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A brief history of the Indians at first base and DH

It’s been kind of a black hole for a while

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018 the Cleveland Indians ranked 7th in team wRC+, coming in somewhere just south of the elite but still a very strong club. It led to the third most runs scored in the league. They were a great offensive team, despite how they were summarily dusted out of the playoffs. What has been the problem the last few years, and perhaps even further back than that, is a relative lack of production out of traditionally offensive-centric spots, namely DH and first base.

You could point to left field for stints during the late 2000’s run as well, but Michael Brantley has been strong there and they’ve had some decent platoons they’ve pieced together at that position when he was hurt. Instead it’s been shortstop, second, some center field perhaps, and of course third base that’s produced most of the offense the last decade or so. This isn’t so much an analysis of why — though perhaps it could give us a hint — as a recent history of what hasn’t been from those centers of power in the lineup.

This past year, first basemen for the Indians posted a 99 wRC+, tied with the rebuilding Tigers for 19th in baseball. League average at that position was 105. At DH, the situation is a bit better — the Indians got a 115 wRC+ out of that position. That’s good for 7th among the 16 teams that logged more than 30 plate appearances out of that position (the Brewers snuck in somehow) and was slightly better than the 112 average across baseball. So it’s not as though they were some kind of miserable hole of suck from these roles, but it makes you wonder what could have been if they had something resembling, say, the Red Sox or A’s or Mariners at those roles.

And really, it’s amazing where the Indians are able to find offense, and how much they do find, considering how first base and DH has treated them the last 15 or so years. This is a list of every player-season with an OPS+ over 120 since 2003, two rebuilds ago:

Indians top seasons by OPS+ since 2003

Rk Player OPS+ Year Pos
Rk Player OPS+ Year Pos
1 Travis Hafner 181 2006 *D/3H
2 Travis Hafner 168 2005 *D/H3
3 Travis Hafner 162 2004 *D3/H
4 Jose Ramirez 150 2018 *54/D
5 Michael Brantley 148 2014 *78/DH
6 Shin-Soo Choo 147 2010 *9/D
7 Jose Ramirez 145 2017 *54/H
8 Jhonny Peralta 137 2005 *6/H
9 Shin-Soo Choo 136 2009 *97D/H8
10 Carlos Santana 135 2013 *2D3/H
11 Grady Sizemore 133 2008 *8/D
12 Grady Sizemore 133 2006 *8/HD
13 Francisco Lindor 131 2018 *6/D
14 Jason Kipnis 130 2013 *4/HD
15 Victor Martinez 130 2005 *2/HD
16 Michael Brantley 129 2015 *78D/H
17 Shin-Soo Choo 129 2012 *9/H
18 Victor Martinez 129 2007 *23/DH
19 Edwin Encarnacion 128 2017 *D3/H
20 Carlos Santana 126 2011 *23/HD
21 Victor Martinez 125 2004 *2/HD

Yes, I’m mixing rate stats. Blame B-Ref. But this is an interesting chart, I think, because of who is, and who isn’t on it. First, of course, is Travis Hafner. This is the white whale we’ve been seeking pretty much since 2006. After that Hafner really fell off a cliff as his shoulder disintegrated. But other than him, it’s third basemen like Jhonny Peralta, Brantley and a bunch of more defense-centric positions. Third does generally produce better bats than middle infield positions, but it’s not the end all-be all of the position like first or DH. It’s still a nice list of effective hitters though,

Then there’s this:

Best Indians 1st base and DH seasons by OPS+ since 2003

Rk Player OPS+ Year
Rk Player OPS+ Year
1 Travis Hafner 181 2006
2 Travis Hafner 168 2005
3 Travis Hafner 162 2004
4 Edwin Encarnacion 128 2017
5 Travis Hafner 120 2007
6 Ryan Garko 119 2007
7 Edwin Encarnacion 115 2018
8 Nick Swisher 115 2013
9 Carlos Santana 112 2017
10 Ben Broussard 105 2005
11 Carlos Santana 102 2015
12 Ryan Garko 101 2008
13 Yonder Alonso 97 2018

That’s every Cleveland first baseman and DH season that rated an OPS+ over 95 since 2003. Again we see Hafner obviously, and Edwin, but other names (Ryan Garko, for instance) pop out. Others, like Casy Kotchman and Matt LaPorta, don’t. Because they didn’t ever reach that mark for a full qualified season, which tells a story of an inability at the time to either develop or properly identify talent, and having to spend money for offense when that money could be better spent on the bullpen, or generational players that need to be locked up long-term.

This hasn’t shown anything, other than that the focus of the Indians is to get athletic players with upside that play middle of the field positions. That’s why, other than Hafner — a Ranger draftee originally — most of their top hitters the last two rebuilds are center fielders or middle infielders. And they’ve turned them into stars, that can’t be ignored. The Indians also haven’t really had the opportunity to draft that hyper-projectable bat high in the draft in a while. The last time they had a top 10 pick it was Francisco Lindor. And that was a good idea, even if he hadn’t surpassed every expectation. They’ve never been bad enough to chase the Kyle Schwarbers and Kris Bryants (third base I know, shush) of the world. It’s a compliment to their ability to win even in bad situations and their ability to develop players.

Things could have been different of course, this article wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t signed Mike Napoli and given Jesus Aguilar a longer string to figure it out. And maybe Bobby Bradley will be the next big answer at first. They’re kind of tied to Edwin for another year, same with Alonso. But in 2019 they might have a chance to have a real, home-grown first baseman. It would be a nice change of pace, and finally calm that nagging need they’ve had seemingly forever.