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The Indians offense is better than you think

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Kipnis and Swisher, the ultimate Bro-Hioans (photo: AP)

The Cleveland Indians have a top three offense in 2014, even if the rest of the league doesn’t quite know it yet. The funny part of it all is that the Indians were a top six offense in 2013, and will only get better.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is.

When you look at the Indians offense of 2013, and project it forward to 2014, it’s easy to push it aside as a mediocre club. There really isn’t one player on the roster that you can point to as being dominant.

You can say many kind things about Jason Kipnis, and he’s really, really good, but he’s not become the consistent month-to-month producer yet.

You can say many kind things about Carlos Santana, and he’s the best offensive player on the team, but he’s still not reached his ceiling yet (trust me).

Swisher and Bourn both make a lot of money, but aren’t really in their prime, and never really were players that could carry their club.

Gomes is too young and Brantley just doesn’t have the overall numbers to be that kind of player.

Then you start to look at the team as a whole, and you start to realize that there really is more than meets the eye here. When you take into account that there is more upside than downside to nearly every spot in the lineup, you can really start to see through the shadows and into the sunlight with how far this team can go in 2014

In 2013, the Indians did a lot of things very well offensively. Overall, they scored 745 runs on the season which was sixth in major league baseball, and fifth in the American League. What’s most interesting about their runs scored is that they were consistently in the top ten from month-to-month. Certainly that’s not the end-all and the be-all statistic for how good an offense is, but at the end of the day, the name of the game is scoring runs, and the Indians were very good at that last season.

Here’s a quick look at their runs per month in 2013:

Month Runs ranking
April 120 7
May 146 3
June 130 5
July 117 8
August 92 27
September 140 3

You can see that the Indians didn’t necessarily ride the coattails of Mark Reynolds in April and May, and then Kipnis in June, when they were each playing as well as anyone in the league. This was a line-up that Terry Francona was able to optimize from month-to-month in a way that allowed them to score a lot of runs.

What really gets fun is when you take a look at the splits that this team put up by batting order position, and then compare it to the same splits with regards to who was driving in the runs. No, RBI isn’t a tangible stat with regards to a player’s production because it is based on opportunity, but it is a tool that’s worth looking at with regards to that opportunity. In other words, if there are runners on base, are you able to get them home, and who is doing it.

Here’s a very quick and rudimentary look at the Indians splits via batting order with regards to their runs scored, as well as who was driving them home:

Order Runs ranking RBI ranking
#1 100 11 71 5
#2 92 12 79 7
#3 96 11 92 13
#4 90 9 80 25
#5 88 4 93 7
#6 66 16 78 10
#7 67 6 72 8
#8 69 7 75 2
#9 77 3 71 1

What immediately stands out to me is that the top of the order (#1 through clean-up) only cracked the top ten in the majors once with regards to scoring runs, and that was the clean-up hole, which came in at ninth. When you compare that to the bottom of the order, every slot except for the six-hole were in the top seven in the league.

Without getting too far into that, it’s clear that the Indians had a very consistent lineup. Think about it. Every spot in the order came in between 3 and 16 in the league, and every position except for the sixth spot in the lineup finished from 3rd-to-12th in the league. That’s really the type of consistency that will make a coaching staff ecstatic.

What also stands out is that when you are looking at that consistency, you would likely want the top-of-the-order to finish somewhere in the top ten. I’m not going to get to upset about the fact that they finished just outside the top ten, but it really gives you a decent picture at how this team can optimize their production in 2014. Ideally, the top of the lineup will improve their run production, which in tune, would give the middle-of-the-lineup more opportunity to do what they were paid to do, and that’s drive in those runs.

At the of the day, who drives those runs in really isn’t all that important, but in theory, your best run producers are going to get the most at bats at the top of the order, which would in-turn, give the middle-to-lower half of the lineup the opportunity to drive them in. That’s not really an arguable point, because you definitively would like to have your best hitters getting the most at-bats.

When you start incorporating the money structure in baseball as a whole, and with a small-market team like the Indians specifically, it can alter the way a front office looks at how to create a line-up, and how to maximize run production.

At the end of the day, though, if you can build a solid line-up, especially at the top of the order, it’s generally the best way to do business.

At the end of the day thought, my goal here isn’t necessarily to analyze the numbers that I’ve place in front of you other than to look at the players hitting in those positions in 2013, and to see how and why they should get better in 2014.

The bigger discussion as to how the Indians line-up should be created via free agency, trades and contractual offers is for another day, although it is an interesting conversation in and of itself.

With all of that said, let’s take a closer look at the Indians in 2013 before we specifically look at why they should be better in 2014.

Here’s the predominant players that hit in each spot in 2013:

order player games next games
#1 Bourn 124 Brantley 25
#2 Swisher 62 Kipnis 49
#3 Kipnis 98 Cabrera 41
#4 Swisher 72 Santana 48
#5 Brantley 62 Santana 39
#6 Santana 61 Cabrera 37
#7 Giambi 34 Reynolds 28
#8 Chisenhall 63 Aviles 33
#9 Stubbs 103 Gomes 19

There’s a lot that you can say about the line-up. The traditionalists will immediately say that the Indians and Terry Francona likely screwed around with his offensive line-ups a bit too much in the beginning of the season, and that it took him far too long to figure out where Swisher needed to be, and where Santana needed to be, and where Brantley needed to be.

The sabr-centric may say that Francona did exactly what he needed to do with a brand new set of players on a brand-new team, dealing with some injury issues to some of the players at the top of the line-up (Bourn and Swisher, in particular), and taking into account the fact that players like Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn allowed him to subsidize his line-ups.

I don’t disagree with either theory last year, although I think Francona could have altered line-ups sooner than he did in several instances. Of course, it’s hard to understand the inner workings of any locker room at any given time. I only say that because Francona was in his first year, and had brought in several new players. It’s clear that he spent much of that first season earning the trust of his clubhouse by sticking with players that had a past track record in the Big Leagues.

Perhaps “earning the trust” isn’t the best phrase to use there. Perhaps it’s better just to say that Francona was showing his veteran leadership that he would play them where he thought they would be at their best, and would allow them time to either show him that they should stay there, or that they should move. That can be used as a negative or a positive.

Just to give you a frame of reference, here’s a quick look at the five offenses ahead of the Indians in 2013, with regards to their solidity at the top of the order. Those five teams are Boston, Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland and Baltimore. Five of those six teams made the playoffs, with the Orioles the only team that was left out.

The Red Sox:

order player games
#1 Ellsbury 134
#2 Victorino 107
#3 Pedroia 147
#4 Ortiz 121
#5 Napoli 84

The Cardinals:

order player games
#1 Carpenter 136
#2 Beltran 83
#3 Holliday 121
#4 Craig 110
#5 Molina 111
#6 Freese 68
#7 Freese 37
#8 Kozma 100

The Tigers:

order player games
#1 Jackson 127
#2 Hunter 135
#3 Cabrera 147
#4 Fielder 158
#5 Martinez 150
#6 Peralta 72

The A’s:

order player games next games
#1 Crisp 127 Jaso 14
#2 Lowrie 48 Jaso 29
#3 Lowrie 68 Cespedes 35
#4 Cespedes 72 Moss 42
#5 Moss 48 Donaldson 29
#6 Donaldson 38 Reddick 24
#7 Reddick 49 Young 23
#8 Norris 27 Sogard 26
#9 Sogard 74 Rosales 21

The Orioles:

order player games next games
#1 McLouth 108 Markakis 34
#2 Machado 154 Markakis 3
#3 Markakis 88 Davis 34
#4 Jones 129 Davis 25
#5 Davis 101 Wieters 27
#6 Wieters 93 Hardy 43
#7 Hardy 89 Young 23

You can clearly see that most of the lineups above utilized a solidified top-of-the-lineup, with the exception of the Oakland A’s, who are the lone small market team in the top five, and who clearly utilize the Money Ball philosophy.

I’m fairly certain that if you looked at the Rays lineup, it would be similar. Now I haven’t, so I could be wrong, but I know that Joe Madden utilizes his players in a manner to best maximize them both in the lineup, and in the field.

Again, that’s not for today’s conversation.

The Indians, during the entirety of the season, more resemble the A’s, than the other four teams. The exception to the rule is Michael Bourn at the lead-off spot, Jason Kipnis in the three-hole, and believe it or not, Drew Stubbs in the #9 spot.

The irony there is that Bourn is a player who clearly wasn’t at his best in 2013, and spent some time on the shelf injured, and Stubbs was another guy that isn’t going to stand out in any way, offensively. You could even argue that having him on the team created less flexibility for Francona, because the #9 hole is generally a spot in the lineup that you can play around with. I didn’t even include them with several of the top five for that reason (of course, the Cardinals are an NL team).

The question heading into the 2014 season is why exactly did Francona set up his line-up the way that he did throughout the year, and will this become a trend throughout the season. Perhaps September is the best indicator for what he will ultimately do with his lineup.

By September, Francona was done with all of the shuffling with the meat of his order. The top of the lineup was set, and while there was fluctuation at the bottom of the lineup, that really has been a norm for most of baseball, as managers always utilize the weaker hitters to match-up with pitchers.

The Indians played 27 games in September, and had their best monthly record of the season. They played with their backs up against the wall for sure, but were a buzz saw. They also had their most solidified lineup with regards to fluctuation:

Order Player Games Next Games
#1 Bourn 23 Brantley 3
#2 Swisher 26 Aviles 1
#3 Kipnis 26 Raburn 1
#4 Santana 27 None
#5 Brantley 11 Raburn 9
#6 Cabrera 26 Gomes 1
#7 Gomes 9 Giambi 7
#8 Aviles 8 Chisenhall/Gomes 6
#9 Stubbs 15 Chisenhall/Aviles 5

What will the trend be for 2014?

Will Francona mess around with the lineup for much of 2014, then come to conclusions in September, or did he use 2013 as his Franenstonian effort, and will we see the September model during the season, as long as players remain healthy?

If I’m a betting man, the Indians are going to see a much more settled line-up heading into next season. One could argue who should bat lead-off, and I will do that as we start heading towards spring training and April’s start of the season, but for now, let’s just take a look at what Francona is likely going to do, based on what he’s already done.

There are unknowns to this lineup, but let’s take a look at what it should look like, if Francona were set to write out his lineup card today:

Order Player
#1 Bourn
#2 Swisher
#3 Kipnis
#4 Santana
#5 Brantley
#6 Cabrera
#7 Murphy/Raburn
#8 Gomes
#9 Chisenhall/Aviles

Michael Bourn leading off really isn’t a question for Terry Francona, even though he’ll be a question-mark for the fans and the media until his play can put all of that to bed. The facts are simple: Michael Bourn is Tito’s lead-off hitter. He’s been there from the time that the Indians signed them.

Nick Swisher‘s game immediately improved when he moved into the #2 slot for the Tribe. One could argue that a healthy Swisher should hit somewhere else in the lineup, but I would argue just the opposite. Swisher is a career .350 OBP guy, and that’s something that can make the #2 hole special. No, he’s not your prototypical two-hitter, but neither was Kevin Youkilis. Swisher and Youkilis have similarities for sure, in particular, with their ability to get on base. I don’t see Swisher moving any time soon, and the fact that he was locked into that September slot seems to be a good indicator that Francona will keep him there.

Jason Kipnis could have value at any spot in the top of the order, and that includes the clean-up slot. With that said, his ultimate abilities make him the perfect three-hitter in any lineup. He has the ability to table-set for the middle-of-the-order, but can also drive in runs. He seriously could find maybe more value in the #1 or the #2 spots in the lineup. Of course, Francona has never used him as a lead-off hitter, and I don’t see it happening now. He’s going to be the Indians #3 hitter.

Carlos Santana will be the Indians clean-up hitter in 2014. It’s kind of funny looking back on how people just hammered Santana for his “struggles” in the #4 hole, but if you look at what he did there in 2013, it’s hard to argue that’s where he belongs. Give Francona kudos for how he handled his power hitter throughout the year. Of Santana’s 48 games in the clean-up spot, 27 of those games came during the last month, when every game was on the line. He directly built Santana up throughout the year, protecting him in the #6 slot.

Michael Brantley will likely be the focal point for the #5 hitter, but should get shuffled around as glue to the lineup. He will likely be Bourn’s primary back-up as the lead-off hitter, and could see time anywhere else in the lineup, as the year progresses. In September, Brantley hit in the five-hole 11 times, in the lead-off slot three ties, in the seven-hole four times, and in the eight-hole three times. One could argue that he’s better suited to a role either at the top of the order, or in the 6-9 spots, but that’s again, for another day.

What the Indians have with these five players, and why they can be set in stone, are hitters that will likely transcend movement with regards to left-handed and right-handed starters.

Bourn is interesting to me, and perhaps you can chalk this up to the theory that he struggled against American League pitching, as opposed to an overall regression that many are pointing to. The left-handed hitting Bourn is a career .277 hitter against righties, while only hitting .253 against lefties. Last season, Bourn only hit .257 against righties, while hitting .277 against lefties. That’s a complete swap of stats, which should be looked into more. What happens if he balances out those numbers in 2014?

Likewise, Swisher had struggles last year for different reasons. He hurt his left shoulder early in the year, which in-turn, destroyed his at bats from the left side of the plate. Swisher generally hits better from the right side of the plate (.273 vs. .247), but doesn’t often see the split he saw last year (.295 vs. .220). He went from an .805 OPS player as a left-handed batter, to a .680 OPS player. He should be healthy in 2014, which will improve his at bats from that left side.

Kipnis and Santana are the best producing hitters on the team, and while their splits bear the potential for movement based on those splits, I don’t see Francona doing it.

Perhaps Brantley is the guy though, that you would supplement into the top of the order and bump guys around, as he hit .288 against righties, and .276 against lefties, which helps my cause for my Brantley/IQ theory. Maybe you can use him as a spot lead-off hitter, and bump Bourn to ninth. Perhaps you pop Brantley in for Swisher against right-handers, and move Swisher to the five-hole.

I think Brantley is the ultimate fill player for any spot in the lineup, from top-to-bottom. No, I don’t think Brantley is going to be a .400 hitter and make all-star team after all-star team, but he’s got ice in his veins, and isn’t generally affected by spots in the line-up…and is getting better as he gets older.

Here’s where things get murky for me, and please keep in mind, the bottom of the order will fluctuate a lot more than the top of the order, based on match-ups. Now, I was all set to put Gomes in as the #6 hitter, protected in the line-up in a similar fashion as Santana last year, but I had forgotten that Asdrubal Cabrera had found himself in the six-slot after spending much of the first half of the year in the #2 and #3 positions. So what will happen in 2014?

I have to believe that if Cabrera makes it to April still on this team, he’ll find himself seated in the #6 hole in the same manner as Santana last year. It’s not my preference, but it’s what I could see happening. He could earn his way up or down the lineup, but I can’t imagine he’ll end up anywhere else. Some will argue that this is Murphy’s spot to win or lose, and while I think Murphy, situationally, will get his at bats here, his slot will be down the lineup. This #6 slot in Francona’s lineup is a stepping stone situation, and Cabrera will get the first shot here, if he doesn’t get traded.

Murphy and Raburn will slot right into the #7 spot. Here’s the bottom line. It’s where Raburn got most of his at bats last year, and it’s where David Murphy got most of his at bats last season as well. Murphy has also had the most at bats in his career from that #7 spot, and while most of Raburn’s at bats have come from the #6 slot, it’s only sixteen more at bats than he’s had at the #7 spot in his career. Now both will hit in a variety of spots in 2014 based on injury issues, merit, trades and other factors, but you can bet that these guys will ultimately find themselves slotting right in at #7.

I have Yan Gomes slotted as the #8 hitter right now, but I do believe he has the most upside of anyone in the lineup. If Cabrera struggles in April and Gomes continues his ascent, they’ll swap sooner, rather than later. Still, Gomes found himself in that eight-spot more often than not last year, although we all know the type of sample size we are talking about. I could definitively see Gomes, playing in his first full season, moving up to #6, but I don’t see him getting the bulk of time in the three-hole, or even the five-hole, as some have suggested. Again, he could fluctuate in the same way any of the bottom-of-the-order crew could, but right now, I see him as the eight hitter.

Finally, I have Chisenhall rolling in at #9, and I could throw Aviles in there as well. With Stubbs in the lineup, they fluctuated between the eight and the nine slot, but with Stubbs gone, I don’t see any other clear #9 hitter. Enter Chis and Aviles, who combined, saw 22 starts in the eight or nine spot last September. Is there upside here? For Chisenhall, he could break out at any time. I still believe that. Until then, he has a long way to go. Aviles will find himself gluing up the lineup throughout the year, because he has a bit more tangible tools to allow him to hit anywhere in the order. As the year progresses though, Chisenhall could find himself shuffling up.

There are a lot of factors that could come into play, obviously, as the offseason progresses. If the Indians deal Asdrubal Cabrera, things will get really interesting. Does that mean that Aviles moves into the shortstop role, and if he does, where would he hit? Will Jose Ramirez move into that role, in which case I would have to believe he hits ninth? Would Gomes move up to that pivotal six slot, or would David Murphy and Ryan Raburn move up, with a much more complete body of work?

What happens if Jose Ramirez is just too good not to play?

What happens if Jesus Aguilar continues to mature into something better than anyone suggests?

What happens if Francisco Lindor continues his sublime ascent through the system, and has to break into the lineup at some point?

What happens if the Indians make a surprise move in February, if a player falls into their lap?

Of course, the top of the lineup has some play as well. I think Carlos Santana is cemented as the clean-up hitter, but past that, what else could happen? I love the idea of Michael Brantley moving up to the lead-off slot full-time. I believe his IQ would trend to an improved OBP. I also love the idea of Kipnis moving up to the lead-off slot, or even move to the #2 slot behind Bourn or Brantley. What would you do with Swisher? I’d move him to the #5 hole for the same reason that Brantley is there. Of course, it would leave a massive hole in the #3 spot in the line-up, so that would have to be thought out a bit more, assuming Bourn is moved out of that lead-off spot.

No, the 2013 season shouldn’t be a cemented plan for Terry Francona, but the Indians do differ from many other small market teams in that they had the ability to acquire veteran talent to fill several holes.

They don’t have to piece-meal lineups, as the A’s clearly had to do (and very well), and the Rays as well (equally well), but they do have the ability to inter-mix their lineup with that type of precision, should Francona need to do that, and truthfully, what he did do for much of 2013.

My point here is that he has the focal pieces that any good club needs to build the rock solid foundation for a better-than-expected offense in 2014.

Don’t be surprised if they surpass their 2013 numbers and make a run at a top three or four offense in all of baseball. Some will point to the Yankees improvements, but they’ve lost Robinson Cano. Boston had over 800 runs last year, but they lost Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz is going to be 38. Mike Napoli isn’t getting any younger, and does anyone think that A.J. Pierzynski has upside? The Tigers have many questions with Prince Fielder gone. The Cardinals have a ton of turnover (they may be better though). The Angels have it all on paper, just like they did last year, when they finished behind the Indians. Then there are the Rangers.

My point here is that I could see this lineup competing with most of the teams I listed in the previous paragraph. They did it last year, and I think we all can agree that there were more runs on the table. They will be better this year, and while on paper there will be better looking offensive clubs, many just won’t produce like the tried and true players that the Indians have acquired.

This Indians offense is better than you think, but don’t take my word for it. Wait until they show it on the field in 2014.

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