Frustrating and underperforming at the plate, are the Cleveland Indians the unluckiest team in the majors thus far?
In 2013, the Cleveland Indians exceeded expectations, winning 92 games and earning their first playoff birth since 2007 thanks in large part to a pitching staff that performed far better than anticipated.
In 2014, thus far, the Cleveland Indians have disappointed some, already 5.5 games back of the Tigers with the fourth-lowest winning percentage in the American League. This has been thanks, in large part, to an under-performing lineup.
But first, let’s set the record straight: The problem has been with the position players, yes. But it hasn’t necessarily been with what the position players have done at the plate, rather what they have done in the field. Indians position players, as a unit, have the sixth-lowest WAR total in the MLB. But this is heavily driven by the fact that they have played the worst defense of any major league team not named the Astros. So, basically, any Major League team.
By OPS, the Indians are 19th in the MLB in offense. By wOBA, they’re 17th. By wRC+, which adjusts for park and league and is my preferred method of evaluation, the Indians are 12th. A wRC+ of 100 is league-average. The Indians are at 99.
The defense has been terrible, and while it likely won’t continue to be THIS terrible for the rest of the year, it’s not going to suddenly be good. But other than shoddy defense, which was to be expected given the Opening Day roster construction, there is no need for panic. The Tribe are just two games below .500, and when you look deeper into what has already been a league-average offense, there is reason to believe things are only going to get better.
The ability to get on base via the walk continues to go unnoticed and underrated in major league baseball, and the Indians walk more than nearly any team in baseball. Walks typically mean high on-base percentages. But, despite having the fourth-best walk rate in the MLB, the Indians OBP sits in the middle of the pack at .319 thanks to a .239 team batting average that, again, is worse than every major league team in the AL besides the Astros. So, basically, every major league team in the AL.
Nick Swisher is batting .203. Asdrubal Cabrera is at .246. Jason Kipnis was hitting .234 before his oblique injury. Carlos Santana’s batting average is .148. These low batting averages by pricy players with high expectations have had fans in Cleveland calling for their heads. I’m not ready to do so just yet, as there is something strange happening on the ground in Cleveland.
As mentioned earlier, the Indians have one of the lower batting averages in baseball at .239. What goes hand-in-hand with batting averages, of course, are batting averages on balls in play. Unsurprisingly, the Indians have the second-worst BABIP of any team in baseball. (I’ll give you three guesses as to which “major league” team is last). BABIP is a complicated beast, but extremely high or low totals can typically be boiled down to a mixture of two things:
1.) Hard/weak contact
So first, let’s examine the kind of contact the Indians are making by taking a look at their batted ball mix. The main driver of what makes a good or bad BABIP is line drives. Line drives go for hits about 70% of the time, so if you hit a lot of line drives, a lot of your balls in play will go for hits. The league average line drive rate is 20.2%. The Indians line drive rate is 20.2%. No problem there.
The other main driver to what makes a good or bad BABIP is pop-ups. Pop-ups never go for hits, so if you hit a lot of pop-ups, you’ll have a hard time getting hits. The league average pop-up rate is 9.6%. The Indians pop-up rate is 9.7%. No problem there.
So what’s going on? The Indians are making fine contact, hitting line drives and not popping up, yet their balls in play aren’t resulting in hits. Starting to smell like option number two up there might be in play. And when you look at what happens when the Indians have put the ball on the ground this year, the odor intensifies.
Ground balls go for hits about 23% of the time. Currently, the 29th-lowest batting average on ground balls belongs to the Red Sox at .209. In the past decade, no team has ever finished a season below .200. The Indians are currently at .179.
The Indians low batting average is being almost entirely driven by ground balls not going for hits. Ground balls are the flukiest of all batted ball types, and the Indians have been on the wrong side of the fence thus far. Of the 30 lowest individual batting averages on ground balls this season, five of them belong to Indians players. Swisher, Santana, Kipnis, Cabrera and Yan Gomes are all batting under .150 on ground balls. Only one qualified hitter in the majors last season finished under .150.
Swisher and Santana both had low totals last year, too, which can be explained partly due to the fact that they see more shifts than most players in the MLB when hitting left-handed. This makes sense, when you consider their ground ball spray charts:
Santana’s performance is far more concerning because he is making consistently weak contact, as evidenced by his startlingly low 10.5% line drive rate. Though data for hard-hit and soft-hit ground balls aren’t publicly available, one can assume that a correlation between low line drive rates and softly-hit ground balls exists.
Weak contact hasn’t been the story for Swisher, though, as his 23.8% line drive rate is well above his career average of 20.1%. Both Gomes and Cabrera have league-average or above league-average line drives as well, indicating solid contact. Kipnis’ line drive rate is below average, but he also has the smallest sample of any of the five due to his injury and also is likely the least of the Indians concerns given his overall production, both in the past and at the time of his injury. Speed, something Kipnis has, also plays a role in how often one’s ground balls go for hits, making his low total seem even flukier.
So what does all this mean? Things are going to get better for the Indians. They’re staying patient at the plate, getting on base via the walk, hitting line drives and not popping out. Nick Swisher sees a lot of shifts, but only from one side of the plate and he is driving the ball as often as he ever has. Yan Gomes and Asdrubal Cabrera look like they have just been unlucky on seeing their grounders find holes. Jason Kipnis was dealing with an oblique injury and should see things correct themselves once he returns from the disabled list. Something is up with Carlos Santana, for sure, but even he isn’t going to finish with a .128 batting average on grounders. And in the meantime, his major league leading walk rate is getting him on base enough to keep him in the lineup while he figures things out.
The Indians offense has not been as bad as some have made it out to be this year from a production standpoint. Dig a little deeper into the batted ball numbers and you find that they have been perhaps the unluckiest team in the majors. Once some of these ground balls start finding holes, their already league-average offense could quickly return to the top-10 lineup we saw last year.
August is a sports reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. A baseball nerd, occasionally pens pieces for FanGraphs and is currently covering the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter at @AugustF_ABJ.