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Indians Hitting Approach Has Gone Stale

Atrocity. Disgrace. Horror. Obscenity. Monstrosity. No matter which one you prefer, all of the synonyms for abomination are applicable to the offensive output of the 2019 Cleveland Indians. The team is simply hapless at the plate, scoring fewer runs than 23 teams and registering a lower wRC+ than 24 teams. The shortcomings are easy to identify whether you’re a statistics honk or have only observed the team with passing glances. The root cause of the issue, however, is not easy to pinpoint.

An easy mark for fans’ frustration is the struggling teams’ hitting coach. It is important to note, though, that understanding the impact of an assistant baseball coach is difficult, especially without intimate access to the inner workings of the teams culture and dynamic between coaches and players. Delineating the degree to which the Indians hitting coach, Ty Van Burkleo, is involved in the struggles is an impossible task, but there is a considerable amount of worrying evidence that his input is… ineffective.

It starts with performances. Of the top five of Wednesday’s lineup, only Carlos Santana has outhit his preseason projections. Jose Ramirez is mired in a slump, Jake Bauers is getting away from the pulled fly ball approach that helped his rookie 2018 campaign, and Jason Kipnis is attempting to root himself out of another atrocious April. Francisco Lindor looks to be coming back alive of late, but still falls short of expected output levels. These five have the capacity to carry an offense, but have struggled to perform consistently.

Individual performances are tough to pin on a hitting coach, especially when a few of the guys have fared so well under Van Burkleo’s tutelage in years past. The team’s collective effort compared to expectations, though, is a red flag. That red flag almost caught on fire last week when Van Burkleo discussed another poor offensive output with MLB.com’s Mandy Bell.

“I haven’t changed anything in seven years,” Van Burkleo said. “We’re doing the same thing, working hard and looking at video and showing video. So, no, if you’re asking me if we second-guess ourselves, no.

Ty Van Burkleo on Indians offensive struggles

In a baseball world that is constantly evolving, failure to do so for the length it takes to complete a doctorate degree is certifiably negligent. Even absorbing the full context of the quote from Van Burkleo doesn’t pacify the statement. It was said in reference to the Indians’ plan of attack at the plate, which should be a fluid concept that focuses on adapting to the data that is and has become available.

Then there’s last season’s putrid offensive display in the ALDS against the Houston Astros. The series left Indians hitters frustrated with the amount of information they were distributed, according to The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd.

And one Indians player, speaking privately, told me he believes the Astros’ hitters were far better prepared for this series than Indians hitters. He believed the scouting reports were more intricate and the attention to detail was more precise.

Jason Lloyd on Indians hitting approach during 2018 ALDS

Comparing your analytical endeavors to those of the Houston Astros is a fruitless exercise — it’s akin to mediocre NBA players comparing themselves to Kevin Durant or LeBron James. While understanding that this data gap between the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians exists, it does not excuse Van Burkleo. It is, at the very least, a facet of his job to ensure that Indians’ hitters are as prepared as possible for each challenge.

While it may or may not directly apply to the offense, Mike Clevinger echoed the sentiments reported by Lloyd.

We were a little bit… uh… kinda had our backs against the wall before this started when it came to the analytical side.

Mike Clevinger on Indians preparation for 2018 ALDS

Clevinger’s quote following the heartbreaking playoff series loss serves as a statement that supports the veracity of Lloyd’s reporting. The lack of preparation continues to be a common theme in 2019, too.

Offspeed, breaking balls, fastballs… It really doesn’t matter what opposing pitchers throw. Using weighted pitch values, the Indians are in the bottom third of the MLB against every pitch. And from a subjective standpoint, it seems the Indians are unprepared for every opposing pitcher not named Manny Banuelos. Whether it’s Dylan Bundy’s or Lucas Giolito’s changeup or another pitcher’s curve, the Indians seem mystified and miffed. There was even a quote from Andre Knott during Dylan Bundy’s start regarding the Indians’ collective frustration with the volume of changeups — Bundy’s bread and butter that has served him well while being utilized on more than 20% of his pitches. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to a team that is well prepared.

Beyond anecdotal and arbitrary references to poor offensive performances, a statistic speaks specifically to the efficacy of the Indians’ preparation: success rate when seeing the pitcher for the first time.

2019League OPSIndians OPS
1st Time vs SP0.6980.618
2nd Time vs SP0.7720.813

It makes sense that teams see more success when the lineup turns over. Hitters have a better feel for the opposing pitchers’ stuff after seeing them once while the opposing pitchers begin to fatigue. The sizable gap between the Indians first time through the order success rate and what transpires after they turn the lineup card over is fascinating, though. A hypothesis could be made, based in on-base plus slugging percentage results, that during the first time through the Indians do not know what to expect from opposing pitchers. There is supposed to be a disparity, but it seems quite strange that the Indians offense is 12% worse than the league average offense the first time through and over 5% better than the league average offense the second time through.

Falling short of expectations and preparation concerns are tough questions for any hitting coach to weather. Persistent rumors of Van Burkleo and other Indians personnel imploring their guys to “use the whole field” and “go the other way” in today’s baseball climate, which preaches the value of extra base hits, only add fuel to the fire.

It may be foolish, even perhaps impossible, to attribute each of these shortcomings to one assistant coach without having any intimate knowledge of the Cleveland Indians’ locker room dynamic. Moreover, all of these tidbits regarding their offensive outputs may be inconsequential in isolation. However, when they are viewed collectively, they tell a story about potential inadequacies somewhere within the Indians’ front-line leadership. For a team that is financially constrained, it is important that leadership demonstrate an ability to innovate to gain any possible edge — and whatever is happening in the batting cages and video rooms below Progressive Field does not fit that bill.

2 replies »

  1. Whatever they are doing isn’t working whether the hitters are just stubborn or just can’t hit offspeed pitches, the coach isn’t providing the proper information, or the players have just tuned him out. Something needs to change soon. Two things are obvious through 1/4 of the season- this team has major problems adjusting to an off-speed pitch and they are seldom looking for them early in the count. Yesterday provided more evidence of this team’s inability to adjust. The wrap article from the A’s beat writer noted how the A’s used the Indians aggressiveness at the plate to get out of jams. A couple of quotes from the post-game interviews from Montas, Melvin, and Francona confirm this, particularly Francona saying that the pitcher was “throwing backwards” with runners on base and they couldn’t adjust to it.

    • That first sentence hits the nail on the head. I don’t know which one it is, but it’s one of those things.

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