Home runs and strikeouts have dominated the landscape of MLB the past year and a half to the point where many wonder if the ball is juiced. The Cleveland Indians crafted a lineup at the big league level loaded with contact and the ability to elongate rallies with plate discipline. Power, instead, is a bonus. The merits of this construction were discussed in detail last week. These strengths are also cultivated throughout the Indians minor league player development system, which Akron Rubberducks manager David Wallace discussed with WFNY.
Wallace was named Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year in 2016 and has managed Akron for three years.1 Wallace is a rising star in the Indians development system with a particular insight and charisma that indicate greater things to come. Following three years at the helm in Akron, Wallace will be transitioning to the front office for 2017.
The Indians have had significant success over the past half decade developing players with high contact rates and helping them add unexpected power at the big league level — be it Michael Brantley, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis, or Francisco Lindor, a Wallace protege.
Please be advised that a focus on contact does not to imply that the Indians do not tailor their development process to optimizing each individual’s tool set as Wallace noted.
“We are always exploring ways to get each hitter in the most powerful position to impact the baseball,” he said. “That might look different from hitter to hitter and the goal is not always homeruns.”
While swings may not be as numerous as there are different designs of snowflakes, the mechanical differences from swing to swing is definitely lost when bucketing swings into “contact” and “power.” Specialization can make sense, but the Indians have done a remarkable job accessing increased power from elite contact types once they reach MLB.
A key question is whether there was something advantageous to developing players with above average contact tools versus those with above average power. Wallace’s belief is that the real key is the player being willing to adjust.
“Willingness of a player to get outside of their comfort zone and explore potential adjustments is a characteristic we value highly. The guys [Lindor, Ramirez, Brantley] you mentioned deserve a great amount of credit for doing just that.” Wallace continued. “They are always looking to learn and grow even while experiencing success. I wouldn’t say a type of hitter is easier or harder to develop since each case is different.”
Looking for the next overlooked high-contact prospect who can add power through extra base hits or homeruns is natural.
The obvious answers are two players who spent time in Akron in 2016. These are two players who Wallace has managed the past two seasons and had profiles of above average contact and plate discipline. These players are close to the big leagues and could quickly add depth: Yandy Diaz and Greg Allen. Wallace noted the value their profiles provided to his Rubberducks lineups.
Wallace sums up in a sentence what Bill James took great time to establish.
“They (contact plus the discipline of Yandy and Greg) also have great value in extending a rally.”
The intersection of experienced baseball mind and sabermetrician is always an appealing occurrence.
Having coached Yandy over the past two years Wallace believes that some power growth may happen.
“I do think Yandy’s power numbers could rise in the big leagues,” he said. “We have seen it in short sample with Lindor, Ramirez, and Naquin. Again, I attribute it to the player’s willingness to continually work on improving their swings and the pitches they swing at. Yandy’s plate discipline will continue to serve him well in this way.”
Perhaps most fascinating is Allen, a player who has been covered by WFNY in great detail. Allen flashed a power spike in a middling sample in Akron as well as in the Arizona Fall League following the season; enough to inquire if Allen had made an adjustment.
“Greg is an incredibly strong guy,” said Wallace. “His strength numbers in the weight room are at or near the top of the organization in every category, despite not being the biggest guy we have. When his timing is right and he efficiently uses his whole body, not just hands, Greg has the potential to drive the ball with great authority. There weren’t any major mechanical adjustments, just getting timing right and making a good move to the ball.”
In Allen and Diaz the Indians have players who can help Cleveland in 2017; Diaz could be ready offensively Opening Day. The Tribe features a lineup loaded with contact and plate discipline profiles, and those skillsets benefit from each addition of a similar profile. Diaz and Allen look to be the next in line in the Indians development system with this profile. Like the other prospects that came before them, a sneaky power growth is always a possibility.