When the Indians signed Carlos Gonzalez on March 19, it had the feel of a student buying an off-brand version of Cliff’s Notes at the Starbucks cash register to thumb through on the way to the final exam. It’s not that the team didn’t do their homework on the 33-year-old outfielder specifically — there’s a reason he was still a free agent at that late date. It’s that they went into the season looking particularly ill-prepared with regards to their outfield picture. The poor play of Gonzalez and the team’s other options isn’t the only reason why Cleveland finds itself looking up at the Twins in the AL Central standings, but it has contributed to a team-wide offensive decline that ranks as the majors’ largest.
The 2018 Indians, who went 91-71, were a very good offensive team. The 2019 Indians, who finished Wednesday 25-23, are not:
That 26-point drop in wRC+ is the majors’ largest.
Note the 51-point swing in wRC+ among the AL Central’s top two teams. Where the Indians’ scoring has dropped by 1.13 runs per game relative to last year, the Twins’ has increased by exactly the same amount (from 4.56 to 5.69). At 32-16, they lead the Indians by 6.5 games; our playoff odds give them an 80.2% chance of winning the division to the Indians’ 19.8%
Roster turnover is a major reason for the Indians’ fall-off. Most notably, they lost Michael Brantely (124 wRC+) to free agency, as well as the oft-injured Lonnie Chisenhall (129 wRC+, albeit in just 95 PA due to time lost to strains in each calf), and in-season pickups Melky Cabrera (102 WRC+ in 278 PA) and Josh Donaldson (140 wRC+ in 60 PA). They also traded away Edwin Encarnacion (115 wRC+), Yandy Diaz (115 wRC+), Yan Gomes (101 wRC+), and Yonder Alonso (97 wRC+). In all, that’s eight of their 10 most productive bats (50 PA minimum), with Jose Ramirez (146 wRC+) and Francisco Lindor (130 wRC+) — two of the top hitters in the league — the holdovers. More on them shortly.
The trades have been a mixed bag, at least in the short term. Encarnacion and Diaz were part of a three-way deal that yielded Carlos Santana from the Mariners and Jake Bauers from the Rays. Santana, who spent 2010-17 with Cleveland before signing a free agent deal with the Phillies, has been the team’s best hitter (.291/.409/.491, 136 wRC+), more or less on par with Encarnacion (.254/.368/.514, 140 wRC+) but with more regular play at first base instead of DH. The 23-year-old Bauers, who hit just .201/.316/.384 (95 wRC+) as a rookie last year, has hit for a higher average but been less productive overall (.227/.312/.360, 79 wRC+) while Diaz has blossomed in Tampa Bay (.256/.339/.500, 124 wRC+). Alonso has fizzled with yonder White Sox (65 wRC+), as has Gomes for the Nationals (69 wRC+). That said, the Indians’ overall level of offensive production at catcher is virtually unchanged, as Roberto Perez’s gains have been offset by the struggles of backup Kevin Plawecki. In a lower profile move, the team dealt light-hitting backup infielder Erik Gonzalez for 25-year-old outfielder Jordan Luplow, who had managed just a 72 WRC+ in 103 PA in Pittsburgh; though he’s struck out in 34.2% of his 73 PA for the Indians, his 105 wRC+ (.242/.301/.500) is good for third on the team.
The Indians signed only one free agent to a major league contract this past winter, namely lefty reliever Oliver Perez — I swear, this isn’t the punchline from a decade-old Mets joke — on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Of the position players they signed to minor league deals, Hanley Ramirez hit just .184/.298/.327 (69 wRC+) in 57 PA before getting his walking papers. Matt Joyce didn’t even make it to Opening Day; he was released on March 19, when the Indians signed Gonzalez, who hit just .210/.282/.276 (50 wRC+) in 117 PA; he managed just two home runs, and was striking out at a career-worst 28.2% clip.
By the time the Indians signed Gonzalez, it was already clear that they were considerably undermanned in the outfield. On February 1, I tried to match unsigned free agents from our Top 50 list with teams that had obvious needs, noting that according to our depth charts forecasts, the team’s left fielders ranked 29th in the majors in WAR, and their right fielders 28th; between those two positions, the bulk of the playing time was earmarked for Luplow, Tyler Naquin, Greg Allen, and Bradley Zimmer, the last of whom was (and still is) recovering from July 2018 surgery to repair a torn labrum. None of them had produced at anything close to an acceptable level last year, and aside from Luplow, none has done so this year, though in both cases, we’re not talking about huge sample sizes:
|Player||2018 PA||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+||2019 PA||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+|
I’ve included Bauers here because while he was expected to be the team’s regular first baseman, he’s started there just six times, compared to 24 in left field and four in right. Note that aside from him, we’re not talking about spring chickens. Naquin is 28 years old, Allen and Zimmer are 26, and Luplow is 25. While one can find reasons why the Indians might remain committed to each of those players or find them potentially useful — Allen is a speedster who can play center field, Luplow a pull hitter with plus power and the only natural righty swinger in this mix, Naquin an above-average hitter in his most substantial taste of major league action in 2016, Zimmer a 2014 first-round pick who was on top 100 lists as recently as 2017 — none of them projected well, as the aforementioned rankings suggest, and as a group, they made for a high-risk portfolio. Thus, I suggested that Adam Jones, a much-needed righty bat, could provide a boost despite coming off a subpar season (98 wRC+, 0.5 WAR). The Indians ignored my sage advice (they always do, alas), and he went unsigned until March 11, when he landed with the Diamondbacks on a one-year, $3 million deal. Thus far, he’s hit .265/.323/.476 (110 wRC+) with nine home runs, a total that would lead the Indians. Oops.
Jones’ production is a reminder that not every late-signing free agent has struggled out of the gate, but Gonzalez, who as a lefty fit into the mix less well, certainly did. While the Indians tried him as a middle-of-the-order bat, the production wasn’t there; among players with at least 100 PA, his 50 wRC+ put him in the fifth percentile, while both his 86.6 mph average exit velocity and .286 xwOBA put him in the 18th. Still, it’s a jarring sight to see yesterday’s cleanup hitter become today’s just-released free agent, particularly with Naquin having recently hit the IL due to a left calf strain. Zimmer is set to begin a rehab assignment next week, which leaves room for 24-year-old rookie Oscar Mercado, a 45 Future Value fourth-outfielder type who placed 12th on the team’s list this year, to get a look.
As for the rest of the lineup, center fielder Leonys Martin, whose acquisition I praised last July 31 thanks to his newfound ability to elevate the ball, has returned from the life-threatening infection that felled him after he played just six games for the Indians. While he showed some pop in April (five homers, 93 wRC+), he has scuffled mightily in May (one homer, 60 wRC+). Second baseman Jason Kipnis, who is coming off a pair of subpar offensive seasons (81 wRC+ in 2017, 89 in ’18) but was good enough defensively to still post 2.1 WAR last year, has been dreadful (.218/.301/.336, 70 wRC+).
Which brings us to Lindor and Ramirez, the twin engines of this lineup, and two of the majors’ six most valuable players by WAR last year (7.6 for the former, 8.0 for the latter). Lindor, who set additional career highs with 38 homers and a 130 wRC+, missed the team’s first 19 games due to a right calf strain, but has largely returned to form (.296/.349/.513, 119 wRC+). Ramirez, who outdid Lindor with 39 homers and a 146 wRC+ while spending most of the 2018 season as an MVP candidate, has the majors’ seventh-lowest wRC+ out of 170 qualifiers (60) via an abysmal .196/.296/.302 line. As Devan Fink noted just two weeks into the season, his struggles actually date back to last August, and appear to coincide with his attempts to beat the shift while batting left-handed. Focusing only on 2019 stats, he’s been shifted against in 57% of his left-handed plate appearances but just 35% of his right-handed ones. Shift or no, he’s been pulling the ball less, going opposite field more often, and as he’s done it, his average fly ball distance has fallen dramatically:
|Split||GB||FB||Pull||Oppo||Avg FB Dist||HR/FB||Avg FB Dist Pull||HR/FB Pull||FB wRC+|
From the left side, which constitutes 62% of Ramirez’s plate appearances, his average fly ball distance has decreased by 18 feet, and his rate of home runs per fly ball is just a quarter of what it was last year. He’s dropped eight feet while batting righty, where his home run rate is basically unchanged (we’re talking about a sample of just 24 fly balls). Note the 30-foot gap when he pulls the ball on the fly, which is central to the Indians’ offensive philosophy, as Travis Sawchik pointed out last year. In 2018, 26 of his 50 pulled fly balls as a left-hander went over the wall, but this year, it’s just two out of 12; from the right side, the percentage has risen, but in smaller sample sizes (from four out of 32 to two out of eight).
How much of Ramirez’s struggles are mechanical versus psychological or philosophical, I can’t say, but his fall-off has been precipitous, and the Indians’ dearth of solid bats to help the lineup withstand his slump sticks out like a sore thumb. The play of Mercado and the return of Zimmer aside, any influx of offense will have to either come from within or by trading from a farm system that’s generally considered to be in the upper half of the league but is currently lacking in near-ready help.
Note that while the team has lost starting pitchers Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger to injuries until at least next month, the rotation still ranks among the AL’s top five in both ERA (4.03) and FIP (3.97), while the bullpen (3.04 ERA, 3.69 FIP) is in the top three in both categories. The pitching has kept this team competitive. The Indians are in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2015 due to an offense whose gaps were entirely foreseeable.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.