The Indians have a pull problem. The problem is they are not doing enough of it. As detailed at Everyone Hates Cleveland by Michael Hattery and here, in a José Ramírez-specific style, by Alex Hooper, the Tribe are trying to use all fields to beat the shift and failing.
We can’t pinpoint why the team is trying to do this. Perhaps it’s coaching, perhaps it’s not attacking pitches in front of the plate, perhaps it’s psychological, perhaps it’s just prevailing wisdom about how hitters should use the entire field. Whatever it is, it’s working against the Tribe.
Across the league, left-handed hitters are shifted 40.4% of the time and right-handed hitters are shifted 13.9% of the time. Compared with the average, Cleveland hitters stand out like sore thumbs. Among lefties, Carlos Santana is shifted 95.5% of the time, Ramírez is shifted 77.1% of the time, Jake Bauers is shifted 68.5% of the time, Jason Kipnis is shifted 64.1% of the time, Carlos González is shifted 55.4% of the time, and Leonys Martin is shifted 54.5% of the time. Among righties, Ramírez is shifted 30.0% of the time and Santana is shifted 29.7% of the time. Santana (.486 righty, .375 lefty) has better-than-league-average wOBA (.317) when shifted — and he’s the only one. Thus, opposing teams are clearly wise to shift against the Tribe. But wisdom, it seems, has betrayed the Tribe, because there’s an easy way to beat the shift and you’ve surely heard of it: the air ball revolution.
Only Joey Gallo gets shifted more than Santana (97.6%) because he pulls the hell out of the ball, but even that doesn’t matter, as he’s pulling the ball more than ever this year (51.7%) and has a wOBA of .416 against the shift. He’s had so much success simply because he hits the ball over everyone’s heads, at an average launch angle of 18.3 degrees.
If this year is still too small of a sample or Joey Gallo is too extreme of a power hitter, consider Matt Carpenter in 2018. He was shifted 83.2% of the time (well above the 29.6% average for lefties) but posted a .368 wOBA (well above league average of .315) while pulling the ball 48.3% of the time because he had a 20.4 degree launch angle. In 2018 Carpenter was worth five wins.
The Indians are not owners of the lowest average launch angle in the game this year (Tampa Bay, surprisingly, at 9.1 degrees), but their 11.2-degree average is below league average (12.1) and the team’s lowest average in four seasons. Since 2015, when the Tribe averaged 10.1 degrees, team-average launch angles were 12.6, 12.0, and 13.4 for 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively.
Thus far in 2019, 12 teams have created as much WAR as Carpenter in 2018. The Indians are not one of those teams. Also in 2019, Joey Gallo alone is worth 1.6 WAR. The Indians have been worth -0.3 WAR, an astonishing 44.3 runs below average.
Simply aiming for the sky is not going to improve the Indians. The miserable Tribe offense has many culprits, but hitting fewer balls the pull side and sending fewer balls into the air are certainly playing large roles in the team’s struggles.
League-wide, balls launched between 0 and 50 degrees (the broadest parameters for barrels) to the pull side have a wOBA of .719; the same balls hit to the opposite field have an
ISO wOBA of .455 (ed. note: sorry for the typo). Cleveland is worse than league average in terms of hits launched between 0 and 50 degrees, with wOBA of .686 and .453 for pulled and opposite field batted balls, respectively. But the expected wOBA on those balls is higher for opposite field (.378, a 75 point difference), suggesting a measure of luck in the actual numbers.
If the Indians could get back to hitting lofted balls to the pull side, it logically follows that the offensive numbers should improve. Actually seeing that improvement is another story.
I just know Yandy Díaz wasn’t sacrificed for this.