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Plate discipline key to Cleveland Indians offense

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It’s not just Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez — everyone on the Indians appears to be focusing on better pitch selection.

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Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

When it comes to plate discipline, few players in baseball are better at selecting which pitches to hit, and actually making contact on them, than a healthy Michael Brantley. Last season, with Brantley shelved due to an ailing shoulder, Jose Ramirez picked up the mantle as the “new” Brantley when it came to plate discipline. In 2017, the entire team seems to have caught on.

This season the Cleveland Indians have swung and missed the least of any team in baseball (8.1 percent), they have swung outside the zone the least (23.4 percent), and they have the highest overall contact rate (81.3 percent). This has translated to the fifth lowest strikeout rate in the majors (19.5 percent) and the fourth highest walk rate as a team (10.3 percent).

Brantley certainly helps those numbers, but he hasn’t been at his best in these first handful of games back from his 18-month hiatus. Instead, a lot of the Indians plate discipline early on is coming from some unlikely sources. Brandon Guyer leads the team swinging strike rate and overall contact rate, in spite of his slow start. He may not be hitting the ball great, when he does make contact, but he’s being more selective than ever. Or maybe he’s just waiting for a ball to hit him. Both are valid explanations.

Another unlikely source, if only because of his own slow start, is Carlos Santana. That’s not to say that Santana being a patient hitter is surprising, because it’s not. Since Santana debuted in 2011, only 26 players have a higher on-base percentage than him, and his 612 walks are second only to Joey Votto.

But so far this season, Santana’s noteworthy patience has been even more exaggerated than before. He’s swinging at just 18.9 percent of balls outside of the zone, down from 21.7 percent in his career, and he is making much better contact than he ever has — 87.9 percent compared to 80.9 percent in his career. It’s taken Santana a bit to get started this season, but now that he got it going it does not look like he’ll stop. After an abysmal first couple weeks of the season he has repaired his slash to .237/.333/.395 with a .254 BABIP.

In the case of Guyer and Santana, it’s too early to say they have made definitive changes in their game. Maybe Santana is making contact almost seven percentage points better than he ever has, maybe it’s some kind of byproduct of getting himself amped up over a new contract this offseason. Or maybe he has just faced a few good pictures he liked in 18 games.

But we know at least one superstar is take a different approach this season: Francisco Lindor. Much has been made about Lindor (and pretty much everyone else) focusing on hitting the ball up into the air this season. But Lindor’s incredible start to the season, in which he leads all position players in WAR, is more than just swinging higher and harder. He’s making better decisions about what to swing at.

Travis Sawcik wrote about Lindor’s newfound patience at length for The Athletic ($). The gist of Sawcik’s piece focuses on how Lindor is turning patience into power, but it also feeds perfectly into the Tribe’s overall patience as a team. It can’t speak for everyone on the team, but someone somewhere is coaching Lindor to be more selective at the plate. From Sawcik:

In 2015, as a rookie, Lindor swung at 31.9 percent out of the strike zone. He cut it to 29.8 percent last season and has reduced it to 27.1, percent entering play Thursday. He’s reduced his overall swing rate from 50 percent in 2015, to 47.2 percent last season and 44 percent this year. He’s becoming more selective.

Sawcik also details how Lindor has “refined” his zone, how he goes from swinging at just about any breaking ball he sees to those low and inside.

Maybe it’s just April small sample weirdness, but if Lindor is taking better pitch recognition to heart, to the extent that it looks like he is, this is the third player suddenly turning into an outstandingly patient, contact-oriented hitter. Patience is spreading like a plague through the Indians. But like a good plague that helps you get to another World Series, not the kind of that makes you cough up blood.