with a $1MM buyout
    Colby Rasmus (31)
    Ben Revere (30)
    Melvin Upton Jr. (33)

  • mgbode

    that is quite the list

  • Pat Leonard
  • mgbode

    I wish I could take credit. There was a national writer calling for that to be the name, but I cannot find the reference now.

  • Pat Leonard

    Regardless of who said it, a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

  • tigersbrowns2

    Francona should do everything in his power to see that Bauer does not see another start against the Tigers … he won’t … he’ll put Bauer in there the next time as well.

  • tigersbrowns2

    i’d take Cain or McCutchen.

  • Steve

    Whats the evidence that Bauer will perform comparatively worse against the Tigers than anyone else? And to screw up the rotation to boot.

    The Indians are going to cruise to the division title. Bauer and Tomlin are going to have some bad days along the ride.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hmmm … i don’t know the exact numbers , but i believe Bauer has given up 6 earned RUNS or more in 6 consecutive starts against the Tigers.

    the Tigers will have something to say about the Indians “cruise” … enjoy the game tonight , Miggy’s back.

  • Steve

    That hes had some bad days isnt really evidence that he will continue to.

    The Tigers are a .500 team. And thats only because the other three teams are so much worse.

  • tigersbrowns2

    two of “the other three” teams have winning records … only the Royals are scuffling right now.

  • mgbode

    I’d worry Cain goes the Bourn route in his aging.
    I wouldn’t list Cutch as a CF option anymore.

  • mgbode

    Hey, it’s baseball, you never know. But, the White Sox started off 2016 pretty hot too…

  • tigersbrowns2

    all of the other guys on his list can hit worth a lick … i’d take my chances with Cain & Cutch.

  • Steve

    I can’t imagine they are going to be in the market for more than another Austin Jackson type. Zimmer is close enough.

  • Chris

    Makes you think that one should slip through on the cheap!

  • jpftribe

    Zimmer is a ballplayer. Great bat, is gonna strikeout a lot. As good as anyone they have defensively.

  • jpftribe
  • jpftribe

    I’ve been reminded numerous times that spring training doesn’t count. But I saw AJax and Zimmer in ST competing. AJax had a really good spring. Zimmer was better. He went down because of moneyball. $5m today vs $20M down the road. Some will say he needs time to develop, but he’ll mature at a better pace here. He doubled off of Bumgarner the first time he faced him. Dude can hit MLB pitching.

  • mgbode

    It will be interesting to see when the org brings him up. I’m not sure when the date is that gets us the extra year like we got with Lindor for waiting until June. But, given that the Indians haven’t even hinted at calling him up, there’s a chance we are talking about NEXT June with Zimmer after Santana is possibly gone and with Chisenhall and Brantley both up to be UFA’s after the 2018 season.

  • Steve

    The extra year is earned when a player can no longer accumulate 172 days of service time in that first season. Thats almost always day 12 of the season. The June date is more in flux, but it only pertains to super two status, whether a guy gets to earn a few more bucks with an extra year of arbitration.

    After Zimmer’s performance to end last year in AAA, there was no question in my mind that he needed more time to hone his game. He struck out 37% of the time, and had almost no power. There was a lot of work to do on his game that just a month against guys who may have been trying to just get back in shape more than anything else wasn’t going to fix.

    If he continues to hit in AAA like he has so far into this very young season, he’ll push for a spot, but I don’t see how he’s getting a spot before next year.

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  • jpftribe

    I think you’re spot on on the spot. But serious question: Who do you think is a better ballplayer right now, Ajax or Zimmer?

  • jpftribe

    And of course he goes 0-5 with 4 SO’s last night.

  • Steve

    Without any other context, Zimmer, but we can’t look at it without any other context. Zimmer isn’t competing for a spot with Jackson, who is the other side of a platoon. Zimmer’s playing time will come at the expense of Chisenhall and Almonte. If we were to make the Zimmer-Jackson switch now, how often would the kid play?

  • jpftribe

    Thanks. I get the baseball reasons for keeping him down. I just wanted to see if I was crazy for thinking he’s a better player than AJax, who is a pretty damn good player. Baseball Ref has similar hitters thru age 29: Jimmy Piersall, Dexter Fowler 1 & 2.

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