Articles about great players have this habit of turning into articles about Mike Trout. That’s because Mike Trout is the best player in the world. I’m not certain it’s even up for debate. It will be one day, and maybe that day will be soon, but Trout has proven so much, for so long. Players sometimes flirt with Trout’s level of performance. They’ll do it for a month, or even two or three. Then they fade away, while Trout remains. That’s his big secret: never slump. Never slump, and always be awesome.
I understand that, these days, there’s a conversation comparing Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. As you could guess, despite Betts’ start, I’ll still take Trout. I’m a Trout guy. But the Betts side does raise a valid point: Betts’ offensive bar doesn’t have to be so high, because he’s so incredibly valuable in the field. Betts is baseball’s best defensive right fielder. That gives him a leg up. He doesn’t have to hit like Trout to be more valuable than Trout. That much is correct.
That much would also apply to Francisco Lindor. Lindor is a wizard at a premium defensive position. He’s a threat when he gets on the bases. And now, at the plate, Lindor has leveled up. To be clear, I’m still a Trout guy. But Lindor, at least, is closing the gap.
Because I love to visually prepare you for what I’ll talk about, let’s all go back to last Saturday. The Indians played the Royals, and Lindor recorded four hits, all for extra bases. His first time up:
His second time up:
His third time up:
His fourth time up:
“In a day where the ball wasn’t going anywhere, for [Lindor] to hit an opposite-field home run, that’s incredible,” Francona said. “I know I say it, but when guys use the whole field they become a lot more dangerous. They’re gonna get more hits because they can’t defend it as much, but he drove four balls. That was so nice to watch.”
This gets right to the heart of what Lindor has been doing. In the video clips above, you see Lindor batting left-handed, and there’s a home run to right, a home run to left-center, a double to left-center, and a double to left. For close fans of the Indians, you saw Lindor evolve in 2017, becoming more of a fly-ball hitter. Lindor tapped into power reserves the prospect analysts never projected. Lindor is still hitting the ball in the air today. What he’s become, though, is more of a threat to all fields. Lindor isn’t only dangerous as a pull hitter.
Let me set up the next plot. At Baseball Savant, they recently rolled out the ability to search by batted-ball direction. As my go-to statistic, I’ve chosen expected wOBA — xwOBA — because it should smooth out some of the noise. Lindor has been in the majors since 2015, and here are his year-to-year directional percentile ranks. So this is xwOBA to the pull side, up the middle, and the other way.
For the first time, Lindor looks better not to the pull side. He hasn’t gotten worse to the pull side, mind you; his xwOBA is up 41 points. Yet going up the middle, his xwOBA is up 169 points. Going the other way, his xwOBA is up 207 points. That’s the 12th-biggest improvement up the middle, and the third-biggest improvement to the opposite field. Combining them, Lindor’s non-pull xwOBA is up 178 points, which is again the third-biggest improvement. This isn’t the easiest thing for someone to fluke.
Maybe you’re not such a big fan of xwOBA. Which, I get it — games aren’t won and lost on xwOBA estimates. We can look elsewhere. Lindor’s average exit velocity to the pull side is up four miles per hour. Going up the middle, it’s up five miles per hour. Going the other way, it’s up three miles per hour. And then there’s the matter of Lindor’s non-pull slugging percentages:
- 2015: .522 SLG
- 2016: .450
- 2017: .429
- 2018: .728
Lindor, last year, hit six home runs that weren’t to the pull side. So far this year, he’s already hit seven, with an additional seven doubles for good measure. Lindor has improved his non-pull hard-hit rate, so this should all help to illustrate the same basic point. Last season, Lindor evolved into more of a power hitter. This season, he’s evolving further, into more of an all-fields power hitter. That’s kind of the final step. When you’re a threat from both sides, and when you’re a threat in every direction, that doesn’t leave opponents many options. Lindor will never possess the peak power of baseball’s elite-level sluggers, but his bat speed is clearly more than sufficient, and his bat-to-ball skills have guided him to what’s still an above-average contact rate. Lindor looks like a nearly perfect version of what he could be.
There’s always room to nitpick, for any player who ever makes outs. Lindor might stand to walk more than he does. His chase rate is still a bit higher than average. The thing that, say, Betts does is that he walks about as much as he strikes out. Teammate Jose Ramirez has walked more than he’s struck out. Ramirez also looks like a nearly perfect version of himself. In that way, the Indians should consider themselves lucky. Not because of where their record is, but because of how rare it is for a professional baseball player to reach his ceiling. Both Lindor and Ramirez have essentially gotten there, to say nothing of Corey Kluber. Lindor’s future bat was a question almost throughout the minor leagues. He’s an excellent hitter now, at 24, even independent of his position. He hasn’t lost a step at his position.
Lindor is currently sitting on a wRC+ of 161. He’s got a handful of steals to his name, and he’s second among shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved. He’s also second among shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating. Francisco Lindor probably isn’t the best player in baseball. But if we’re going to wonder out loud who is, he should very much be included. The Indians couldn’t ask him to do more than he does.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.