Cleveland Indians: Who Should Hit Leadoff?

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One of the things that annoyed me last year was when the Cleveland Indians hit Jose Ramirez in the two hole after he became the starting shortstop.  While it’s generally thought that batting orders don’t have much impact on how many runs a team scores, the math is undeniable, which is that on average the number two hitter will come to the plate eighteen times more than the three hitter over the course of a season, 36 more times than the four hitter, and so on.  So Jose Ramirez, who had a wonderful season for a rookie but who posted an OPS of .646, took those at bats away from guys like Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Lonnie Chisenhall.   We can argue all day about whether this was a big thing or not, but you can’t make a plausible case that it helped.

Well, there is a case that can be made.  Back in the day, teams would hit a weak hitter in the two hole on the theory that he would come to the plate with a man on base all the time, often a guy who was a threat to steal bases.  That meant plenty of nice fat fastballs, which often gave weak hitter a chance to overachieve.  It also meant plenty of chances for sacrifice bunts, which you don’t want to waste on good hitters.

The problem with that theory when applied to the Indians is that the leadoff hitter, usually Michael Bourn, doesn’t get on base all that often.  Thus Ramirez generally came up with nobody on, which made his primary goal to get on base.   Unfortunately, Ramirez posted an on base percentage of .300.  That meant that too frequently Michael Brantley was coming to the plate in the first inning with two out and the bases empty.  If you are wondering how a guy could have a year like Brantley did and fail to drive in a hundred runs, there you have it.

This is not a knock on Ramirez.  He has the potential to be really good.  But at this point in his career, on a good team he is a number nine hitter, and hitting him higher is detrimental to the offense.  Michael Bourn will be the leadoff hitter for the next two years as long as he is healthy – hitting him anywhere else would be an admission that he isn’t the guy they thought he was when they signed him.  That makes it really important that the number two hitter gets on base a lot, so that Brantley and the cleanup guy can do some damage.

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Here’s the conundrum.  Aside from Brantley, the best on base percentage guy on the team is Carlos Santana.  Not just last year, but throughout his career.  But the Indians are likely planning on hitting Santana cleanup.   I get that; your leading home run hitter hits clean up, just like they did it in the 70s.  But it seems to me that hitting Santana and Brantley in the two and three holes (not sure who goes where – might depend on who is pitching) would maximize the chances of getting off to a big first inning.  If nothing else, it guarantees that the opposing pitcher will have to work hard in the first inning, which could pay off later.

So who hits cleanup?  The obvious candidates, Brandon Moss and Nick Swisher, will not be viable candidates until they prove they are healthy and have their old pop.  Jason Kipnis is in much the same situation, although it would be debatable whether he is a cleanup hitter even at his best.  Nobody seems ready to believe Lonnie Chisenhall is for real yet.  That leaves Yan Gomes.  Aside from Brantley, Gomes has been the most consistent hitter on the team the past two seasons.  We can write him down for .280 and 15-20 home runs and be reasonably certain he won’t fall far short of that.  Until any of the other guys proves they are better than that, he’s my guy.  The fact that he hits right-handed and will break up a mostly lefty lineup is just icing on the cake.

There are two reasons, neither of them huge, not to hit your catcher so high in the order.  One is a personal theory of mine that the catcher should spend the first inning in the dugout, going over things with the starting pitcher so they know exactly how to attack the opposing lineup.  I have no empirical evidence that this is important, and it is probably less important now that most of these guys have been with Gomes for parts of 2013 and 2014.  The other reason is that your starting catcher doesn’t usually play every day.  Generally your backup will play 20-30 per cent of the time, and you don’t want him batting cleanup, so your entire order gets shuffled.  Not a big thing, but some guys do like to claim a spot and stay there as much as possible.  With Gomes, though, I suspect that on most of the days he is not catching he will DH, to keep his bat in the lineup, so this is not as big a problem as it might be.

As for the rest of the order, your guess is as good as mine.  I would guess Moss fifth, Kipnis sixth, and Swisher seventh But it wouldn’t take much to convince me to put them exactly the opposite.  The good news is we haven’t mentioned J.B. Shuck or Elliot Johnson, which means things are looking up.

Next: A Healthy Shaun Marcum Adds Value To Rotation Depth

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