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What’s wrong with Francisco Lindor?

Inside the numbers of Francisco Lindor’s offensive struggles

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Any reaction to any stat line or basic performance metric this year is, by virtue of the makeup of the season, an overreaction. We all know this, so most of what we see is just untethered events that tell some vague suggestion of a piece of a story. Still, it’s really painful when a team’s superstar, in the Indians’ case Francisco Lindor, is struggling so mightily.

Lindor is striking out more than ever, walking less than he ever has, and his 94 wRC+ is just miserable for a guy who was as much a star for his bat as he was the glove. It’s tough to watch, even tougher when the Indians are in such dire need of his offense. Is there any way to tell where it’s gone?

Hitters in general are facing a markedly different world this season. For the first time since we’ve been tracking pitch types, pitchers are throwing fastballs less than half the time. It’s been trending this way for a long time, but with the uptick in relief pitchers and the ever-advancing tech war in pitch development, the leap has been incredible. The league fastball average is 49.7%, but for Lindor, the numbers are even starker. He’s never seen fastballs less than 52.4% of the time, but this year he’s seeing the hard stuff just 44.4% of the time while sliders (18.8%) and changeups (22%) are each seeing career highs. Lindor loves hitting fastballs, so it makes sense that he’d struggle.

Lindor’s wOBA by pitch type and year

Year Fastball wOBA Breaking wOBA Offspeed wOBA Overall wOBA
Year Fastball wOBA Breaking wOBA Offspeed wOBA Overall wOBA
2020 0.298 0.331 0.352 0.312
2019 0.374 0.273 0.304 0.349
2018 0.414 0.307 0.395 0.368
2017 0.396 0.305 0.358 0.353

It’s a wonder he hasn’t seen this kind of treatment before, considering the damage done, but I guess it takes a strange new world — and an extra three or so arms in the bullpen — to give teams the opportunity to try new things.

It might not just be the changes to the bullpen and the pitches that Lindor is seeing, though. With how the game is ever-changing, evolving with more data being pumped into it for analysis, each players’ breakdown is getting clearer and clearer. For instance, Lindor is seeing more shifts this season than he ever has before. Just batting left-handed, he’s been shifted on 74% of the time, far and away his highest rate. Prior to this year, he saw a shift at most 32.2% of the time as a lefty, and never more than 3.7% of the time when he’s a righty. This year that mark is 13.6%, though that’s just three out of 22 possible plate appearances. There’s evidence of why this is, too. Here’s a heat map of where every batted ball Lindor struck as a left-handed hitter went from 2017-19:

And now, here’s a positional heat map of where he’s seen defenders when hitting left-handed:

I’m not going to sit here and say it’s a 1-to-1 match between the two, but it’s pretty stark that all his most common batted ball locations are just full of defenders now. One has to wonder how many weak bloops and liners that dropped in the last few years simply haven’t yet.

The other part of this whole “where are the hits” puzzle is, Lindor simply isn’t hitting the ball the same way. He’s hitting more grounders than he has since 2016 (43.8%) and the fewest fly balls since 2016 (34.2%) as well. The line drives have held steady, but between the shifts and the drop in exit velocity, he’s not hitting them where they ain’t as much as he used to. It all combines to make for a very frustrating picture.

Lindor still has it in him to be that player we know he can be. He’s still strong as anything when he gets a hold of one, and the strikeout and walk rates are sure to drop back to something resembling his career numbers. We just are in a world where one or two games force some fierce vacillations in those numbers.

It’s almost like he’s going through the opposite problem José Ramírez did last year, where he’s too pull-happy. He’s at a career-high in pull rate at 54.1% after never being more than 44.6%, which could be a combination of forcing it, sample size, and how he’s being pitched differently.

The game is always going to be built to stop hitters. From pitchers making freakier and freakier versions of pitches to the glut of data telling us just where guys hit it, the fact anyone gets a base hit is incredible. That’s what makes the great ones great though. Lindor is one of those, so we just have to see how he adjusts to what he faces.