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Optimizing the Indians lineup

Whatever the lineup was in Minnesota, it wasn’t great. How should the Tribe optimize its current hitters?

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

The Indians lineup right now doesn’t matter. The fact that the three hole on Opening Day was filled by Tyler Naquin is inconsequential. Remember the lineup from the first week of the 2016 season? As laid out by Zack Meisel at The Athletic, this stuff changes. A lot.

In 2018, Terry Francona used 108 different batting orders, with the most common used just 13 times. And since the Indians entire offseason ethos basically has been, Let’s see what we got here,” Tito is going to have to tinker to figure that out. Is tinkering actually good for the team? I don’t know the answer to that question because it’s more psychological than statistical. However, a large storyline in the Cubs’ offseason has been the lack of stability within the order, so it made me wonder if the Indians could also use a little stability.

With the tools at the disposal of the manager (assuming health), what is the best way to organize them to create a stable, optimized lineup (with help from Beyond the Box Score)?

At the top of the order the Indians obviously need their best hitter. Enough people have written about this that we can just accept it as gospel, right? Sure a speedster like Greg Allen is nice to have at the top, but his career OBP (.307) is about 50 points lower than Carlos Santana (.363), and OBP is king here. Francisco Lindor posted career best numbers in 2018 while hitting out of the leadoff spot 153 times, but Santana offers an advantage in terms of OBP (.346 vs. .373). Since getting players on base is our aim, I’d put Santana atop the scorecard.

The second hitter should be the team’s best hitter overall, which of course also includes a solid OBP, and Jose Ramirez checks all the boxes here. His career wRC+ is 123, his career OBP is .357, his career ISO is .202: He is the Indians’ best hitter.

However, he’s also the team’s best hitter with runners on, with significant advantages over Lindor. Long-term trends say the two hitter hits with runners on more often than the three hitter, but that is not the case for the Indians. Last year, the two spot came up with runners on 315 times whereas the three spot came up with runners on 342 times; the same was true for 2017 (290 vs. 317 PA), 2016 (306 vs. 322 PA), and 2015 (341 vs. 348 PA). Because Ramirez is better with runners on (.303/.376/.496, 128 wRC+) than Lindor (.291/.350/.439, 105 wRC+) and the Indians lineup has, year over year, produced more opportunities with runners on for the third batter rather than the second, I would put Lindor second and Ramirez third, despite prevailing sabermetric wisdom.

Whether you want a analytic tilt to your lineup or an old-school feel, the cleanup spot should be the best power hitter on the team. In terms of pure power hitting, Hanley Ramirez is the guy on the current roster. His career .198 ISO trails only Jose Ramirez and Lindor among active Tribe hitters and is higher than everyone not in the top third of our lineup by 15 points. Whether or not Hanley is the hitter he was in his prime remains to be seen, but with runners on (i.e., when you’d most like your cleanup hitter hitting) he has a career .281/.368/.475 line with a wRC+ of 123. Even in his shortened, miserable 2018 campaign he posted a wRC+ of 117 with runners on. Unless his bat craters or someone else stakes a claim (paging Bobby Bradley), Hanley makes sense here.

In the five hole, the Tribe needs another guy to move the runners along. This is where — believe it or don’t — Tyler Naquin’s career numbers suggest he would fit best. With an OBP of .340 for his career, Naquin can make up for a lack of pop in his bat by simply getting on base and moving runners in front of him forward. With runners on, Naquin has been an above-average hitter both in his career overall (115 wRC+) and last season (105 wRC+).

At this point in the lineup, the order stops having as much of an effect with the proviso that “stolen bases are most valuable ahead of high-contact singles hitters” (per the Beyond the Box Score article cited above). Jason Kipnis has the most stolen bases of anyone not attached to a lineup slot so far, but injury and age have likely robbed him of a step or two. Leonys Martin, though the same age as Kipnis, has maintained better speed and has nearly the same career number of stolen bases (122 vs. 128). Thus, putting Martin and Kipnis at six and seven, respectively, seems intuitive.

That leaves catcher and left field for the final two lineup spots, and at this point we’re splitting hairs. The difference between Greg Allen (330 PA, .253/.307/.343, 74 wRC+) or Jake Bauers (388 PA, .201/.316/.384, 95 wRC+) and Roberto Perez (963 PA, .205/.298/.340, 72 wRC+) or Kevin Plawecki (804 PA, .218/.308/.330, 78 wRC+) is negligible to the point that platoon or situational play (until someone performs well enough to justify otherwise) is perfectly acceptable. My preference would be to hit the slower catchers eighth and the fast outfielder ninth, on the off chance they get on ahead of Santana when the lineup turns over.

All that leaves us with a lineup of

  1. 1B Carlos Santana, S
  2. SS Francisco Lindor, S
  3. 3B Jose Ramirez, S
  4. DH Hanley Ramirez, R
  5. RF Tyler Naquin, L
  6. CF Leonys Martin, L
  7. 2B Jason Kipnis, L
  8. C Roberto Perez, R
  9. LF Jake Bauers, L

Based on handedness, this seems decidedly not optimized. But what would you do, move one of the best hitters down and reduce his plate appearances just to break up a string of lefties? Or would you move up the worst hitter and give him more opportunities? Given the roster options at the Tribe’s disposal, this is the reality of what the best lineup looks like. Carlos Gonzalez could perhaps displace Hanley, but he hits lefty and would keep the overall tilt of the order on the first base side of the batter’s box.

Which brings us back to the idea that the opening day lineup is very, very unlikely to be the one the Tribe trots out in September or (God-willing, even in this garbage division) October. The top third of the current order is great, the middle third falls off considerably, and the bottom third is abysmal. The Indians are going to need reinforcements, whether that’s CarGo or Bradley or Cameron Maybin or someone not in the organization right now. Which, I supposed indicates that a lack of stability is the team’s best hope? Hopefully the lineup can keep up until that comes.