Things are looking good for the Cleveland Indians this year. Not quite stupendous yet, going into Tampa with a .500 record and the offense has shown signs of life with a little fight from behind, while the pitching is beginning to round into form. At the center of the lineup sit Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, a pair of pitch-taking Buddhas with heaps of pop in their bat, batting right behind a not at all slowing down Francisco Lindor. There’s holes, there’s issues, there's screwing over Corey Kluber on the regular, but already there’s some structure here that could lead to a fun summer.
All this, without their best offensive player, the straw that stirs the drink. When he comes back, Michael Brantley is going to elbow his way into the top third of the lineup, and someone is going to lose a job. So what is this going to do to the Tribe offense?
As it stands, the lineup has looked something like this the first week or so:
- Rajai Davis
- Jason Kipnis
- Francisco Lindor
- Mike Napoli
- Carlos Santana
- Yan Gomes
- Marlon Byrd
- Juan Uribe
- Jose Ramirez
There's’ been some dashes of Tyler Naquin now and then, some bats being moved up and down, but by and large Terry Francona has just made a bunch of photocopies and handed them out every game. In slotting Brantley third, what happens then? The boring answer is, everyone moves down one and Jose Ramirez stops playing left field. Which, by all rights, is likely what will happen. But that's no fun.
I for one hate seeing Rajai Davis leading off every game. He has a career .315 OBP and the last five years has averaged 107 K’s to 31 walks. His defense is fine in center, though I think Naquin could do a similar job at the plate and get to the ball better. Davis is just not a good place setter. So I say Brantley’s insertion pushes him to the bottom of the order. Or more preferably, out altogether once Naquin proves himself. The kid just needs a chance.
One thing just slotting Brantley in doesn't address is increasing the dynamism of the Indians lineup. I accept that baseball is a static game -- each pitch and its outcome is a discrete action with some waiting in between. But at the same time, offensively stringing together hits has a feel of fluidity to it. Watching a team that can really hit like the Tigers or Blue Jays or even to an extent the Royals, it’s like an avalanche builds and suddenly the pitcher is buried. I think the Indians have the tools to do that, but hey need to be judicious with how the lineup forms. It’s got to be a careful use of aggressive batting and patience. Ignoring moving pieces like Byrd, Uribe or Ramirez, the pitches per plate appearance for Tribe offensive mainstays looks like this:
- Napoli: 5.25
- Santana: 4.31
- Lindor: 4.12
- Kipnis: 4.06
- Brantley (2015): 3.61
- Gomes: 3.44
These numbers will adjust some as more ball is played, but in terms of ranking, it’s about where I figure most will fall. Napoli and Santana are definitely the most patient hitters, and Lindor is proving to have an amazing sense of his zone. Gomes is down at the bottom because that man just wants to hit.
When you think about great hitters, you think of them working deep counts, which is why Brantley’s number is so surprising, till you think about how he plays. He just gets up there and spanks a double in one of the two gaps. It works. If these plate appearance numbers hold, and offensive production trends positively and all the players hit to their potential, I’d like to see Napoli or Santana batting ahead of Brantley actually, maybe putting him fourth. I like how the two bigguys work counts, but back to back like that almost lets the pitcher settle - he knows he’s in for two long at-bats and might even be able to sneak in ha first pitch strike. But having to deal with a Napoli marathon and all of a sudden have a guy like Brantley attacking from the get-go could lead to some hard-hit balls because the pitcher is off balance. Offense is contagious, and this is a good way to get it virulent.
At its most basic, my idea for lineup dynamism comes from the idea of alternating aggressiveness with patience. It makes pitchers have to reassess with every batter. Where in the past it seemed like every Tribe batsman was looking for that perfect pitch, having a guy like Gomes batting even fifth, behind Santana who would be behind Brantley, he could unleash that power a bit better with an unsettled pitcher, and even help the guys below by further striking fear. The only reason I wouldn’t like that is it’d mean Napoli would be sixth or something and that seems a waste. The bottom third of the order is not good offensively unless Ramirez keeps his batting ways. Perhaps having Nap down there would help to lengthen out the lineup, but he needs to be up in the order more. Maybe Santana down that far would work, or even Kipnis. Lindor leading off, then Brantley and Napoli, Gomes fourth and Santana fifth, that is a lot of neat, unique hitters all coming at you. Kipnis screaming out of the sixth hole would be killer. It works for Alex Gordon and he's the Royals' star, so why not?
Over fiddling with lineup construction at its core is kind of silly - just put your best hitters early and let them tee off as much as possible. I just feel like there’s a psychological impact on the pitcher when he has to change up tactics of attack from batter to batter. Kind of like how the aggression and ball in playness of the Royals seemed to futz with opponents. That might have been imagined, but it’s also irritating. Not all pitchers - the great ones just throw their best stuff and you lose, but those middle of the road guys, the ones you face three days out of five during the season, those are the ones you can twist their mind and stack wins against. That’s what Brantley coming back could really help.