Francisco Lindor Takes Unexpected Route to Great Season

Francisco Lindor is again one of the best players in the game. Following last night’s strong performance, he’s posted an even 5.0 WAR this year, the third straight in which he’s reached the four-win threshold.

The combination of youth and remaining years of team control certainly make him one of the most valuable assets in the game. He’s a significant reason why the Indians enter today with a franchise-record 19 consecutive wins. He’s slashed .365/.434/.770 during the streak.

But he’s arrived here in an unusual way. He’s a very different player than in the past. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound shortstop is tied with Bryce Harper for 26th on the sport’s home-run leaderboard with 29. He’s joined the air-ball revolution. He’s a slugger, but his defense is at career-worst levels in his age-23 season.

I’ll return to the glove-related issues in a moment. Let’s focus on the bat first. Well, Abraham Almonte’s bat, which Lindor used to slug his 29th home run Sunday night.

Few players derive the sort of visible joy from playing that Lindor does. Mr. Smile, the nameplate he chose for the players’ weekend, is appropriate given the nearly permanent grin worn by Lindor. He recently even smiled mid-pitch while observing a Jeremy Hellickson offering on its way into the heart of the zone.

So Lindor is now a slugger. That’s a surprise to some given his frame, given his position, and given his lack of power production in the past. Most of the scouting reports I read when he was coming up through the Indians’ system suggested that Lindor would have gap power, perhaps 15-20 homer upside.

Well, only Edwin Encarnacion has out-homered him in Cleveland this season. The Indians were established as a franchise in 1901 and no shortstop has ever hit more home runs than Lindor, in a single season, in club history.

What’s happened?

He’s been among the most dramatic batted-ball profile changers in the sport, is what. Consider his average launch and home-run production by season:

2015: 4.4 degrees (12 HR)
2016: 9.6 degrees (15 HR)
2017: 12.8 degrees (29 HR)

Lindor insists that he hasn’t consciously made swing changes or joined the air-ball revolution. What he did say he’s trying to do is be more discerning at the plate and swing at pitches he can damage. Said Lindor to me for a piece in The Athletic back in April when I explored the idea of talent development and raw power becoming game power:

“I’m not a power hitter. I’m not going to be a power hitter,” Lindor said. “But I guarantee if I swing at good pitches I am going to drive the ball. I can’t guarantee I will hit them out of the park, but I will drive them.”

And it appears there is something of a relationship between his out-of-zone swing percentage and his offensive production:

Of course, his out-of-zone rate and swing rate are in line with his career norms. What sticks out is his change in batted-ball elevation. My personal eye test sees a swing that is more geared for loft, a player more often hunting pitches to slug.

Lindor did add during our conversation that he is “not a weak person.” Indeed. And during a pre-draft workout with the Mariners in 2010, he put on a show during a Safeco Park batting-practice session that former Baseball Prospectus analyst Kevin Goldstein said almost made him the No. 2 overall pick the draft.

Whatever the reason behind his profile change, he has reduced his ground-ball rate, by 10 percentage points, fueling his career best home-run total. And maybe a juiced ball is playing a role, too. Of course, if there is a juiced ball, all the more reason to get it in the jet stream.

Lindor, like Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner, is evidence that adding loft doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with more swing and miss: he has a career-low swinging-strike rate (6.5%) and an elite 93% zone-contact rate. The trio also offer evidence that a batter needn’t be hulking to benefit from producing more air balls.

While we can argue whether this iteration of Lindor is better — his 116 wRC+ falls short of the 125 mark he produced in 2015 but remains slightly better than last year’s 111 — this has been a year of extremes for Lindor. He has, for example, had the most productive months of his career, offensively, and also his deepest slump. But his best stretches have never been more valuable.

While some implored Lindor to stop hitting fly balls and pulling balls at the peak of his slump, no one is asking him to reverse course now, and Lindor never really appeared to change his swing path as judging from average launch angle.

Francisco Lindor’s New Profile
Month Avg. LA xwOBA wOBA
April 12 0.412 0.419
May 13.2 0.337 0.325
June 12.6 0.278 0.264
July 10.6 0.341 0.360
August 14.9 0.320 0.365
September 15.4 0.479 0.467
SOURCE: Statcast

Lindor has changed his offensive profile significantly. He’s a high-contact slugger now. His home-run total has opened some eyes.

What has also opened some eyes is his across-the-board defensive decline, which is a bit of a mystery for a player in his age-23 season who’s also the reigning AL Gold Glove and Platinum Glove winner at the position.

Consider his advanced metrics and Inside Edge fielding report:

When asked earlier this year about his defensive metrics, Lindor said he was aware of them but didn’t understand what was behind the decline. He’s healthy. He still goes out for early infield work before batting practice every day with a disk-type device (instead of a glove) for his left hand to increase the difficulty in fielding grounders, to soften his hands.

Lindor does feel he’s made fewer spectacular plays, and whether that’s because of ability or opportunity or something else like position, is uncertain. Maybe we need a larger sample. Defensive metrics are imperfect. But they are all saying the same thing.

Lindor is still great. He’s still among the best shortstops in this age of historic talent at shortstop. But this is a very different Lindor. He’s still elite. He’s produced a five-win campaign. But he’s taking a route to get there that few expected.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

Maybe he should get off this road and go back to being a better overall player like last year. WAR will be lower. OBP dived. wRC+ 116 (111 last year). Not sure this is his best path.

Travis did address these concerns just throwing out my 2 cents.

4 years ago
Reply to  southie

If only we could all just will ourselves to be better players.

4 years ago
Reply to  southie

The change in his value is entirely related to defence. Hard to link that to his hitting approach. I guess he could have bulked up to hit for power and slowed down as a result, but I see no evidence of that, and on the basepaths he seems to be as fast as ever. Otherwise, I think they’re probably two unrelated things, and the defence is as likely as not a blip.

4 years ago
Reply to  Expo27

Look at his RC+, wOBA or whatever you chose. It is not like he is a better hitter now. He is slightly better than last year, but worse than his 100 game cameo. He is a skinny 23 year-old, he is going to get better without even improving his underlying skills. It is also very convenient to talk about his numbers when he is on a real hot stretch, surrounded by a lineup on a historic winning streak. I liked the player that Lindor was a lot more last year.