An early story-line in the 2014 campaign has been the Indians struggles with left-handed starters. In the last six games alone, the Tribe has seen Eric Stults, Robbie Erlin, John Danks, Chris Sale, and Jose Quintana all of the southpaw persuasion. In Detroit, they’ll see Drew Smyly on Wednesday night. With a 12-man hitting arsenal, the Indians currently house five hitters that bat only from the left side, yet they have amassed an OPS of just .623 against lefties. The Tribe has struck out more often against lefties (40 vs. 38) despite having 71 fewer at-bats. Is this an overreaction of some early season hitting scuffles or the exposition of a larger problem? Let’s dig into the numbers a little bit.
One of the best places to start is with a much larger sample size; the entire 2013 season. With the reminder that the Indians return nine of the same 12 hitters from the bulk of last season (enter David Murphy, Nyjer Morgan, and Elliot Johnson; exit Drew Stubbs with left-handed hitters Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi currently on the DL and rehabbing). Last season, the Indians faced 56 left-handed starters, and they actually fared significantly better in those games. Here’s some of that data.
What was the biggest reason for that? Well the right-handed heavy Goon Squad, led by Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes provided the right-handed support and depth that the Indians desperately needed.
- Raburn .308/.403/.617 (1.020) in 107 AB
- Gomes .327/.376/.558 (.934) in 104 AB
Couple this with a pair of switch-hitters’ numbers while batting right-handed.
- Santana .299/.377/.487 (.864) in 187 AB
- Swisher .295/.397/.521 (.918) in 190 AB
And, you can even throw in the bizarre, such as Jason Kipnis batting .308 against lefties and OPSing at a .850 clip along with Michael Bourn hitting 20 points higher (.277 vs. .257) against lefties when he’s the polar opposite for his career (.277 vs. right, .253 vs. left). Despite just 644 plate appearances of left-on-left, it’s startling to see both left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters hit .271 against southpaws, and that is almost solely from plate appearances by the trio of Bourn, Brantley, and Kipnis.
Fast forward to 2014, and the early returns are not promising.
One of the most frustrating early season side effects of all the lefties being thrown at the Wahoos is the number of games both Lonnie Chisenhall and Nyjer Morgan have rode the bench as a result despite being two of the three hottest Cleveland batters. Never mind the problems it has created defensively1, but the fact that Terry Francona believes either Asdrubal Cabrera or Elliot Johnson is the best leadoff hitter on the club with Bourn shelved and Morgan benched is bone-chilling.
And those switch-hitters that have a nice track record against lefties? The two and four hitters in the lineup? Well, Swisher is 3-for-20, while Santana is 2-for-21 against left-handers. Kipnis is 5-for-24, while Brantley is one of the lone success stories in the small sample size with a 6-for-20 posting.
So, what’s telling the more accurate story: The entirety of 2013 or the early part of 2014? I’ll start by saying that I expected (and still do expect) regression from both Gomes and Raburn. With the additions of Murphy and Morgan to the outfield, despite Bourn’s injury, Raburn has been used much more as a platoon player (just 16 plate appearances against righties thus far). The Indians only have three right-handed only hitters, and none of them are proven, heart-of-the-order type hitters; they are a starting catcher and two platoon players.
It’s clear that both Swisher and Santana are off to slow starts overall. The Indians lineup needs these two clicking to be competitive, and I fully expect them to pick it up soon. Santana is at least drawing walks, and Swisher has picked his spots and come up with some big hits, even if they’re a little fewer and far between than we’d all like.
The real wild card here is how the everyday left-handed hitters manage against their pitching counterparts. The Indians, despite their deep bench, don’t go deep enough to take either Brantley or Kipnis out of the lineup on a regular basis against southpaws. Those guys are pillars of your lineup, and for better or worse, Francona has to rely upon them to maintain against lefties and play respectable.
When Bourn and Giambi return in the coming days, the imbalance isn’t going to improve any. In fact, if it were up to me, I’d be sending the switch-hitting Johnson out for one of the two and probably removing the eighth bullpen guy (sorry, Blake Wood). That would give the Indians 13 hitters once again, but seven of them would be lefties, including four outfielders (Bourn, Brantley, Murphy, Morgan). Perhaps Morgan will cool off and eventually be an easy roster removal, but right now, I don’t think you can possibly remove him from the team, especially when you’re not sure how quick Bourn gets into the swing of things.
Without a trade, the Indians really only have one internal option: Columbus first baseman Jesus Aguilar. The right-hander is off to a hot start down I-71, hitting .417 and OPSing at a scorching 1.266 to go with three homers and 8 RBI in 36 at-bats. Nearing 24 years of age, Aguilar could be ready to fill a role for this team as he spells Swisher at first (who can DH to keep his bat in the lineup with the club’s lack of a regular DH). Aguilar has two of his three homers against lefties this year and is 4-for-10, but his splits last season were a strange anomaly against his career backdrop (.250 AVG and .688 OPS against lefties, .284 AVG and .813 OPS against righties).
It remains to be seen whether the Indians are willing to go out and acquire a right-handed bat for an outfield spot or DH. Until then or an Aguilar promotion, the best Tito can do is send out his three righties, three switch-hitters, and trust Kipnis, Brantley, and Murphy (or Bourn eventually) to hold their own. While I don’t expect the Tribe to rake as they did against left-handed starters last season, I do expect them to rebound enough that this isn’t a heavy discussion topic every single time there’s a left-hander on the mound.
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
- Mike Aviles and Elliot Johnson as the team’s corner outfielders to start a game is not something I want to see again—ever. [↩]