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Perhaps the Indians are pressing

Could the team’s pop-up problem be caused by pressure to succeed?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

For those of us who had found the Indians of late to be unwatchable, Monday night’s seven-run showing was more than welcome. The Indians not only won, but strung together hits and kept innings alive. The eighth alone was like a salve to our wounds, with four singles and a double plating four runs.

But even in that terrific eighth inning, the signs of struggle were there, as two of the team’s scuffling hitters induced easy outs: Roberto Perez via pop out on a poor bunt attempt and Jason Kipnis by fly ball to right. Fly balls on the infield and outfield represent 45 percent of all outs, so there’s nothing pernicious about these two outs alone, but when considered in a larger context with the Indians recent form, perhaps they tell a story.

There’s been a lot made by Tribe writers of all stripes about “the window.” It might not be closed after this year, but this year might be the team’s best chance to win it all. And even though the AL Central currently has just one team with a record better than .500 (your Cleveland Indians, natch), the pressure is surely more than it can seem. Even the best teams win only 60-some percent of the time. I can’t say for certain this is causing the Tribe to press, but it sure seems like that’s happening on the field right now.

The Indians are striking out about the league median in terms of strikeout percentage, which is fine, but are 25th in terms of walk percentage, which shows a lack of patience and, perhaps, an over-eagerness to make something happen. And, as Matt noted in his article yesterday, when the Indians are striking the ball they’re most often hitting fly balls, at 39.6 percent (which decreased eight percentage points after last night, previously being a league-high 40.4 percent).

There’s no topic in baseball more widely discussed at the moment than swing plane and I’m certain every fan can name a handful of guys who have gotten on board with the “air ball revolution” or whatever you want to call it: Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, even our beloved Francisco Lindor. Certainly, hitting the ball in the air is an effective technique with proven positive outcomes, but what happens when you put the ball in the air too much? Or, what happens when you try to hard to hit the ball in the air?

Is that what we’re seeing with the Indians?

Launch angles, min 30 PA

Player Avg. launch angle >25 degree angle (%)
Player Avg. launch angle >25 degree angle (%)
Gomes 23.6 48.5
Kipnis 22.6 49.5
Ramirez 20.7 47.3
Davis 19.7 51.7
Lindor 19 42
Encarnacion 19 40.2
Guyer 16.7 38.2
Alonso 14.2 37.8
Naquin 14.1 38.7
Zimmer 13.8 39.4
Brantley 13.3 35.3

League average launch angle is 11.8 degrees. Not a single Tribe batter with a minimum of 30 plate appearances has an average angle lower than the league average. In fact, all qualified hitters are at least 1.5 degrees higher (stats from the table are through Sunday, April 29, but general trends should not have changed much after Monday’s game).

Elevation, of course, is not bad per se. Yan Gomes is elevating the ball, on average, 13 degrees more than league average, but because he has paired his launch angle with good exit velocity (91.6 mph, average; league average = 88.3 mph) he has hit more like his Silver Slugger form of 2014 (121 wRC+ this year vs. 117 wRC+ in ‘14; league average = 100). Whether Gomes can sustain his offensive productions is big question, however, and there are signs that he may be receiving some good luck beyond his .333 average on balls in play.

Of all his batted ball events, Gomes has launched the ball at an angle of 25 degrees or greater 48.5 percent of the time. Twenty-five degrees is Statcast’s dividing line between line drives and fly balls; batting average on balls hit between 25 and 33 degrees ranges from .507 to .310, but at 34 degrees batting average dives to .252 and continues to plunge precipitously. So, to see Gomes launching more than half of his batted balls so steeply is mildly concerning. It’s more concerning that he’s not the team leader in this regard.

Above Gomes in terms of fly balls per batted ball are both Kipnis (49.5 percent) and Rajai Davis (51.7 percent), but neither are anywhere near Gomes in terms of offensive production. Kipnis has posted a wRC+ of 31 so far while Davis has somehow been worse, with a wRC+ of 18. Kip, of course, is coming back from an injury and dealt with constant offseason chatter about how he should be traded because he wasn’t worth his salary, whereas Raj is a guy desperately trying to prove he’s worthy of his roster spot — both of which sound like legitimate reasons to be pressing.

But even among batters with better profiles, the fly balls are too frequent. Francisco Lindor is hitting fly balls 42 percent of the time and Jose Ramirez is hitting them 47.3 percent of the time, the highest rate of his career. Over the course of a season, so many fly balls lead to the kind of unwatchability so present prior to Monday.

Terry Francona says he doesn’t use terms like “launch angle” and cautions his players against the dangers of too much adjustment. But there’s evidence the Tribe is getting its hitters to add loft to their swing. From 2015 to 2018, respectively, the Indians’ launch angle as a team has averaged 10.1, 12.6, 12.1, and 13 degrees. So if the narrative around the league and if the instruction throughout the organization has been something along the lines of elevation = good, then it follows that guys are going to try and put the ball in the air. And if they’re trying too hard, perhaps the outcome is, indeed, something like the current Indians offense.

I don’t offer these launch angle profiles as proof positive the Indians are pressing. I can’t prove it, and if you asked the players they’d likely deny it, because who’s going to admit their trying too hard? Rather, this is just something interesting that could possibly explain the team’s offensive stagnation. Moreover, it seems at least somewhat plausible that guys might be trying to lift the ball a little too much in order to boost their offense.

Monday’s win offered hope, not just in the tangible scoreboard numbers, but also in the hidden numbers. It’s only one game, but the team average launch angle was 13.9 degrees, and just 27 percent of the Indians’ batted balls were hit above 25 degrees.

The Indians Pythagorean won-loss record (13-14) reflects how painful some recent games have been, but their projection is still rosy (92-70). And if we’re talking about this now, this early in the season, it seems likely to be addressed in short order. Francona and hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo are smart guys and the team is full of professional hitters. They can correct this.