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What if Francisco Lindor could only hit grounders?

What if the Indians' star shortstop wrongs some sinister old gypsy woman? His career could take quite the turn.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Francisco Lindor is pretty good at baseball. He fields with the best of them, runs like a deer, and also hits the ball like some sort of All-Star. Good enough to hit in the three-hole for a World Series team at any rate. As he grows he might gain more power, and he’s elevated his line-drive rate from his rookie year. If that continues, he’ll be more than just great. But what if, in some bizarre gypsy curse got laid on him and suddenly, Lindor could only hit ground balls? I’m imagining a sort of "Thinner" situation, where a fly ball of his knocks the nachos out of an old woman’s hand and she mutters "grounder…", in case you need an image. But what would this foul curse do to Lindor’s future?

It’d be a better curse, relatively speaking, than if he could suddenly only hit fly balls. The league batting average on balls in play on ground balls over the last six years has been between .236 and .247, or the rate that grounders turn into hits, on average. Comparatively, the batting average on fly balls has ranged from .178 to .091 between 2009 and 2015. So it’s a good thing this theoretical gypsy woman lost her nachos to a fly ball. He might get a few home runs, but it’s not like he was hitting bombs when he did go yard. So this already hurts Lindor’s numbers. Last year he had a .324 BABIP en route to a .301/.358/.435 slash line. So at first blush, one could just drop that BABIP by 100 points, do the same, or thereabouts to his average and futz about with OBP and call it a day. A Mendoza Line hitter, essentially. Your classic all glove, no bat shortstop. We've seen that before. Luckily, there are more numbers to look at.

Lindor caused a ground ball in 261 at-bats in 2016 according to FanGraphs’ Splits Tool. In those at-bats, he hit .280, a total of 71 hits. That included two doubles and at least one triple if spray charts are to be believed. He also walked another 57 times. He had 604 total at-bats and 182 total hits. So something would have to happen to those other 343 at-bats. For this fun time, we’ll just assume Lindor would take the same amount of walks and hit by pitches. The sacrifices would probably go up since he’s hitting so many grounders, but assuming 600 at-bats is fine with me.

The real immediate hit that comes to Lindor would be his slugging percentage. If you extrapolated it straight out, that would be 162 hits, five-ish doubles, and two singles. That’s a total of 172 bases. We’ll round up to 175, to account for another single or two. That works out to a .291 slugging percentage. It also comes to a .329 OBP, giving Lindor a .280/.329/.291 line. That is not very good at all. Actually, an interesting comparison to that line would be 2016 Andrelton Simmons, minus the power somehow. Simmons hit .281/.324/.366. But that included 22 doubles, two triples, and four home runs. Despite his offensive problems he was still worth more than three wins above replacement because of his glove. Lindor is probably almost as good as the best glove in the majors. FanGraphs rated him at 27.7 defensive runs in 158 games, compared to Simmons' 20.8 runs in 124 games. So it's fair to say that, if he performed as a slightly worse Simmons at the plate, and really it'd be a much worse Simmons, he'd still be a valuable player with a glove. At least two wins. But the realities of baseball mean that people, who learn by seeing things, would learn by seeing what Lindor is doing.

Here's Lindor's spray chart from 2016. The green dots are all ground balls. Some squirted into the outfield, some poked over the bag on the corners, and many got gobbled up in the infield,

Next, here's a neat chart I found on The Hardball Times in an article by Eli Ben-Porat from 2015 where he explored the world of BABIP in general. it's a bit small, but basically, it shows the typical BABIP on grounders based on where on the diamond it is hit. All the way to the left is the third-base line, all the way to the right is first, and up the middle is second.

GB Histogram

As you'll see, BABIP on grounders fluctuates based on where players typically play. There's dips where the second baseman and shortstop usually find themselves and a big spike for up the middle. Same thing for the corners. This is what a typical, conventionally un-cursed player who doesn't pull the ball too much would face vis-a-vis BABIP. Unfortunately, this theoretical Lindor is in fact cursed. Over a period of months, someone in some forward thinking, or at least not blind. front office would notice the preponderance of grounders he was hitting. This would lead to some interesting shifts, and eventually a five or even six-man infield. This would also lead to a cratering of any middling offense Lindor was already producing. I don't think he'd have a .000/.000/.000 slash line. He'd reach on a couple errors, some infield hits, some walks and of course some screamers off the ground, but he'd definitely be a sub-.150 hitter. Probably sub-.100. Essentially, the ability for people to learn would effectively neuter him offensively. If that occurs, there becomes the very real judgment of whether he's even good enough to start. He could be a defensive replacement, but little else.

There is one other thing to consider. Home field advantage. More specifically, a groundskeeper who is so taken with Lindor's unending charisma and ebullience that he does all he can to help the young man get a few more hits. This could mean hammering the dirt immediately in front of the plate until it's like concrete, allowing Lindor to slam the ball down and run for a base hit while the fielders wait for the ball to fall. Or sculpting the baselines so those little squibbers stay in play. Or letting the infield grass grow very long, slowing the ball so the fielders have to make an incredible running play each time, or trimming it so it's like a putting green and Lindor's grounders are going about 90 miles per hour. Which could add a few ticks to this batting average. It would also make infield defense for the Indians quite the adventure, and I don't think the rest of the team would appreciate the lengths the groundskeeper were going. It'd likely be more of a detriment than any bonus Lindor gained, even if it were fun to watch. And he'd still suffer in away games. No, I think it's impossible to believe that Lindor would be anything but useless offensively, were he cursed by an evil old woman.

The lesson here is simple. Don't harm people's nachos. Also, and more baseball related, keeping a team honest defensively is the surest route to being excellent offensively. One of the many things that make Lindor so magic is his all fields approach. He's likely to be a high BABIP player for much of his career. He and Derek Jeter profile rather similarly offensively, and Jeter had a career .350 BABIP. The sophistication of defenses and increase in general athleticism might tamp that down for Lindor, but expect him to get his bleeders at a higher than normal rate. As long as he doesn't cross the wrong crone.