When the Indians drafted Francisco Lindor in June of 2011, he was everything that you could possibly ask for as a potential Major League shortstop. Defensively, he was as smooth as butter, with great footwork, outstanding range, and an arm that has the strength to get it to first from every angle. The first scout I ever talked to about Lindor in 2011 said simply, “the Indians got themselves another Omar Vizquel, and if it all plays out, he could be better.”
Offensively, there were a lot of questions regarding ceiling. He was a switch hitter and he made a lot of contact, but there wasn’t much power to speak of, or at least the type of power that seemed to translate at the professional level. Most scouts saw the lanky 170 pounder and said, “his ceiling is 15 homers,” but only if he grew into that power. He’d likely be one of those singles and gap doubles guys, who hit .300 for a long time, with a little bit of power. That’s nothing to shirk.
But even then, there were signs that Lindor was more than just a defensive-first player, who might have gap power. Lindor won the 2010 Perfect Game Aflac Home Run Derby, and while he certainly wasn’t going to get drafted for his power, it was an interesting sidenote to a player that was already making a name for himself for being a plus defender, a hard worker, a player with an attitude that was beyond reproach, who lived on the diamond, and someone who had a really good understanding of the strike zone.
And he was 16…and that was eight years ago.
Fast forward to 2016, when Lindor turned 22 and played his first full season in the bigs. He won a Gold Glove, made the All-Star team, hit .301, and hit 15 home runs.
15 home run ceiling…check.
It was his first full season, and he was 22.
When you’re 22 and you finish in the top 10 of the MVP vote in your first year, it’s probably pretty easy to think, “I’ve figured this game out.” While those are words that have seen careers die, the special players just seem to find their groove. Nobody faults them for it because their skill set is so far beyond everyone else’s. The fact that Lindor did, in his first year, what everyone figured was his ceiling, was more of an “I told you so” moment than anything else…for everyone except for Lindor.
The 2017 season was an interesting one for Lindor. On the outside looking in, the Indians and their fans watched Jose Ramirez surge. Ramirez hit 29 homers, scored 107 runs, and surpassed Lindor’s 2016 6.2 fWAR with a 6.6 fWAR of his own.
Lindor, in the meantime, was doing some business of his own. Lindor saw a huge jump in ISO, hitting 14 more doubles, and 18 more home runs in 2017, in comparison to 2016. Lindor spent much of the 2016-2017 offseason working on his selection. While Lindor knew that he would never become a straight-up power hitter, he knew that he generated enough power when he was able to barrel the baseball. In other words, when Lindor hits a ball in the zone and gains some lift, he’s going to do some damage. Travis Sawchik touched upon this early in Lindor’s 2017 season.
At season’s end, Lindor’s power surge came with some really interesting stats. His BB% and K% were identical to the 2016 season, so his approach didn’t take a hit, which tends to happen when you start altering your swing a little bit. Lindor’s ISO jumped 98 points, and his slugging % tipped the scales at .505, 70 points higher than 2016. His fly ball percentage jumped from 28.4% in 2016, to 42.4% in 2017, and his hard hit percentage on balls in play increased from 27.5% to 35.2%, while his soft hit percentage dropped by 3%, to 14.3%. His BABIP dropped nearly 50 points, from .324 to .275, which was the first time since Low A Lake County that Lindor saw his BABIP drop below .300.
So an unlucky Lindor still had a 5.9 fWAR, had a huge power spike thanks to a continued approach to pound balls in the zone, essentially was the same hitting in the box, when you’d expect perhaps a rise in K% and a drop in BB% with some new swing thoughts, and he was hitting the ball a whole lot harder.
It sorta feels like the calm before the storm, doesn’t it?
I’d love to sit here and tell you that back in 2013 ,when I got to watch Lindor on a daily basis when he played with the Carolina Mudcats, that I saw a 30-homer, 100 RBI guy when I saw Lindor hit, but I didn’t. In the many times that I talked with him about his hitting, it never even occurred to me to ask him about such numbers.
What I did notice about Lindor, and I can’t list them all or this piece would be 10,000 words, was that he was your prototypical “baseball rat.” I always liked to get to games early and talk to players, while I was working the Muddies beat for IBI. I’d get there two or so hours early, and there was never once a day in which Lindor wasn’t out there working on something. One of the first times I talked to him, when I asked him about it, he said, “I don’t try and be the first player on the field, or the last player off of it, but it sometimes works out that way.” When I chuckled and said, “sometimes,” Lindor flashed that big smile of his and said, “well, a lot of the time, but the other guys are working just as hard as I am. I just need the extra work.”
He just needs the extra work…sure. But these are the words of superstars. These are the words of players who are not only prodigies but strive to be the best at their craft. I saw Jason Kipnis do this a couple of years prior, while he was working on becoming a second baseman. While “scouts” were talking about how Kipnis would never be a very good infielder, Kipnis was busy putting in two or three hours a day fielding ground balls when they weren’t there watching.
That’s what Francisco Lindor has been doing, both offensively and defensively since he started playing the game. It’s what the Indians saw when they scouted him prior to 2011. It’s what everyone covering Lindor saw in him as he climbed methodically through the system. They saw the rare blend of “superstar” and “workhorse” that you don’t see every day. While Kipnis has touched All-Star status because of his talent and work ethic, Lindor is on another plane.
What’s fantastic about Lindor though? He doesn’t take a thing for granted.
It’s really easy to say, “Lindor’s going to see a regression in power in 2018.” There isn’t a projection system that predicts Lindor to hit 30 homers. Remember, our brains are trained on seeing Lindor as a slick-fielding, Omar Vizquel type, who will lock down shortstop for years to come, with perhaps slightly better offense. He was only supposed to hit 15 homers, and I think if you really forced people to compare Lindor to a former major leaguer, their ceiling would have been Derek Jeter.
Now I’m not a big fan of comparisons because it’s really easy to start walking down fantasy land with a player with the ceiling of Lindor, but it does get fun now that he’s played two full seasons in the bigs. In those two full seasons and a part of another, he’s seen his power leap from 12 homers to 15 homers, to 33. He’s never had a season below 4.4 fWAR. He’s already won a Gold Glove and will be in the running for many more over the course of his career. So it’s easy to start comparing Lindor to many of the great shortstops before him.
But that’s where things get really interesting because Lindor never looks at other players. He only cares about improving his game. His big draw since coming to the majors has been swinging at pitches “in his wheelhouse,” and we started to see that last year. That takes time. In doing that, we saw Lindor start to launch baseballs, and what’s especially scary about that for opposing pitchers is that he’s not doing anything different to his swing, other than trying to recognize pitches in the zone.
So I ask you a simple question: If an already advanced offensive player begins to take that advanced thinking to the next level, and can execute it, what happens then? When a 24-year “baseball rat” with a high baseball IQ starts going “next-gen,” what will his numbers start to look like?
Ponder it for a second. When a player like Francisco Lindor understands exactly which pitches he is looking for, and he combines that with a growing IQ of the pitchers he’s going to be facing, what exactly is he going to unleash upon the league in 2018 and beyond?
And he’s only 24-years old.
So here’s my bold prediction for 2018, and why, at this point, should I rest my laurels, of which I have none. Francisco Lindor will put it all together in 2018, and have a season that far supersedes anything we thought possible of him before he joined the big league club in 2015. Lindor’s pitch recognition will be more advanced than the pitcher’s recognition of him. And instead of this being “something new,” as this approach was in 2017, it’ll now just be a part of his game.
Now imagine that same player, who walks up to the plate, knowing exactly what pitches he wants, and now, knows exactly what pitches he’s going to get, with another year of improving his fitness. If you’ve watched Lindor over the years, he’s no longer that lanky 16-year old who was swimming in his baseball uniform. Lindor is now a much stronger 190 to 200-pound physical specimen. No, he’s not Yandy Diaz, but there are some pictures of Lindor standing in the batting cage this year circulating that had me doing a double take to make sure it was actually him.
What will that player do in 2018?
Does Francisco Lindor have another gear? Can Francisco Lindor put together some seasons that make people align him with…say…Mike Trout, when the numbers are all said and done? While it’s impossible to speculate on the Herculean numbers of Trout in his early career, and it’s insane to broach the subject of Lindor doing the same…that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
As a matter of fact, I’d be shocked if he doesn’t. Lindor’s still on the ascent…still incredibly young, and likely the smartest baseball player we’ve seen in Cleveland in a long time, and that’s truly saying something. When you put the talent, and the work ethic, and the IQ, and the desire together, you get something incredibly special…
…and that something incredibly special sounds a lot like…M…V…P.