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Francisco Lindor further cemented himself as the true star of the Indians in 2018

Is there any doubt who the heart and soul of the Indians is?

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

If there was any doubt about the true face, heart, and soul of the Indians, this past season wiped it all away. Maybe you considered Corey Kluber to be the embodiment of the Indians. Or maybe Jose Ramirez, or maybe even the older vets like Michael Brantley or Jason Kipnis.

This season was a wake-up call to the naysayers — Cleveland is Frankie’s town.

The Indians’ charismatic shortstop has taken huge step after huge step every year since he debuted in 2015 and 2018 was no exception. His offensive numbers were better across the board compared to last season, with the exception of a strikeout rate that rose 1.5 percent. The trade-off for that nominal bump in whiffs (14 over 745 plate appearances), was a jump in every aspect of his slash line to .277/.352/.519, 38 home runs, and a 9.4 percent walk rate — the highest of his career. For good measure, he also stole 25 bases on the season; the first time he’s stolen at least 20 bags since he swiped 28 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.

Coming into the season — and into the strapping young age of 24 — Lindor had bulked up, ready to mash taters like he never had before. He reportedly didn’t change much of his workout routine, but he didn’t need to. At this point it’s clear whatever he’s doing (and he claims it’s a once-a-week lifting routine) is working, and it worked in 2018 to the tune of a new career-high in home runs and hard-hit balls.

According to Baseball Savant, Lindor’s average exit velocity jumped a full two points to 90.3 miles per hour, after three straight seasons of it being anywhere from 87 to 88.2 miles per hour. This added up to a 40.7 percent hard-hit rate, well above his previous career-high of 37 percent he set in his shortened rookie campaign.

In particular, Lindor improved hitting balls down in the zone harder. Take a look at his exit velocity heat maps from 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant

He hit everything harder than ever, of course, but nothing took the leap quite like his average exit velo on low strikes. That, combined with continuing to raise his launch angle, helped him finish sixth in the American League with 38 home runs. The scrawny shortstop that never saw himself as a 35 home run hitter back in his Single-A days has turned himself into a true power hitter.

Power is the newest, most exciting addition to Lindor’s repertoire but it’s hardly the only thing he contributes on a daily basis to the Indians. The 24-year-old prided himself on leading the league with 129 runs this season, which of course means hitters behind him — especially Jose Ramirez and Michael Brantley — get a lot of credit. But Lindor helped himself out a lot with his 25 stolen bases and overall aggressiveness on the bases.

There’s one unintended side effect of Lindor being the permanent lead-off man that I absolutely love: he didn’t bunt as much. After bunting 20 (!!!) times in 99 games (!!!!!) in his rookie year, and a combined 12 times in 2016 and 2017, Lindor opted to give away one of his team’s finite outs to advance runners just four times in 2018. A big part of that is because he simply came up to bat with runners on base fewer times as the lead-off batter.

He came up to the plate 50 times with runners on base and no one out (aka New Bunt City USA) in 2018, compared to 67 times in 2017 and 81 times in 2016. Take it with a grain of salt that he slashed .194/.340/.361 in those at-bats, but he also walked 16 percent of the time. His bunt totals should be down to zero as one of the best hitters in all of baseball — in my humble opinion — but for now I’ll take a dramatic decrease in attempts.

Unfortunately, he did lay down a bunt in the ALDS when he was the only Indians batter playing worth a damn that series. So clearly his bunt-first mentality still exists deep in his psyche somewhere — I just wish someone could pull him out of it.

And lastly, Lindor improved another important aspect of his game: his personality. He’s already one of the most likable players in the game, but he stepped up as a leader in the clubhouse and in post-game interviews, and the man twerked for our sins. Seeing him homer in his home territory of Puerto Rico and lose his dang mind rounding the bases was a magical sight, even if he (wrongly) felt like he had to apologize for it afterwards.

Lindor is consistent, he’s great, he’s fun, and he’s everything the Indians need to get over the hump sooner rather than later. He just needs his teammates to step up with him.