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Cleveland Indians: What we can learn from last year's batted ball rates

Some FanGraphs digging in advance of Opening Day has uncovered intriguing information about the Indians offense

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Hitting, or at least hitting well and in a timely fashion, wasn’t a strength of the Cleveland Indians last season. As a team, they rated 9th in the American League in OPS, 13th in home runs and 8th in total hits. They walked the third most in the league, which comes as no surprise, but the actual hitting part of the plate appearance needs to be better.

The idea of getting hits in baseball is easy, right? You just have to hit the ball where the defenders aren’t, and the harder the better. Execution is what matters here, basically the difference between theoretical physics and the practical kind. I’d assume the hitting equivalent of quantum physics would be trying to figure out why your bat keeps making black holes, or why grounders keep falling out of time or something.

Anyway, rooting around in batted ball information from last season revealed some interesting results, though. For the most part, pretty normal, but with some surprising results. For instance, based on his batted ball rates, backup catcher Roberto Perez is one of the best hitters on the team.

Before we go further, let me say that all this could mean nothing. I could have cherry picked the wrong data (opposite field batted ball rate, FanGraphs’ hard hit rate, contact rate and line drive rate) and compiled them into a mess. But it seems to me that hitting the ball to the opposite field shows bat control, as does contact rate, while hit rate (vague I know) combined with a line drive rate proves the ability to square up. Home runs do come from fly balls more than liners, hence the stat home run to fly ball ratio, but hits come from liners more than not. Home runs are great, I just like seeing a hit and another hit and another hit kind of offense. It’s not better than home runs forever, but I enjoy it more, and I like seeing the pitcher sweat out on the mound as doubles ring off the wall. Anyway, the home runs will come among all this. I guess I’m just a bit tired of seeing superb plate discipline and mediocre actual, literal hitting from the Indians.

It’s surprising, and the results don’t totally demonstrate the rates, but among players on the Indians now who were also on the team a season ago, Perez was 8th best at going opposite field, but first in hard-hit rate and 6th in line drive percentage. Watching him you can see the pull tendance of his swing, but you can also see the power. -- a 21.2 percent HR/FB ratio last year bellows that. Really, he’s one of the most valuable players on the team -- he’s got an eye to nearly rival Carlos Santana, 14.4 percent walk rate to Santana’s 16.2 percent. He hits the ball an awful lot on the ground, 53.3 percent of batted balls, but his contact rate is in line with Brandon Belt a 74.4percent. It’s a reach to compare a guy with 226 PA’s last year with a very good top first baseman with multiple years of consistent production, but with a little work on his swing, all those peripherals could coalesce into a fine hitter. The pieces are there. Shoot, maybe he just needs more than 226 PA’s to get in the swing of major league things. More than anyone on the team, Perez speaks of untapped potential.

Francisco Lindor is batting third in the lineup on Monday if tweets from Jordan Bastian are to be believed. Batting order doesn’t mean too much it turns out since there's only one time you actually lead off a game. The Pirates led off with John Jaso and batted Andrew McCutchen second in the opening game of the season and he’s one of the best hitters out there. But seeing Lindor there makes you think he’s there to drive in runs and be the man on the team til Brantley gets back. Of course, it could be a way for Terry Francona to force Lindor's hand to not bunt so damn much. If so, brilliant meta-managing by Tito.

In terms of batted ball rates, among players from last year currently on the team, Lindor ranks first in balls hit to the opposite field, sixth in hard-hit rate, so behind Jason Kipnis or Carlos Santana or really anyone of note in the lineup, sixth in contact rate and eighth in line drive rate. Keep in mind new teammates like Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe aren’t included in the data I dug through, and he does rate behind the pair of them in hard-hit rate and line drive rate. Why he’s batting third, I don’t know, but he does have plenty of room to grow as a hitter while the two new guys are, well, baseball-old. What I’m saying is, be totally prepared for some fade from what we saw for half a season from Lindor since he was kind of lucky, but don’t just expect the worst either He’s a growing boy, and will get better every year.

I desperately want Jose Ramirez to be a good player for the Indians. I want Giovanny Urshela to succeed more, but something about Ramirez’s pinched face and total lack of emotion and flying helmet endear him to me. He stunk when he got the shortstop job last April, and now he’s on the team again over the better gloved Urshela. It’s likely Ramirez’s versatility did the trick. In looking for reasons for his success, batted ball data combined with bad luck were asked to reveal secreted information. It went… poorly.

Of last year’s players still on the team, Ramirez was sixth in opposite field rate, seventh in hard-hit rate, first in contact rate and 10th in line drive rate. This tells me, as did my eyes last year, that he grounded out softly to short a lot. The 47.6 percent ground ball rate says that even more. Maybe that demotion was a wake-up call, similar to Danny Salazar a year prior and the young man has an appreciation for the game he can get rich playing. These are the early season hopes we all hold.

Some other takeaways from my rough hammering at hitting include finding Lonnie Chisenhall is in fact kind of bad at it. He was fourth in going opposite field, eighth in hard-hit rate, fourth in contact rate and seventh in line drive rate among holdovers from last year, and with the arrival of Napoli and Uribe slips further on those lists. Like Ramirez, that’s a lot of rolling over and dying, as we saw when he was on the team. The supremacy of Jason Kipnis really leapt out at me, though. I know he was integral to the offense, but with the work Michael Brantley has been putting in the last two years and Lindor’s breaking onto the scene, he was a little overshadowed.

Among holdovers from last year he ranked second in opposite field hitting, third in hard-hit rate, third in contact rate and first(!) in line drive rate. The actual numbers, 28.6 percent oppo, 30.6 percent hard hit, 83.9 percent contact and 26.8 percent line drive rate, compare favorably to his last healthy season in 2013 when those were 26.8 percent, 35.1 percent, 81.7 percent and 24.7 percent, respectively. Certainly both seasons had hot and cold times, but it gives hope that he’ll be able to anchor the offense for a bit while Brantley rounds into form and the Indians deal with a Triple-A outfield for a bit. If he could hit a few more homers too, maybe after packing a bit more beef on this offseason, that’d be excellent.

Baseball is here now, so thoughts of a season ago can fade, but it’s interesting to see what could be harbingers for the offensive focus of the team as we work past missing Brantley. Kipnis continuing to grow as a hitter, Lindor truly establishing himself, Chisenhall stinking or not, these are all the questions we have. In this case, the waiting is the most fun part.