In the aftermath of the Cleveland Indians’ brutal series in Oakland over the weekend, it seems players, coaches, and fans alike are scrambling to find answers for the club’s struggles in what was supposed to be a cakewalk back to the postseason in 2017.
It’s clear that what the team has been doing isn’t working, as the Oakland Ahletics limited Cleveland to just six runs in three games, welcoming them to the second half of the season with a three-game sweep. The Tribe has now lost four games in a row overall, the first time the club has had a losing streak longer than three games since 2015, and leads the AL Central by just 1.5 games despite being the only team in the division with a positive run differential.
"It's just like the beginning of the season," said Dan Otero after the game. "Everything is under a microscope. Stuff gets magnified more so than during a stretch of 30 or 40 games. But, yeah, teams can come out of the break hot or cold.”
The microscope argument is quickly losing its appeal, though. Cleveland has played 90 games now, and an identity of inconsistency is solidifying around the club. A starting pitching staff that was expected to dominate has fallen woefully short, and an offense that in 2016 was second in the AL in runs scored has yet to find any sort of reliable rhythm.
In response to the issues the Tribe has had with the bats, Cleveland.com beat writer Zack Meisel offered his ideas in a Monday column as to how he would reassemble the Tribe’s batting order to, you know, actually produce some offense.
It’s an interesting thought exercise, though one Meisel is quick to point out certainly would not be guaranteed to make a difference: “And while a shakeup of the batting order probably wouldn't cure all of the club's ailments, it's at least time to rescue Jose Ramirez from the No. 5 spot.” We couldn’t agree more, as our own Merritt Rohlfing made the case for moving JRam up in the lineup earlier this month.
In the article, Meisel puts Michael Brantley in the leadoff spot, saying the following:
Brantley has not hit a home run since April 30, so the leadoff spot shouldn't be off-limits here. His .366 on-base percentage fits well, he is tied for the team lead with 10 stolen bases and he rarely strikes out. The Indians need something -- anything -- out of the top of their order. Brantley can provide it.
He then moves Ramirez up, hitting him behind Brantley in the two-hole. The reasoning Meisel provides is as follows:
Protecting Edwin Encarnacion is adorable and all, but there are more pressing needs at the moment. One of them is finding a way to get the guy with the .326/.381/.588 slash line into the top half of the lineup. He's a switch-hitter who racks up doubles and home runs, steals bases and infrequently strikes out. His relocation is long overdue. He has missed out on a significant number of plate appearances by hitting fifth.
Given that the pair have been the most consistent in Terry Francona’s order, it makes sense to give them as many chances as possible. The order they hit likely doesn’t matter, however, after taking a closer look at the data, I would argue that Meisel’s 1-2 should be flipped.
Neither player has hit leadoff this season, though early in his career Brantley was frequently used in that role. In 212 games between 2009 and 2012, he didn’t fare that well, with a .208/.245/.287 slash line leading off games. But back then he wasn’t yet the Dr. Smooth we know today. Ramirez has hit first in just 19 career games, including 16 as recently as 2015, and wasn’t a whole lot better, with a .214/.421/.286 line. But again, he’s a different player now.
Ramirez is an extra-base hit machine regardless of his spot in the order, and sports the best on-base percentage (.381) on the team. He also sees a lot of pitches (4.12 per plate appearance), steals bases (10), draws walks (8.0 walk rate), and strikes out the least on the team (12.3 strikeout rate), which would mean Brantley coming to the plate with a runner on more often than has usually been the case this year. That bodes well because he is at his best with men on base, putting up a .311/.382/.462 line in those situations in 2017 and .321/.386/.454 for his career.
Meisel also advocates moving Edwin Encarnacion into the third spot in the order, which the numbers say could make a great deal of sense. Encarnacion has hit 11 of his 19 home runs while slashing .253/.342/.494 with men on base this season.
After that, Meisel acknowledges that things get dicey, particularly with Lonnie Chisenhall and Kipnis on the disabled list, Lindor and Carlos Santana typifying the team’s inconsistency, and Tribe catchers being mired in the kind of lost season at the plate that kids today will remember 50 years from now. What looked before the season to be a strong, long lineup has proven to be a distinct weakness.
By the time the seventh spot in the order (Tyler Naquin) comes up, he writes, “We've reached the lonely wilderness.” For those of us who follow the Tribe closely, that’s a place we’ve spent a lot of time since April. The Indians need to find some kind of spark, and perhaps putting the two best hitters they have right now at the top of the order can provide that.