“WE NEED BETTER HITTERS!”
“WE NEED A RIGHT HANDED POWER BAT!”
“SANTANA’S AVERAGE WAS .231! HE’S A BAD HITTER”
If you look around Twitter, Facebook, message boards, or wherever else Indians fans go to vent, you would think that the Indians lost 90 games last season. They didn’t. They won 85 games. They were one of 10 teams to have an above average offense per the sabermetric stat wRC+. If you disagree with the above “quotes”, you probably already know what wRC+ is. If you agree with the above “quotes”, then you don’t care what wRC+ is. You should, but that’s another discussion for another day.
The Cleveland mentality is, and it always has been, to dwell on the negative rather than celebrate the positive. Does the Indians front office wish that they had a .300 hitter that cranked 30 home runs every season? I’m sure they do. I’m sure 28 other teams do as well because two players accomplished that feat last season.
The majority of Indians fans place completely impossible expectations on players because they have not been paying attention to the ever-changing landscape of Major League Baseball. A total of 11 players hit 30 or more home runs last season. Among 146 qualified players (3.1 plate appearances per game played by team), 16 players hit .300 or better. Ten seasons ago, in 2005, 26 players hit 30 or more home runs. Among 146 qualified players, 33 hit .300 or better.
We can lower the sample size if you want. Let’s lower it from “qualified” to 400 plate appearances. The same 11 players hit 30 or more home runs in 2015. Out of 209 players, 24 of them hit .300 or better in 2015. That’s 11.48 percent. Using the same 400 plate appearances qualifier, the same 26 players hit 30 or more home runs in 2005. Out of 223 players, 41 hit .300 or better. That’s 18.38 percent.
The days of offense, as you know it, are gone. They have been for a few seasons now. Increasing strikeout rates and different ways of quantifying offensive performance have led to a decrease in the “counting” statistics. Balls in play are volatile. You either get a hit or you don’t. If you draw a walk, you get on base no matter what. With so many aspects of the game quantified nowadays, offense is about one thing – not making outs. You score runs by not making outs.
Over the last 10 seasons in Major League Baseball, batting average has fallen from .264 to .251. On-base percentage has dropped from .330 to .314. Slugging percentage has dropped from .419 to .386. Batters hit 1,200 fewer home runs in 2014 than they hit in 2006. Eliminating the strike years in 1994 and 1995, last season was the first time since 1992 that less than 20,000 runs were scored in a Major League Baseball season.
The game is so specialized nowadays. From 2005-14, average fastball velocity has increased from 90.1 miles per hour to 91.8 miles per hour. For starting pitchers, average fastball velocity has gone up 1.7 miles per hour from 2005-14. Pitchers throw harder in shorter bursts. The total number of appearances for relief pitchers in 2005 was 13,173. In 2014, relievers combined to make 14,459 appearances.
Whatever idea you have in your mind about the statistics a hitter needs to put up in order to be “successful” in your mind is probably too high. The game has changed. The run environment has changed. Hitters are striking out more than ever before. Whether you believe it’s because hitters are too patient or because hitters don’t use the whole field or because hitters aren’t taking PEDs anymore, it doesn’t matter. The game has changed. Pitchers are better now than they have been in a very long time. Analytics have led to an increase in shifts and more enhanced scouting reports.
So, when you say that the Indians need better hitters, what, exactly, do you mean? Because I, quite frankly, think that the Indians hitters are just fine. Let’s go position by position to illustrate this point. For this exercise, we’ll look at the American League average production by position and compare it to what the Indians did last season. (For future reference, “slash” or “slash line” means batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.)
American League average: .240/.300/.374, 90 wRC+
Indians average: .273/.312/.458, 118 wRC+
I mentioned it above, but I will explain it now. wRC+ stands for weighted runs created plus. The link is to Fangraphs’s explanation, which will be far more detailed than mine, but wRC+ measures a player’s (or in this case, players) offensive performance compared to league average after adjusting for park factor. Every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. Every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average.
In the case of the Indians, their catchers were 18 percent above league average overall and 28 percent above other American League catchers as a collective unit. Of course, the slash line and the wRC+ for AL catchers includes what the Indians did as a team.
Verdict: The Indians do not need better hitters at the catching position.
American League average: .249/.322/.409, 106 wRC+
Indians average: .216/.326/.375, 104 wRC+
Thanks to Nick Swisher’s injury-riddled performance, the Indians were clearly below league average at this position. However, Carlos Santana, this season’s starting first baseman, posted a .274/.406/.506 slash line with a wRC+ of 162 in 411 plate appearances when he played first base. That’s really good.
Verdict: The Indians do not need better hitters at first base.
American League average: .254/.310/.369, 92 wRC+
Indians average: .239/.292/.330, 78 wRC+
Woof. Jason Kipnis’s oblique injury and subsequent lack of power put the Indians way behind at this position. However, there’s a caveat here. Look at how terrible of an offensive position second base is. Kipnis, for his career, is a .262/.338/.398 player with a 108 wRC+. Kipnis posted a .284/.366/.452 with a 129 wRC+ in 2013. Even with a little bit of regression, which is suggested by his good fortune on balls in play in 2013, a healthy Kipnis would put the Indians well above league average in this area.
Verdict: The Indians do not need better hitters at second base.
American League average: .254/.304/.359, 87 wRC+
Indians average: .250/.304/.366, 92 wRC+
I think it’s important to point here that “power” shouldn’t be limited to “hitting the ball over the wall”. In today’s limited run environment, power pertains to doubles as much as it pertains to home runs. Jose Ramirez doesn’t have “power” in the traditional sense, but his speed will turn singles into doubles, thus creating the illusion of power, and he has decent gap power with his approach. In any event, the Indians were still above the league average for shortstops last season, and you remember how much we all hated Asdrubal Cabrera.
Verdict: The Indians do not need better hitters at shortstop.
American league average: .254/.314/.397, 100 wRC+
Lonnie Chisenhall at 3B: .255/.317/.399, 105 wRC+
Mike Aviles at 3B: .284/.307/.316, 78 wRC+
This is truly a toss-up, despite the edge in wRC+. The reason it’s separated is because Chisenhall played some first and DH and that wasn’t separated in the position splits. Mike Aviles played several positions.
The Indians benefitted from Lonnie Chisenhall’s batted ball luck overall, but he was right around league average. Once again, I want to point your attention to the fact that big, hulking, power hitting third basemen are not the norm anymore. Those numbers are laughable compared to the ones from 10, 15, or 20 years ago. That’s the current offensive climate of Major League Baseball.
Verdict: The Indians are satisfactory at third base, but could use an upgrade.
American League average: .254/.321/.402, 104 wRC+
Indians average: .283/.341/.431, 121 wRC+
Hi, Mr. Brantley. Michael Brantley had a special season in 2014 and even some regression, which you should all expect, isn’t going to hurt from a league average standpoint. The Indians are in excellent shape in left field as long as Brantley stays healthy. Brantley’s slash while playing in left field was actually .333/.391/.513 with a wRC+ of 160. His numbers were worse in center field when he filled in for Michael Bourn.
Verdict: The Indians do not need better hitters in left field.
American League average: .267/.328/.394, 105 wRC+
Michael Bourn: .257/.314/.360, 94 wRC+
Fangraphs grouped Michael Brantley entire performance in with the center field stats to bastardize those numbers, so I cut this down to just Michael Bourn. Mike Trout and Adam Jones did a number on the AL average slash line (and Brantley’s overall performance is mistakenly included), but you take the good with the bad in averaging these out, so we can’t pretend that they don’t exist. Bourn had hamstring issues again. Even though Nyjer Morgan’s .341/.429/.439 BABIP-inflated performance caused a slight uptick in the numbers, Bourn is what we’re left to judge.
Verdict: The Indians could use an upgrade in center field.
American League average: .256/.315/.391, 99 wRC+
Indians average: .234/.289/.336, 78 wRC+
Ouch. In fairness, 462 of the 908 plate appearances belonged to David Murphy, whose .262/.319/.385 slash with a 101 wRC+ was above league average. Yes. David Murphy’s 2014 offensive season was above league average. Again, this is an illustration of just how much offense has fallen off in Major League Baseball. Brandon Moss, who played on basically one leg over the final two months of the season, posted a .234/.334/.438 slash line with a 121 wRC+.
Verdict: The Indians got an upgrade in Brandon Moss. The Indians do not need better hitters in right field.
I know the response that I’m going to get. “League average” doesn’t mean “good hitter”. No, it doesn’t. But, it means that hitter isn’t hurting you and that’s the key. With the pitching staff that the Indians have assembled, “average” at an offensive position is not detrimental in any way. The Indians are, arguably, below average at one offensive position – center field. That depends on your view of Lonnie Chisenhall, who was well above league average last season and the third base numbers were brought down by Mike Aviles.
Unrealistic expectations about offense are frustrating. Everybody wants a .300 hitter with 30+ home runs and 100 RBI (don’t get me started on RBIs – by the way, 12 players drove in 100 runs last season; 27 did it in 2005). Those players just don’t exist anymore. The ones that do are an endangered species. Even Mike Trout, the greatest player on the planet, didn’t hit .300 with 30 home runs. Even Miguel Cabrera didn’t hit .300 with 30 home runs.
The ways that we evaluate hitters have changed and they have changed for the better because using archaic benchmarks in today’s specialized game would not be fair. We can quantify almost everything in baseball nowadays. That’s not something be scared of. That’s something to embrace. Establishing defensive value remains a work in progress, but there is very little left to the imagination about offensive value.
Every team wants better hitters. Saying that the Indians are not good offensively is patently false. They’re actually in pretty good shape with league average or better at almost every position and the chance to be significantly better at catcher, first base, second base, left field, and right field.
Baseball has changed. Your expectations should, too.