Cleveland’s New, Highly Volatile Outfielder

Photo by Adam Pintar

The Cleveland Indians outfield has been a point of contention among fans this offseason, and this article is not meant to challenge that sentiment. Even before the disappointing 2018 season, the outfield has been one of the Tribe’s most glaring weaknesses. Before Michael Brantley skipped town, he was an oft-injured secondary contributor who was unavailable for the franchise’s most important moments. Beyond Dr. Smooth, though, the list of Indians outfielders since 2016 is a sorry one. The only other member of that group to record even a two-win season was Tyler Naquin’s BAbip fueled 2016.1 Unsurprisingly, Cleveland is projected to have the second lowest production from left field, and the fourth lowest from the right.

Luckily for Cleveland, the franchise is in a position in which it doesn’t need to immediately patch these holes to win the division. There are three possible outcomes. One is that, if the front office deems it necessary, they’ll acquire midseason help from a floundering team for some prospect. Another possibility is that they’ll just live with the holes; again, the Indians have no foreseeable challengers in the AL Central, with or without holes in the outfield. The third and most ideal option is also the least likely: a breakout performance. That was the Indians’ Christmas Wish when they acquired Jordan Luplow from the Pirates (along with utilityman Max Moroff in exchange for Erik Gonzalez, teen pitching prospect Tahnaj Thomas, and teen pitching non-prospect Dante Mendoza).

The most likely future role for Luplow’s career is that of a platoon outfielder or quality bench bat, and I doubt the Indians see it much differently. At the same time, Luplow possesses an upside that’s easy to dream on.

Jordan Luplow was drafted as a third baseman No. 100 overall by the Pirates in 2014 and all he’s done since then is change positions and mash. His lowest single-season wRC+ in the minor leagues was 129, as a 22-year-old in High-A ball. The next season, Luplow abused Double-A and Triple-A pitching to the tune of a 150 wRC+, which is especially impressive considering he was young for those levels. In fact, one would have to nitpick to find any fault in Luplow’s MiLB stats. His impressive power numbers, including 23 homers in 2017, were matched with an above average walk and strikeout rates. Nonetheless, he was never really considered a prospect for the Pirates. Of course, the Indians are no strangers to trying to maximize the potential of non-prospects.

The prospect analysts that have snubbed Luplow have thus far been proven right. In an admittedly small sample size of 190 MLB plate appearances, Luplow’s wRC+ is 72—if that’s his true talent (which I don’t believe it is), he’s not a viable Major League player. Most likely, his true talent lies somewhere between his lackluster MLB numbers and stellar minor league performance, but the range created by those boundaries is vast. Therefore, it’s worth looking what exactly the prospect analysts have said in order to inform and perhaps narrow Jordan Luplow’s major league prognostication.

Here’s FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen from before the 2018 season:

“Luplow had a monster year at Double and Triple-A, slashing .296/.377/.543 between the two levels before he was called up at the end of July. He features above-average raw power and bat speed, and has been able to tailor his flat-planed swing in such a way that he really began tapping into it last year. Is his minor-league production sustainable? Probably not, as Luplow’s pull-only approach to contact is more likely to be exploited over an extended big-league stay. xStats wasn’t a fan of his batted-ball profile in his short big-league stay, and the variables that inform the expected metrics stabilize fairly quickly. I think Luplow’s power and ability to make adjustments means he has a shot to play some kind of big-league role, either as a poppy bench bat or platoon outfielder, but he’s more likely upper-level 40-man depth.”

And here’s Baseball Prospectus’s Greg Goldstein’s slightly more bullish statement from the same time:

The former 2014 third-round pick had a breakout minor league campaign and even got 27 games in the Pirates outfield towards the latter parts of the regular season. Overshadowed early on by the Kevins (Newman and Kramer) in Altoona, Luplow was promoted before both players because of how easily he handled Eastern League pitching, while not missing a beat in the International League either, hitting for a combined .527 slugging percentage between the two levels. Luplow employs an athletic, leveraged swing capable of turning on plus velo. The outfielder shows above-average bat speed and is at his best when he can release his body on fastballs on the inner half. Not only is the power for real, but he’s got the frame to add a bit more muscle to his already plus raw power. There are concerns that his fairly noisy swing and effort will limit his hit tool and rack up the whiffs at the highest level, but I think he shows enough athleticism and barrel control to be able to convert a lot of the raw pop in the batter’s box. While not a great defender by any means, Luplow is capable of playing in both corners and really won’t hurt you with the mit [sic]. He fits the mold of a power dependent corner outfielder who has the upside of an everyday player. The fringy hit tool may make him best suited for a platoon role, but potential 20 home run power mixed with loose hands that has enough ability to keep the right side of the field honest shouldn’t be sneezed at when projecting Luplow’s big league prospects moving forward.”

Several things immediately jump out: Longenhagen and Goldstein agree on Luplow’s above-average raw power and bat speed (interestingly, they both refer to him as a Swiss Army Knife. They must have the same source for inside information on Luplow.). Their concern for Luplow racking up big strikeout numbers in the majors is curious; certainly, MLB pitchers far exceed their minor league counterparts in talent, but Luplow has always been above average at avoiding strikeouts. They must think Luplow is simply preying on bad pitching. The most intriguing statement, though, is the expectation that Luplow’s pull-happy approach is unsustainable. This merits a closer look.

First, the accusation that Luplow specializes in pulling the ball is an accurate one: during each of his previous three minor league seasons, Luplow’s pulled over 51% of his batted balls. For comparison, Andrelton Simmons’s 51% pull rate led the majors in 2018. An accurate evaluation of Luplow’s performance does not guarantee an appropriate conclusion, however. From 2016-2018, in his age 22-24 seasons, the Pirates’ farmhand averaged a 138 wRC+ to go along with his high pull rate in Double-A and Triple-A. For context, let’s look at every hitter since 2013 with over 250 plate appearances to have a 50% pull rate, 130 wRC+ as a young player in the high minors:

Name Season (age) Level Pull% wRC+ K% BB% MLB wRC+ fWAR PAs fWAR/500 PAs
Cavan Biggio 2018 (23) AA 51 145 26.3 17.8 TBD TBD TBD
Austin Hays 2017 (21) AA 54 161 15.9 4.6 41 -0.7 63 -5.56
Will Smith 2018 (23) AA 56.3 141 24.4 11.7 TBD TBD TBD
Tyler O’Neill 2018 (23) AAA 49.4 170 24.9 10.6 114 1.3 142 4.58
Danny Jansen 2018 (23) AAA 53.8 146 13.6 12.2 115 0.7 95 3.68
Peter Alonso 2018 (23) AAA 50.3 139 25.9 11 TBD TBD TBD
Jeimer Candelario 2016 (22) AAA 52.1 155 17.2 12.3 96 2.8 775 1.81
Gary Sanchez 2016 (22) AAA 55.8 131 14.4 6.7 124 8.9 1130 3.94
Harrison Bader 2016 (22) AA 52 143 26.1 7 99 3.7 519 3.56
Chance Sisco 2016 (21) AA 50 135 17.3 12.3 76 0.3 206 0.73
Corey Toups 2016 (23) AA 51.6 133 24.4 9.1 TBD TBD TBD
Javy Baez 2015 (22) AAA 51 144 24.3 6.7 103 9.6 1912 2.51
Kris Bryant 2014 (22) AA 54.7 220 25.9 14.5 140 23.1 2471 4.67
Addison Russell 2014 (20) AA 51.7 148 16.4 6.5 88 8.9 1971 2.26
Sean Coyle 2014 (22) AA 52.9 144 24.7 9.9 TBD TBD TBD
Dixon Machado 2014 (22) AA 51 135 10.5 11.7 57 -0.2 505 -0.2
Gregory Polanco 2014 (22) AAA 50.2 146 16.1 9.2 100 8.2 2497 1.64
George Springer 2013 (23) AAA 52.6 175 24.3 15.4 129 18.2 2789 3.26
Wil Myers 2013 (23) AAA 51.9 142 24.6 10 109 9.1 2655 1.71
George Springer 2013 (23) AA 56.9 174 29.7 13 repeat repeat repeat
Derek Dietrich 2013 (23) AA 51.3 160 23.3 11.3 109 6.4 2132 1.5
Maikel Franco 2013 (20) AA 59.4 153 10.6 3.4 94 4.2 2111 0.99
Miguel Sano 2013 (20) AA 55.5 145 29.3 13 116 5.6 1612 1.74
Total 109 110.1 23585 2.33

While there are certainly some duds on this list, most players that achieve success at an age that’s young for their minor league level tend to be successful in the Majors. The totals on the bottom are admittedly skewed, since they don’t include those players who never made the Bigs, but 2.33 WAR/500 plate appearances and an average wRC+ of 109 is nothing to scoff at. Indeed, the Indians’ front office would be thrilled to get that kind of production out of Luplow. Not all pulled balls are created equal, however. Pulled flies are among the most productive outcomes for all batted balls: in 2018, batters hit .429 with 1.519 slugging percentage and a 411 wRC+ when they pulled the baseball in the air. Nearly 33% of them left the yard. The pulled grounder, on the other hand, is among the least productive outcomes, as that kind of batted ball led to just a .186 batting average and a 2 wRC+. Unfortunately, those splits for minor league numbers are not publicly available, so I’m unable to uncover what percentage of Jordan Luplow’s pulled balls were flying. In general, though, Luplow has been proficient at getting the ball in the air over the entire course of his career. In fact, he’s recorded fly ball rates above the 2018 MLB average in every one of his professional seasons. This bodes well for his potential to hit for real power for the Indians. 

There’s a reason scouts exist, and that Major League teams don’t rely completely on the stat-line. Unfortunately, those very scouts doubt that Luplow will be able to continue his torrid pace in the minor leagues or even come that close. Even so, Cleveland does not need him to be amazing. An MLB average season (about 2 WAR) from Luplow would leapfrog the Indians’ projection for right field into 16th place in the Major Leagues, well above the current FanGraphs projection of 27th. Luplow’s success isn’t close to certain, and I highly doubt the Indians are expecting it, but it’s plainly evident why the front office is giving him an opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first or last time the scouts have gotten it wrong, and if they did, the Cleveland Indians may have found that right-handed power stick that they’ve been searching for.

  1. Naquin’s batting average on balls in play that season was .411; the last person to eclipse that total was Rogers Hornsby in 1924! []