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. []