The Near-Historic Characteristic of the Indians Offense

When a below-average lineup in 2015 was followed by a quiet offseason and a Michael Brantley shoulder surgery, it was easy to make a case against Cleveland’s preseason playoff hopes that started and ended with the lineup. Yet here we are, now, in September, and Cleveland is all but a lock to win their division. They’ve gotten here due in large part to a lineup that’s exceeded expectations (third in runs scored, 10th in wRC+) and kept pace with the pitching (third in ERA-, seventh in WAR) and defense (fourth in UZR, 10th in DRS). They’ve gotten here by crushing offspeed pitches, at a near-historic rate.

Of course, “historic” doesn’t mean quite as much when the specific pitch data we have only dates back to 2008. But since then, there’s arguably never been a lineup who’s thrived more off breaking and offspeed stuff than this year’s Indians. We can start with the single-year view. They’ve slugged .425 against breaking and offspeed pitches, which leads baseball. The team in second plays half their games at Coors Field, and the team in third calls Fenway Park home, and these numbers aren’t park-adjusted, so the lead is even larger than it may appear.

And so with that in mind, I wanted to gain some context. Using BaseballSavant, I grabbed every team’s slugging percentage against breaking and offspeed stuff, dating back to 2008. That gave me a spreadsheet with a sample of 270 team-seasons. The top of that spreadsheet was littered with Rockies seasons, because, y’know, Coors, and recent seasons, because league-wide slugging percentage is the highest it’s been in nearly a decade.

So I adjusted for league, and I adjusted for parks, and I was left with a nice, clean SLG+ column. Then, I did the same for slugging against fastballs. Because that’s the thing about this year’s Indians: they’re really not a great fastball-hitting team. An overall leaderboard of team SLG+ against breaking and offspeed pitches is more or less just capturing really great lineups. The difference between SLG+ against offspeed pitches and fastballs is what truly reveals the teams who most thrive off the slow stuff. And it’s where these Indians truly stand out:

Most Offspeed-Leaning Lineups, 2008-16
TmYr SLG (FB) LgSLG (FB) SLG+ (FB) SLG (BO) LgSLG (BO) SLG+ (BO) SLG+ DIF
2011 SEA .349 .434 85 .347 .358 103 18
2016 CLE .446 .459 96 .425 .372 113 17
2013 SF .388 .431 97 .373 .355 113 16
2010 FLA .412 .439 93 .392 .359 108 15
2014 COL .452 .418 89 .440 .348 104 15
2011 DET .445 .434 100 .420 .358 115 14
2013 DET .447 .431 103 .419 .355 117 14
2012 TEX .464 .444 98 .429 .361 112 13
2010 SD .382 .439 94 .357 .359 107 13
2012 LAA .450 .444 106 .411 .361 120 13
FB: Fastball
BO: Breaking and offspeed
LgSLG: League slugging percentage
SLG+: League and park-adjusted slugging percentage, where 100 is average
SLG+ DIF: Positive difference between BO and FB SLG+

Dating back to 2008, the Indians have the second-largest positive difference in their adjusted slugging percentage against breaking and offspeed pitches as opposed to fastballs. Only the 2011 Mariners showed a wider gap, and they weren’t nearly as productive as this year’s Indians. Arguably, no team on record has ever thrived more on the slow stuff.

The biggest contributor here has been Tyler Naquin. Naquin leads baseball in SLG against breaking and offspeed stuff by a silly margin; the gap between Naquin (.667) and second-place Yoenis Cespedes (.575) is the same as the gap between Cespedes and 35th-place Manny Machado (.484).

“I think in the minor leagues they found that he was good against offspeed,” Indians assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro said. “One thing he really does well is use his legs. So when the ball’s down, a guy that doesn’t use his legs it’s more of just flicking at it, whereas he gets down there and stays on his legs well so he has more pop on the ball down than some guys might.”

Add up our PITCHf/x run values and you’ll find that this isn’t just being driven by Naquin. The Indians have three of baseball’s top-10 offspeed hitters, and four in the top 15:

Most Offspeed-Leaning Hitters, 2016
Name wFB wBO DIF
Didi Gregorius -14.3 13 27.3
Mike Napoli -4.4 18.2 22.6
Steven Souza Jr. -15.5 5.5 21.0
Justin Turner -2.6 16.7 19.3
Tyler Naquin -1.9 16.5 18.4
Jose Ramirez -2.1 15.4 17.5
Jose Iglesias -17.0 0.5 17.5
Yadier Molina -10.2 6.3 16.5
Cameron Maybin -4.3 11 15.3
Devon Travis -3.8 11.1 14.9
Jason Heyward -18.5 -4 14.5
Starlin Castro -9.0 5.4 14.4
Martin Prado -4.2 9.5 13.7
Adam Duvall -3.4 10.1 13.5
Francisco Lindor 1.5 13.1 11.6
SOURCE: PITCHf/x
wFB: Weighted runs above average vs. fastballs
wBO: Weighted runs above average vs. breaking and offspeed
DIF: Positive difference between wBO and wFB

Mike Napoli trails only Anthony Rizzo and Mike Trout in overall weighted runs above average against breaking and offspeed stuff, and has had a higher percentage of his offense come against offspeed pitches than any other player in the Indians lineup. While Napoli doesn’t exactly fit the “mold” of an offspeed hitter — you look at a right-handed power bat and you might think fastball hitter — Quatraro cites Napoli’s experience and batting eye as the leading causes for his offspeed-dominant approach.

“He’s so smart at the plate, and he knows so many of the guys he’s facing that he kind of gets a sense of when they might be trying to flick one in there on him,” Quatraro said. “‘Hey, they got me on it the last time, I might sit on it this time.’ He’s very patient, he works deep counts, but occasionally you’ll see him pick that one early to get after.”

As for Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, they share a trait with first baseman Carlos Santana that works in their favor against breaking stuff: as switch-hitters, they’ve always got the platoon advantage.

“I think a big part of it is you’ve got all these switch hitters there who don’t have to deal with same-side breaking balls,” Quatraro said. “You’ve got Naquin who’s more or less platooning. I think usage is a big factor. If we put Naquin in there every night against David Price and guys like that, maybe the success rate wouldn’t be quite as high, but the way Tito is using them is key.”

Indians batters have had the platoon advantage more often than any team in baseball, meaning, by extension, they’ve seen fewer breaking balls away from their barrels than any other team.

They’ve also seen fewer offspeed and breaking balls, period. Teams and pitchers, of course, pick up on these things, and the league has begun to adjust. Cleveland’s 3% increase in fastballs seen after the All-Star Break is the largest among any team from the first to the second half. Ramirez is seeing more fastballs. Santana is seeing more fastballs. Rajai Davis, who ranked 15 spots behind Lindor in the table above, is seeing more fastballs. Naquin’s 8% increase in second-half fastballs seen is the fourth-largest in baseball, and he’s now just a fraction behind Ben Revere for the highest second-half fastball rate in the game.

Pitchers can do what they can to limit Cleveland’s offspeed-hitting strength, but the slow stuff has to come eventually, and it’s when the fastball isn’t on that pitchers have found themselves in trouble. As we draw closer to the postseason, where everything is magnified and teams go to extreme lengths to exploit weaknesses, this will certainly be a storyline to follow with regards to the Cleveland offense. What’s important for Cleveland is that there’s been a storyline to get them there.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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fredfotch
7 years ago

Has there been a trend in the difference between SLG+ against offspeed pitches and fastballs league-wide since 2008? My guess is that SLG+ against offspeed pitches (relative to fastballs) has gone up in the last few years because there are so many hard-throwing pitchers now. Is this correct?