The Cleveland Indians And Right-Handed Power


Jul 12, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians designated hitter Nick Swisher (33) walks back to the dugout after striking out during the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. The White Sox beat the Indians 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Right-handed power. Some teams have it. Some teams have it more than others. The San Diego Padres now have a lot of it. The Cleveland Indians? Not so much.

Baseball memes aside, it has become standard protocol when talking about the Indians to mention the lack of production from the right side. It’s easy for the Tony Rizzo’s and Adam the Bull’s of the world to fill 30 seconds of air time between Johnny Manziel/Josh Gordon hot takes by looking at the Indians roster, looking at the Brandon Moss trade, and assuming that not only do the Indians need a “right-handed stick”, but that the failure to acquire one is either a failure of the front office to find one or a failure of ownership to pay for one.

Lefty By Design

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What these media people really mean when they say “right-handed power”, whether they know it or not, is that they perceive the Indians to have struggled against left-handed pitching in 2014 (and, depending on whom you ask, since Manny Ramirez left town).

And they’re technically not too far off about the 2014 part.

The Indians, per FanGraphs, posted a not-so-good 93 wRC+ against all lefties in 2014, good for 23rd in baseball (coincidentally tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, a team lousy with right-handed hitters).

So yes, the Indians lineup leans heavily toward the left side. It’s been that way for a while now, and it’s been that way intentionally. Since there’s roughly a 70/30 split between right-handed and left-handed pitchers, the combined wRC+ numbers for the Tribe against lefties and righties in 2014 was 102, good for seventh in baseball. So long as The Indians play in ballpark that favors left-handed hitters, and they continue to play in a space-time continuum where the majority of people born on this planet throw a ball right-handed, it makes sense on a macro level for the Indians to have a lefty-leaning lineup.

An Underlying Issue

But the thing about baseball is that it’s a macro game played on a micro level. It means that while the Indians will face something close to a 70/30 split between righties and lefties, the distribution of that split is not random. When it comes to lineup balance, there are situational intricacies that, despite fitting into the overarching 70/30 split, have an outsized impact on the individual game in which it is taking place.

Sep 12, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians right fielder Ryan Raburn (9) hits a single in the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the starter portion of the righty-lefty split is pretty random. Teams don’t rejigger their rotations based on which team is coming to town for a three game series, so teams basically face whichever starters they were going to face regardless of handedness. In this sense, having a predominately left-handed lineup is fantastic. Odds are that day’s starter will be right-handed, so odds are the lefty lineup will have the platoon advantage.

Relievers are a different story however, because the relievers a team faces are chosen by the opposing manager and are not sensitive to scheduling like a starting rotation. That 70/30 split becomes significantly less meaningful because, while teams usually have just a couple lefty relievers, those guys can pitch in every game of a series at points in the game when they will assuredly have the platoon advantage.

On top of that is lefty relievers are often times specialists in getting lefty batters out while lefty starters need to be able to get lefties and righties out. So while the Indians overall numbers against lefties may be okay, having a lefty leaning lineup hurts on the micro level when the team faces lefties out of the pen in high leverage situations who have pitch arsenals tailored to get lefties out.

Do The Indians Need To Act?

The obvious solution is to use a right-handed hitter in these spots. This is also one of the biggest differences between the Tribe in 2014 versus 2013. With a nearly identical group of players, the Indians led the league in 2013 with a 115 wRC+ mark against lefties.

The difference can be explained primarily by the struggles of Ryan Raburn (.308/.403/.617 against lefties in 2013, .195/.263/.333 in 2014) and Nick Swisher (.295/.397/.521 in 2013, .168/.274/.208* in 2014). There are reasons that I won’t get into here why those two might struggle again in 2015, but there’s also a decent chance they can get at least somewhat close to their 2013 numbers.

*A .208 slugging percentage!

Jun 16, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Jerry Sands (19) hits a 2-run home run during the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Baltimore Orioles 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

But one thing the Indians need to be cognizant of is not granting too much leash to Swisher and Raburn if all they’re using it for is crapping on the lawn. Part of the problem with continually rolling out Swisher and Raburn if they’re bad (aside from them, you know, being bad) is that it prevents the Indians from discovering the guy who can fill or even exceed that role. Guys like J.D. Martinez and Steve Pearce who come seemingly out of nowhere to become quality hitters are few and far between, but if the team doesn’t open up the roster spot for a Martinez or Pearce to play, they never get a chance to discover the seemingly undiscoverable.

Either way, the challenge for the Indians in 2015 is to somehow replicate those 2013 numbers against lefties in the “micro” game situations that can have an outsized impact on game outcomes. Hopefully Swisher and Raburn are the answer. If not, maybe it’s Jerry Sands or Destin Hood. Maybe it’s someone who’s not even in the organization right now, like Rickie Weeks or Ryan Ludwick.

But the Indians also aren’t desperate for a right-handed hitter the way some make them out to be. They have a lot of left-handed batters for a reason, and there are plenty of right-handed options to work through as the season progresses. The Indians lack of lineup balance is far from a major hindrance; it may even be one of the features that propel them to Central Division glory.