The Indians and Lineup Optimization

(Carlos Osorio, Associated Press)

In baseball, analytics, sabermetrics, and spreadsheets—the bane of the Luddite’s—often end up affirming concepts which are traditionally accepted but progressively ignored. In this way, a quote from sabermetric forebear Bill James which is unbelievably traditional provides significant insight into the Indians organizational plan and construction:

I am asked sometimes, “What is the undervalued skill in baseball today?  What is the thing that teams don’t value properly, in 2016 major league baseball?” It’s this. It’s contact hitting. That’s what I believe.

Since reading this quote it has instigated numerous articles at Waiting For Next Year discussing independent player value but this quote is most easily illustrated in discussing the team wide impacts which the undervalued tool of contact frequency could have.1 One’s mind immediately begins to construe the Indians as some sort of mirror of the Kansas City Royals 2015 World Series team, however, the Indians are a slightly divergent model because of their on-base skills.

In order to evaluate the Indians lineup in this context, consider the below spreadsheet:

Indians likely lineup against RHPCareer K%BB%
2016 league average:21.10%8.20%
Bench dudes:

Including Brantley is likely haphazard as the long term risks of his shoulder strife suggests that we should expect little. The point holds, however, as the Indians have seven of nine starters with better than average abilities to put the ball in play; Ramirez, Lindor and Encarnacion possess elite bat-to-ball skills. One of the pieces of the Encarnacion deal is that they added power over Napoli in 2016, but greater as the Indians go from a two-outcome hitter in Napoli to a power-contact combination with Encarnacion, likely trimming the cleanup hitter’s K-rate by 7-to-9 percent—an absolutely monstrous upgrade. Further, unlike the Royals, the Indians also include three hitters with elite plate discipline. Santana nearly doubled the league average walk rate of last year for his career. Further, Encarnacion, Perez and Naquin all have shown above-average-to-elite walk rates.

Cleveland Indians 2016 AL ChampsThe bench features Guyer, a player who will get 300-400 plate appearances and also has an above average ability to put the ball in play. The Indians have clearly favored an approach, stacking their lineup with contact and on-base skills with the exception of the contact issues for Naquin and Perez.

In the past decade, the pendulum has been consistently swinging back and forth in the debate between contact skills and power being undervalued commodities. However, this piece focuses not on the balance of the value of these commodities but rather the impact that adding each individual skills would have in the context of the Indians lineup. While I propose a few alterations to this summary, Bill James addresses the lineup impact of the differing types:

The reason this is true is that the power hitter is maximizing your ability to capitalize on opportunities, but is diminishing the number of opportunities that remain. Because there are fewer opportunities left, fewer men left on base to drive in, each additional power hitter has fewer opportunities to work with. But the .300 hitter is increasing both the number of opportunities, and the rate at which the team will capitalize on its opportunities. The more of those guys you add, the better.

This can be expanded to the two major archetypes: The power hitter with major contact issues who posts 30 home runs and a .240 batting average, and the contact hitter who post .270+ with more limited power. The power hitter with limited on-base skills limits the potential productivity of those behind him because they will have fewer runners on base.

Whereas having people like Ramirez, Kipnis, Lindor, and to a lesser extent Chisenhall/Guyer, both produce runs based on their contact and increase the frequency of run scoring opportunities for those behind them. Therefore, adding more and more of these types has a sort of multiplier effect as the lineup deepens with contact skills.  While James frames his conversation on batting average in terms of contact, I believe the better approach is on base percentage plus the ability to avoid strikeouts. In this way, Carlos Santana adds another elite player in terms of productive plate appearances, rarely striking out as well as playing up the contact abilities of those who follow with his plate discipline.

In this way, the Encarnacion signing was an absolute boon. Not only providing the power behind high contact players but also wielding his contact and on-base skills to provide opportunities to high average hitters behind him like Jose Ramirez. The Indians have moved towards one extreme on the contact spectrum which will only further improve their offensive production.

  1. This analysis will continue with an analysis of the Indians drafting and developmental strategy which includes a weight on contact skills. []