Are we having fun yet? The second half of the MLB season has just begun, yet getting swept by a team still buried in last place in the AL West and only better than the Chicago White Sox in the American League sort of puts a damper on a team expected to compete for the World Series.1
July is always a busy discussion month for MLB coverage as the trade deadline is at the end of the month and contenders and rebuilders retreat to their separate corners.
What has WFNY been talking about?
During a rough stretch, the natural inclination is to search for fixes, which is not dissimilar to treasure hunting and can be almost as fun.
- WFNY’s Mike Hattery and Jim Pete have already covered possible upgrades from the starting pitcher market, including the Griffin that is Chris Archer (a top-line rotation starter under team-control for several years who is available for trade).2
- WFNY’s Joe Gerberry went to watch the rehabilitation of starter Danny Salazar to see if he might be able to provide the needed oomph to the rotation.
- Hattery also noted how difficult it is to find a suitable trade to increase championship odds due to the depth of skill on the present Indians roster.
- Don’t forget the true treasure could be protecting what you already have as Hattery also discussed what an extension to Cody Allen would require (yeah, he’s been busy).
What about the offense?
One of the more difficult questions to answer is how much is the Indians offense hurt by the injuries to Jason Kipnis (hamstring) and Lonnie Chisenhall (calf). Both players were injured just prior to the All-Star break and will potentially miss the rest of July. Kipnis had been struggling the entire season with Chisenhall having a breakout campaign– but one in which he is on the DL for the third time and being utilized mostly in a platoon despite justification for every day starts. It is also possible their production decreases if the injuries linger beyond their return to the lineup.
wOBA was created by Tom Tango and is based on the concept that not all hits are created equal. The end result is one catch-all statistic that helps measure the impact on run expectancy due to the hitter’s production at the plate.
By using the xwOBA (expected wOBA), the numbers utilized determine what the probabilities said should have happened to this point of the season, rather than what did. There is no erasing some of the frustrations of the first half (or unexpected pleasant surprises), but those are not as useful for projecting the future as taking a peek at the expected outcomes.
The table above shows Chisenhall was fifth this year in xwOBA, Kipnis ninth; both well ahead of each of the players that will gain their plate appearances.
Jason Kipnis Replacement Options
Even though Kipnis has struggled for results in 2017, he will be difficult to replace. The 4.0 WAR player of recent seasons does not appear that it was in play for Kipnis coming off a shoulder injury, but an above average hitter was still there as could be seen from a .256/.340/.419 slash over the 23 games before his most recent DL trip.
Erik Gonzalez is more than 30 points lower than Kipnis on this chart. The early success was nice for E-Gone, but the peripherals have consistently shown they were more good fortune than actual merit that could project future success. The .231/.231/.423 over his past 9 games is troubling enough (notice zero walks) without also realizing he went hitless in more than half of them (five).
Giovanny Urshela did not yet qualify for the above table, but he is not expected to have anywhere close to an average bat. After posting a 1-for-8 mark with the Indians, Urshela did exhibit some promise on Monday with a 2-for-4 outing that included three well hit balls. One game is a miniscule sample and .266/.321/.374 in Columbus shows it will likely be an outlier, but the idea of having his defense is appealing.
Both players are better defensively, but they will have a tough time making up for their poor bats. Or, maybe Gio’s elite defense could…
If Gio ever figures it out at the plate at the MLB level, Urshela, Frankie, and JRam are going to make one hell of a defensive infield. pic.twitter.com/73QKhy4QLd
— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) July 18, 2017
There is one option not currently on the Indians 25-man roster that the team could explore should Kipnis’ injury prove to be lengthy. Yandy Diaz could reclaim his position at third base (Jose Ramirez already has been logging some time at second), and his xwOBA of .298 for 2017 is quite near the value Kipnis has had in 2017.
There are some limitations that go into these numbers though and Diaz is a special case as his xwOBA is 69 points higher than his actual. There is currently not a MLB player with a qualified number plate appearances with a ground ball rate above 59%. Diaz was at 62.5% when he was sent down to Columbus, and he has been at 60.3% there. He has found more batted ball success at Triple-A, but much of it is due to less sophisticated shifting and his advanced ability to spray the ball to all fields at that level (39.6% of his batted balls went right back up the middle at MLB level). Also, only Dee Gordon of the Los Angeles Dodgers has a GB/FB above 3.0 among qualified hitters, while Diaz was at 5.0 with the Indians and is at 3.5 with the Clippers. His swings have been measured at 63 miles per hour which is best on the team (along with his exit velocity on batted balls) and among the best in the majors. If Diaz can figure out how to find better balance in batted ball types, then he can become an anchor of the Indians moving forward. He does not appear to be there yet.
Gonzalez, Urshela, and Diaz each are interesting prospects moving forward, but they are not Kipnis at the plate which is why when diving into the details of whether or not the Indians should look at benching Kipnis, the conclusion was to leave Kipnis in the lineup. Perhaps one of these players can emerge in July, but the more likely conclusion will be the lineup will be hurt.
Lonnie Chisenhall Replacement Options
Chisenhall’s absence is a more obvious hit to the offense. The above table shows he is the fifth most valuable hitter in the lineup. While it is easy for some to make a comparison to his 2014 first half, the peripherals demonstrate there is much more advanced skill than luck in his current slash of .305/.376/.578, 142 OPS+ as the in-depth analysis noted.
Because baseball means that Chisenhall could lose his current approach and revert to his old, poor habits of hitting weak ground balls as he attempts to pull pitches off the outside corner. Still, the first half of 2017 appears to be a big shift unlike the first half of 2014 when Chisenhall was merely getting better results from similar peripheral numbers. There are legitimate changes in his batting eye, batted ball spray, hard-hit rate, and fly ball rate. Even in his weakest month of April, his ISO was higher than those early months of 2014.
With Austin Jackson still in rehabilitation, there also is not an obvious option to help the Indians in the outfield. The idea of the speedy Bradley Zimmer receiving more time in center field and in the lead-off position is enticing, until the actual numbers show that he is still more of a bottom of the order hitter. Much like E-Gone, a fast start has hidden recent struggles in Zim Shady’s overall batting line. But, in the last 15 games, he is hitting .226/.263/.321. The projections show he should be somewhere between the recent slump and that hot start. He is a player who should be in the Indians long-term plans though, so seeing him get to handle the role as an everyday player might be beneficial long-term even if he works through some struggles this month.
One possible option, Tyler Naquin, has continued to be terrible against MLB fastballs and was sent back down to Columbus so fast that he needn’t have taken his luggage off the bus.3 His sample size was incredibly small with the Tribe, but finishing dead last offers him no argument against that decision.
Another, Brandon Guyer, is an obvious platoon-side option against left-handed pitchers if peeking at career stats, but 2017 has been less appealing as his slash is .182/.262/.273, 47 OPS+. While it is possible to be due to an extremely small sample size and there is merit to leaning on those career statistics to an extent, the slash has not been due to poor luck. Guyer has earned the wretched offense that has been seen thus far as much as he has the opportunity to play out of his slump.
Abraham Almonte had the 505 foot home run on Sunday, but his overall season has more closely resembled that of Yan Gomes than a useful offensive force as the peripheral numbers sugggest Almonte has actually seen a fair amount of good fortune to post his .240/.331/.375, 83 OPS+. Almonte’s defense has also been, well, let’s say ‘an adventure.’
The Indians have decent depth, but they will not be able to replace Kipnis and Chisenhall in the lineup. The bottom three of the lineup (including either catcher) might well resemble the “black holes of offense” that were seen in years past unless someone steps up significantly from expectations. The good news is that the infield defense should be improved and Austin Jackson might be able to provide some assistance to the outfield bats soon. Otherwise, the best route for the Indians to bolster their offense might be for Carlos Santana returning to his career norms because it is unlikely a bat will be cheap enough on the trade market to be worth folding into the lineup for just this month.
- It should be noted that the Indians, still sporting the fourth best record in the AL, are only 5.5 games ahead of those buried last place A’s. The AL is crazy packed with mediocre teams in 2017. [↩]
- I’m sorry, but too many outlets use unicorn as their default impossible to find mythical creature. Plus, a Griffin has the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, which is way cooler than putting a freaking horn on a horse. [↩]
- Cmon, ignore the fact it was a cross-country flight. The joke doesn’t work if you think too much. [↩]