Cleveland Indians: Tribe should build on low-strikeout lineup for 2020

CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 07: Jose Ramirez #11 of the Cleveland Indians hits a two run homer during the seventh inning of game one of a double header against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field on August 07, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 07: Jose Ramirez #11 of the Cleveland Indians hits a two run homer during the seventh inning of game one of a double header against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field on August 07, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Indians were one of MLB’s tougher teams to strike out in 2019. They should spend winter and spring trying to become the toughest.

Over the next few months, there will be an endless amount of discussion on what the Cleveland Indians need to do in order to reclaim the AL Central throne and compete for a World Series again in 2020.

The lowest-hanging fruit is to suggest they simply need to jump on the home run bandwagon. With balls having left the yard at a hitherto undreamt of (did you seriously just say “hitherto undreamt of”?) rate in 2019, the Indians wouldn’t be doing themselves any favors by continuing to trail the pack in that regard.

Of the 10 teams who made it to October this season, seven of them also ranked inside the top 10 in home runs. Only the Nationals, Rays, and Cardinals fell outside. It’s tempting to emulate this offensive philosophy, especially since the Minnesota Twins led the league in big flies without having to spend an exorbitant amount of money in free agency last winter (potentially carving out a path for the Indians to try to do the same).

What’s easy to overlook on this matter, however, is that the Twins probably caught lightning in a bottle. Nelson Cruz was among the best offseason acquisitions made by any team in baseball last year, but he’s also the only Twins hitter with a long-standing track record of game-changing power.

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Max Kepler had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season prior to blasting 36 of them in 2019. Miguel Sano was straight-up demoted to the minors in 2018 because he had become a liability at the plate; then he turns around and swats a career-high 34 bombs one year later.

Mitch Garver’s 29% HR/FB rate allowed him to hit 31 home runs despite missing the qualified hitter threshold by nearly 150 plate appearances. He may hit a ton of home runs again next season, but he’s not doing it in that many plate appearances two years in a row.

Whether the baseballs used in the 2019 regular season were “juiced” (and whether the same balls are used in 2020) or not, 307 home runs seems like a massive outlier for the Twins given the players on their roster.

So the question becomes: Should the Indians become prisoners of the moment and try to construct a power-laden lineup that can simply out-slug everyone? It’s certainly a plausible route if they can do it in the face of a limited financial structure, but I propose a different means of turning the tables: The Indians should try to become the most difficult team to strike out.

Cleveland already has the core in place to take strides in this direction. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Oscar Mercado all put up strikeout rates of 17.4% or lower in 2019. Even during a season in which Ramirez was one of the league’s worst all-around hitters for two months, he still struck out at a team-low 13.7% clip.

Among Indians hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, only Jake Bauers (27.2%) and Roberto Perez (28.3%) struck out more than 20% of the time. If we narrow the sample size to 250 plate appearances–which allows us to include oft-injured Tyler Naquin, platoon bat Jordan Luplow, and utility outfielder Greg Allen–Perez and Bauers are still the only Tribe hitters with a K-rate above 25%.

In other words, the Indians are looking at only a handful of liabilities in this department: Bauers, Perez, and Franmil Reyes. The Indians can live with Perez’s tendency to strike out because his most important contributions to the team are on the defensive side. They can put up with Reyes remaining a punch-out candidate if he can develop into more of an Aaron Judge-type hitter with a high walk rate that helps offset his swing-and-miss tendencies (knowing the power will also always be there).

As for the remaining three spots in the everyday lineup–after Lindor, Ramirez, Mercado, Santana, Perez, and Reyes are accounted for–the Indians should be scouring the trade and free agent markets for players whose plate profiles don’t include a tendency to get rung up often.

Among affordable options, this search could include free agents like Alex Gordon, who has struck out in 23.3% or fewer of his plate appearances in every season of his career except for 2016; Corey Dickerson, whose career strikeout rate against right-handed pitching is 19.9%; or Adam Eaton (depending on whether Washington exercises his $9.5-million team option), who has struck out in 16.7% of plate appearances for his career.

All three of Gordon, Dickerson, and Eaton are left-handed hitters who would provide value in corner outfield positions. At the very least, one of these players could be signed as a left-handed complement to Luplow.

In addition to placing an emphasis on pursuing hitters who are historically tough to strike out this winter, something must also be done during Spring Training in order to positively influence the plate approaches of players like Bauers, or Bradley Zimmer, or Bobby Bradley.

Bradley’s power potential can’t keep wasting away in the minor leagues just because he strikes out a ton. Zimmer and Bauers have too much upside to be fringe 25-man roster players due to their inability to hit consistently. It’s on the development personnel and hitting coaches to identify and correct the flaws of these players and mold them into valuable contributors at the MLB level.

The Indians were already one of baseball’s more challenging strikeout lineups in 2019. They ranked in the top 10 (in the good way) in strikeout rate, and trailed only the Nationals, Angels, and Astros in swinging strike percentage. Two of those teams are about the face off in the World Series.

Instead of going for broke in the home run department, Cleveland should build on this strength. The Indians can probably put together a lineup that slugs its way through the 162-game regular season and wins the AL Central in 2020. But once October rolls around and the pitching matchups get exponentially more difficult, the Indians will need a lineup full of players with established track records of prolonging at-bats through discipline, and putting the ball in play or drawing walks.

Next. A look back at the 2019 Opening Day lineup. dark

The Indians have won enough division titles. It’s time to map out a road that ends with a World Series victory.