If you’ve played a team sport at any level, you understand that your aggressiveness or passivity is directly impacted by your surrounding cast. At your very core, you are the same person and player, but the nanosecond decisions that occur on the field or court are swayed greatly by your belief in your counterparts. If the point guard passes up a driving lane to make the extra pass to a shooter, will it fall? Does the cornerback playing man coverage underneath a safety in zone need a little extra help?
The same is true in baseball. It could be argued to a lesser degree based on the individual nature of the batter versus pitcher showdown, but hitters and pitchers are always weighing the future impacts of immediate decisions. It could be theorized that this affected Francisco Lindor greatly in his good but not great and perhaps relatively underwhelming 2019 hitting campaign. Yes, he still hit 32 homers. Yes, he was still an objectively great player. Whether it was normal variation or a change in approach, his overall hitting numbers were a step back from his elite 2018.
While you may write off the initial notion as a convenient excuse to account for Lindor’s slight step back, there are a few concerning developments within his plate discipline peripherals. His strikeouts were up a bit. His walks were down a bit. These slight impingments diluted a solid isolated power season (0.234 ISO) and led to a respectable wRC+ of 114 rather than his 2018 total of 130.
Unearthing the why behind the efficiency slide reveals many layers, most notably including mining for variations in batted ball luck or contact authority. A cursory glance at Francisco Lindor’s baseball savant page reveals that his hard-hit percentage was on par with 2018 and greater than the seasons prior. His average exit velocity was actually a career high 90.6 miles per hour. Yet, his expected outputs based on weighted on base average toppled from a top level 0.375 to a pedestrian 0.329. While this is likely in part due to a shift in his batted ball authority distribution, it leads us right back to plate discipline.
The first stone to uncover is simply how often Lindor chose to swing and how often those resulted in swinging strikes. The central tenet of the hitter versus pitcher battle is, after all, making contact or missing bats. The first thing that jumps out of Lindor’s FanGraphs’ page is that he didn’t swing and miss more than expected. Next, he didn’t make more infrequent contact than expected. The reduction in walks and hike in strikeouts manifested itself in his aggression.
As with the point guard making the extra pass or the safety drifting away from his Cover 2 zone to help a cornerback, it is possible Francisco Lindor upped the aggression ante in response to his supporting cast. After starting the season on the disabled list and being thrust back into the lineup to rescue an offense that was carrying Eric Stamets and Max Moroff, Lindor became uncharacteristically aggressive in order to make something happen. His swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. This made an indenture on his overall efficiency with the lumber.
Could you blame him, though? The Indians offense spent most of this past summer sputtering in the cellars of the team wRC+ standings thanks to inadequate depth and some underperforming parts. His bash brother from years past, Jose Ramirez, spent the first few months of 2019 operating as a shell of himself. Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Brantley’s departures created potholes in the middle of the card. Lindor carried the weight of the team’s inefficiencies on his shoulders.
As the new year approaches and trade rumors around him continue to swirl, it will be back to the pitch recognition and plate discipline drawing board for Francisco Lindor. The key to his 2020 will be finding the happy medium on his inclination to chase pitches that leak out of the strike zone for the sake of aggressiveness and maintaining an impressive power portfolio. In an ideal world, the former would lead to the latter. That ideal world will be paramount to the Indians success in next year’s trek to reclaim the American League Central throne. For early hints on whether he’s walking that tightrope effectively next season, we can turn to analyzing how often he’s swinging at non-strikes.