Cleveland’s offense… is not good right now. Most fans were not expecting a top tier lineup, but the results thus far are leaving most optimistic fans wondering where this went off the rails. On the heels of a shutout at the hands of the Seattle Mariners and one run effort against the Chicago White Sox, the Tribe offense now sits in the bottom five in nearly every offensive category including wRC+, wOBA, OPS and runs. To pile on is futile. We know the numbers aren’t pretty. But it is important to try and understand why – and it starts with a deep dive into plate discipline.
The chart above illustrates the swing tendencies of Tribe over the past three seasons. Walk percentage is included to show that there is not a dramatic drop off in plate discipline – particularly compared to 2018. In comparison to 2018’s team (full season), the ’19 version is walking more, swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and more in the zone. Nothing drastic in this profile to suggest a lack of discipline in their approach, which begs the question, what are they doing with these swings?
The ’17 and ’18 Tribe found themselves in the top five in Major League Baseball in all five categories listed above including top two in k%, swinging strike and contact% for both seasons. Just to be sure, “top” means best overall result – swinging less freely, making more contact and striking out least. The 2019 version find themselves in the bottom five of all categories with the exception of swinging strike percentage: they are currently 22nd. To put it bluntly, this version is struggling to simply make contact with the baseball. The direct result is that they are dead last at putting balls in play through the young season (the ’18 Tribe put the most balls in play in the league). While this in and of itself is not completely damning, they also rank 26th in batting average on those limited balls in play. By striking out more, putting fewer balls in play and having poor outcomes on those opportunities, they are putting themselves behind the proverbial 8-ball in the runs scored department. That they are above .500 is quite an accomplishment given their shortcomings and also speaks to the randomness that is baseball. Their current run differential is -14 through 33 games.
It would be easy to look at this team, with a semi-revolving door of AAAA players, and make the assumption that it is they who are bringing down the contact numbers above. That would be a reasonable assumption, but one that would be – at least in part – false.
A quick check of the veteran bats shows some fairly discouraging news. It’s the reliable part of the lineup that is helping to drive the contact numbers in the previous chart. Martin, in particular, has seen a precipitous drop in contact on more swings – particularly on pitches outside of the zone. While Martin’s result appears to be a change in approach, the others appear to be simply missing the baseball more frequently and seeing unfavorable results on those they do actually make contact with. An interesting side note is that while Santana is seeing a lot less contact on his swings out of the zone, he is mashing balls inside the zone to the tune of a 54.5% hard-hit rate (21 pts above career) while also maintaining a career level k%. He also happens to be the only member of the offense producing above average thus far.
The silver lining to this story is that there is nothing in the profile that suggests this is who they are. The discipline numbers are reasonable. The veteran bats will correct the early season free swinging tendency or at very least have a little more luck on balls in play. With the exception of Lindor, CarGo and Kipnis’ small sample, the veteran bats do not appear to be swinging at more pitches out of the zone than they have in the past. That trio’s early season woes could be attributed to catching up on missing spring training. They could also be pressing. While the career sample is also small for Bauers, his overall profile appears to be improving over 2018 – a good sign for a 23 year old in his sophomore season. In addition to the numbers above his k% is also down slightly and he’s making contact with over 91% of swings in the zone.
There is still a lot of ball left to play and there is optimism that this approach will improve. But unless they plan to lead the league in home runs, this squad is going to have to put more balls in play – and that will require striking out less and making more contact. With the rotation down 40% of its star power and the bullpen already producing near the top of the league, the onus is on the offense to start pulling its weight in order for this team to stay in contention. In spite of all of these struggles on offense, the Tribe still maintains the 5th best record in the AL and are a manageable three games back of the AL Central leading Minnesota Twins – who coincidentally have the second best record in all of baseball.
Sunday Bloody Sunday:
Just a little side note. We are now six Sunday’s into the season and the Tribe sit at 1-5 with a -24 run differential. Remove these six games and they have an 18-10 (.642) record with a +10 run differential. I don’t know what it is about the day, but maybe they’re saving Sunday for the Browns.
Minnesota currently sits 3rd in wOBA, 4th in HR, 5th in wRC+ with a +33 run differential. They have only allowed eight more runs than the Tribe while scoring 55 more over 33 games. While they are likely to see some regression, especially with their patchwork pitching staff, this will be something to track moving forward. They have clearly been the better team thus far.