West coast games bleeding past midnight, cold weather, and inept offensive baseball have been the three biggest downsides to the start of the 2018 season for the Cleveland Indians. The good news is that the Tribe only has one more trip to the West coast,1 the weather will get warmer (eventually), and excellent pitching and defense has allowed the Indians to stay afloat in the AL Central standings. After winning both series against division opponents thus far, the Tribe is in a decent spot considering the early issues.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and MLB has undergone several over the last few seasons. Pitchers are throwing with more velocity and movement than ever before leading to higher strikeout rates. Bullpens are being utilized more heavily, which increases those effects. Defenses are being positioned in dramatic fashions on the field to reduce the probability of a hit as much as possible. Across baseball, hitters have adjusted by doing what they can to boost their own output despite these limiting factors– in many cases, it has meant joining the legion of those in the Elevation Revelation by hitting the ball with high exit velocity in the air. One result has been home runs and runs scored getting a big boost in the past two seasons.
While there remains a question if pitchers can make tweaks to counter the hitters last move, it is far too early in the season to make any proclamations. However, it is worth taking a peek at the last three seasons of data to see which players on the current Tribe have joined this movement and if there are any members of the current 25-man roster who might benefit from doing so now.
Note: the 2018 data was included though the sample size is small. It is only there as an observable early indicator to track moving forward.
For as much press as barreling the baseball to hit more line drives and deep fly balls has received over the past two seasons, it is not as if the idea of being a power hitter is a recent phenomenon. The hitting style itself was explained thoroughly in the book Ted Williams authored in 1971, The Science of Hitting. As expected, Edwin Encarnacion is a hitter who has a long history with launch angles above 15 degrees. Yan Gomes has always been capable of blasts such as his walk-off home run on Sunday, and those types of shots are what he has always focused on hitting with mixed results. Lonnie Chisenhall is another player whose average launch angle has always been within what most believe is the optimal range with Brandon Guyer and Rajai Davis not far behind.
New Member Voucher
Yonder Alonso was one of the faces of this movement when he took MLB by storm in the first half of 2017 as FanGraphs has dubbed him the Flyball Poster Boy as he had a career year at the plate as he changed his intent to putting the ball in the air.
Francisco Lindor has been an understated climber in launch angle each consecutive season of his time in MLB. In 2017, joining the Elevation Revelation allowed him to receive more notice nationally as his isolated slugging percentage soared. The additional power were considered big factors in him winning the crowded race for the AL shortstop Silver Slugger Award and finishing in the Top 5 of the AL MVP race.
Jose Ramirez saw even bigger gains from the increase lift on his batted balls. A Top 3 finisher in the AL MVP race has seen his batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage all increase year-to-year from 2015 through 2017. It is sort of amazing he has not been singled out as one of the main players benefiting from this new hitting focus.
Injuries are a mitigating factor, but Jason Kipnis has not seen similar gains despite following a similar pattern to Lindor and Ramirez. It will be interesting to monitor if Kipnis continues on this track or if his swing and approach might be better suited for more of a Brantley swing plane.
Haven’t changed their ways
Michael Brantley has been among the most vocal critics of the heightened focus on putting lift onto the flight of the ball, so it should not be a surprise he has remained relatively consistent. There is nothing wrong with his approach either as his level swing lends itself to a decent amount of line drives, which is why he hits so many doubles. His overall power profile is limited, but Brantley has such great bat-to-ball skills that he can live in his space as a plus hitter anyway.
Roberto Perez is surprisingly not on either list above despite his best remembered plate appearances ending in home runs. The issue is that Perez can go long stretches with meager ground ball outs, which is why his batting average has hovered around .215 for his career and has drug down his on base percentage to just a shade over .300 despite a good strikeout to walk ratio at the plate. The 2018 spike in launch angle has not yet seen a requisite spike in his batted ball profile, but it will be one of the more interesting hitting profiles to track.
None of the remaining young part-time players on the Indians have hit the ball with elevation in their limited opportunities. Bradley Zimmer is the player to be most concerned about though his speed could help compensate, he should at least be attempting to move his profile into the Brantley range of the launch angle spectrum. Tyler Naquin and Erik Gonzalez are end of the roster fodder without much future projection, so whether or not they adjust probably doesn’t affect the Indians moving forward.
The Cleveland Indians offense has struggled mightily in 2018. However, there are signs it has been more bad weather and bad luck than play. For instance, every single batter on the roster has a lower wOBA than expected wOBA according to Baseball Savant2 with many of the teams’ best hitters among the most affected.
So, more run scoring should lay ahead for the Tribe, and one of the reasons the Indians should still finish among the best offenses in the American League is their embracing of the Elevation Revelation… even if they won’t admit it.