Cleveland Indians offense: Where is it?

Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians

CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 09: Oscar Mercado #35 of the Cleveland Indians reacts after striking out against Danny Duffy #41 of the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning at Progressive Field on September 09, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Royals defeated the Indians 3-0. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Indians are in the playoff hunt  and are led by one of the top pitching units in all of baseball. All that is missing for a deep postseason run is the offense, so where is it?

The Cleveland Indians have established themselves yet again as a playoff contender, thanks in part to their pitching. Strong starts by several pitchers, led by Cy Young contender Shane Bieber,  has proven that the Indians could be one of the more difficult matchups for teams in the playoffs when you need to beat Bieber/Civale/Carrasco/Plesac to advance. Yet as amazing as the pitching has been this year, there is one thing that has been head scratching, the offense. Where is it?

In 2019, the Indians offense was average. Literally. They were 15th in MLB in runs, batting average, and on-base %. Thus far in 2020, they are 14th in the AL (that’s near last) with four runs per game. They are 27th in batting average at .225. What happened?

First, there were two big lineup adjustments that haven’t worked. Entering Spring Training, the big news was that Francisco Lindor would move down to the #3 spot in the lineup. After leading off for several seasons, this move would provide Lindor the RBI numbers to even further justify a big contract. In addition, it would allow him to assist Jose Ramirez hitting before him and put one of the best offensive weapons in clutch situations more often.

Along with that shift, was a corresponding move to slide Oscar Mercado down in the lineup, with Cesar Hernandez as the new lead-off hitter.

Starting with Lindor, there is just something that isn’t working with him at #3. The Indians and Lindor have seen this, and made the move this weekend to have Lindor return to leading off. On paper, Lindor is having a respectable season. He’s one of the Indians top hitters in average, OPS, slugging, and RBIs.

Something is off though. Watching Lindor in the 3 spot, was very reminiscent of when Willie Mays Hayes became a power hitter in Major League 2. When you see a key moment with runners on, Lindor seemed to expand his zone and hit slow grounders to infielders. With runners in scoring position, Lindor’s average is an abysmal .136, on-base percentage is .255, and OPS is .459. Ouch. We all understand if this was a 162 game season, maybe he has the time to adjust.

Those drops in numbers though are less indicative of talent, and more indicative of pressing because you’re now the #3 hitter and it’s RBI-time. The season is just too short to keep this experiment going. The team did the right move sliding him back to leading off, a situation where he’s hitting .325 average with nobody on and nobody out thus far in 2020.

If there is a debate to be had with moving Lindor to lead-off, its the obvious shift down of Jose Ramirez. The way the lineup is currently constructed, the Indians best hitters are hitting at #3 and #5. Most teams would look to move their best hitters higher in the lineup to get more at-bats, but the Indians are playing the long game. Waiting for more players to get going, and accepting defeat if only two can be consistent threats.

The other lineup shuffle entering the season was with Oscar Mercado. Mercado looked like he could be the long-term solution at center-field, but this season his sophomore slump has lead to a demotion earlier in the season. Mercado who was the Indians #2 hitter for much of last year, hit .269/.313/.443 in his rookie year. In 2020, he slid down in the lineup and has spiraled to a .138/.206/.155 slash. This same offensive regression happened to Bradley Zimmer in his sophomore season, the protection from hitting in front of the #3 hitters just isn’t there when they slide down in the lineup.

In addition there are too many under-performing veterans. Carlos Santana is getting his walks, but is hitting under .200, Jose Ramirez has flashed, but has been very inconsistent, and lefty-specialist Jordan Luplow has only 1 HR and is hitting under .200 as a platoon player.

So what is the solution? The trade deadline has passed, and it’s too late to bring back Yasiel Puig. The Indians have started with the lineup reshuffle, by moving Lindor back to leadoff. Early returns haven’t done much, so what’s next?

The franchise needs to answer the question, do we think the veterans will figure it out, or is it time to let the young prospects replace the constant outfield platoons?

While the whole lineup has struggled, there isn’t any shuffling in roster spots for the starting infield and catchers. When the Indians have had good offensive showings, there was probably a spark by Ramirez, Lindor, Santana or the DH Franmil Reyes. So you would assume they will be part of the solution.

It looks like the Indians are banking on those vets figuring it out and platooning the same players until somebody sparks. If you think this way, you are under the mindset that this is a typical April/May start to a season and once everybody settles in, they’ll get hot. In this case, that hot surge would be during the playoffs.

I can buy into this a little, there have been very small bursts of offense this season, where you can see the potential. With the veterans like Lindor, Ramirez, Santana and Hernandez there is enough career sample size to expect better eventually.

However, this season is shorter and the pitching is starting to get shaky as they know allowing one run feels like a challenge for this offense to overcome. After dropping five straight, the playoffs aren’t as sure of a lock as they were a week ago. Waiting and hoping isn’t an approach most people would bank their jobs on.

Instead, I lean to the alternative approach of trying to give at-bats to younger players. I am really unsure why the Indians keep pushing Luplow out on the field. He needs regular at-bats to get into a rhythm and as a platoon player those bats aren’t coming. I’d prefer they just let Josh Naylor and Tyler Naquin play every day and get better. Long-term, that would serve the franchise best, and in this season they’ll flash the occasional offensive hot streaks the Indians are needing.

I’d also call up Daniel ‘Jet’ Johnson. He’s a trickier player to fit in, because Delino DeShields Jr is doing the things you expected. He’s playing above average defense and offers a speed threat. However, Mercado is really struggling. If there was a Triple-A season where Mercado could get hot again, then I would bring him back, but without it, I am not sure what adjustments Mercado can make.

Johnson, has been one of the hottest spring training players over the past two seasons and got minimal appearances to start 2020 before going back to Lake County. Allowing him a chance to be the reserve outfielder provides him the exposure to MLB pitching he needs to learn and offers another potential spark if he gets some confidence.

Regardless, the Indians seem content to continue what they’ve always done and platoon like crazy in the outfield and hope the top of their lineup saves the day. I don’t believe the Indians’ offense is as bad as they’ve showed, but they are what they are, too. They can’t convert with runners in scoring position, they’ve made bad baserunning mistakes to compensate and their team OPS is 27th in MLB. Clearly a spark is needed, and that’s why they need to look at Lake County and determine who deserves regular at-bats (not platoon) in Cleveland to try and get it.

If you don’t, then you are just waiting. Waiting for this group to start clicking at the same time and figure out how to bring runs home that are waiting to get there. While we wait, it makes games frustrating to watch. The runs are out there every single game, but the Indians just find creative ways to not bring them to home plate.

Do you think they can get on a run offensively later in September to push the Indians deep into the postseason? Or almost get no-hit by Kansas City a few more times?

 

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