The Indians have currently endured an up-and-down season that has them staring down a record barely above .500 over 100 games into the season. However, much of this is due to specific tendencies in players that have led to sub-par statistical values. If these pinpointed things are corrected (and if just about everything else remains constant), the Cleveland Indians would almost certainly make the playoffs in some capacity.
1. If Carlos Santana can use the whole field
Other than his home run total, Santana’s numbers are atrocious compared to what he’s capable of. Currently slashing .214/.352/.399 going into Thursday’s game, he’s on pace for the worst season of his career. However, much of this is due to a rise in defensive shifts employed by opposing teams. Major League Baseball is on pace to see more than twice as many extreme defensive shifts as they have in any previous season. Carlos Santana has no-doubt been affected by this rise in defensive shifts, as he has one great weakness offensively: he’s almost completely a dead pull hitter, and teams are beginning to play him as such. Let’s take a look at Carlos Santana’s spray charts, courtesy of http://www.fangraphs.com
Batting from the Right Side of the Plate
Batting from the Left Side of the Plate
This startling information reveals that Carlos Santana has mustered just 12 opposite field hits all year. Of those 12, 4 were bunt singles from the left side of the plate, giving him 8 opposite-field hits that made it past the infield. We can also see that although Santana has quite a few extra-base hits, only 3 of those hits were to the opposite field. As far as the effects of the defensive shifts on Santana, the grey dot clusters on the right and left sides of the infield (respective to the first and second charts) tell the whole story. Because Santana’s swing has been pretty long all year, he has generated quite a few ground balls. No matter how hard they are smacked, they have very little chance of becoming hits when there are three infielders on whatever side of the field they are driven towards. Santana needs to find a way to use the whole field when he is hitting, much like Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols, if he wishes to raise his batting average and drive in more runs.
2. If Danny Salazar Can Throw His Low Slider and Two-Seamer Less
In only seven fewer innings pitched so far this year, Danny Salazar has been completely different from his 2013 self. His WHIP has inflated from a respectable 1.13 to an atrocious 1.64. His BB/9 rate has increased from 2.6 to 3.9, but what’s more startling is that his HR/9 has increased from 1.2 to 1.6, and his H/9 has increased from 7.6 to an eye-popping 10.8. Part of the reason for this is that he’s thrown his two-seam fastball 90 times this year, as opposed to 25 times last year. Correspondingly, opponents are batting a whopping .522 against the pitch, with an alarming 1.150 OPS. However, they are only hitting .227 against his slider, with a .864 OPS. The problem here is the .409 Isolated Power number hitters have against the slider. When he leaves the pitch up in the zone, it falls flat and hitters can slug for power against it with insane consistency. However, if he can keep it down, it’s a nasty swing-and-miss pitch, as indicated by his 27.3% strikeout rate when throwing it. So to reiterate, the key here is to stop throwing his two-seamer so often and to throw his slider down in the zone.
3. If Justin Masterson Can Find His Command
This one is a no-brainer. Masterson’s numbers this year are atrocious, and if we look beneath his deplorable 5.51 ERA, we see a pitcher who has seen his BB/9 rate rise from 3.54 in 2013 to 5.14 in 2014, while his K/9, HR/9, Ground Ball rate and HR/FB ratio have remained almost exactly the same. This inflated walk rate, along with an unlucky increase in BABIP (.285 to .350) have accounted for his inflated ERA. We’ll likely see his BABIP deflate a bit for the rest of the season, and if he can keep the walks down at a rate closer to his 2013 numbers, he’ll go deeper into games and allow far fewer runners to cross the plate.
4. If Jason Kipnis Can Find His Power Swing
Kipnis has not matched his power numbers from last year. It’s difficult for the team to take off when one of their best hitters has seen his OPS drop from .818 (2013) to .696 (2014). However, history shows that Kipnis’ power has come in spurts. This Fangraphs article explains it pretty well, along with an interesting note about his plate discipline so far this year.
So really, this postulate is not so much an if, but rather, when Kipnis will find his power swing. 14 of Jason Kipnis’ homers last year came in June, July and August, while he hit only one each in the months of April, May and September. So, when his power comes, we just have to hope that the Indians can get on base enough to give him RBI opportunities while he’s hot.
5. If Nick Swisher Can Bring Back His Plate Discipline
Nick Swisher has been near or below the Mendoza line all season. His current batting line of .212/.287/.349 is embarrassing, especially when you consider his .252/.354/.455 career average. A closer look at his plate discipline stats reveal a pair of disturbing trends. His walk rate has plummeted to 9.8%, down from his career average of 13.0%. Even more unsettling is his strikeout rate, which currently sits at an absurd 27.2%, down a remarkable 5.5% from his career average of 21.7%.
The two charts below, courtesy of Fangraphs, paint a clear picture of why his strikeout and walk rates have increased and decreased respectively. The charts show what percentage of pitches Swisher has swung at in each section of the strike zone and surrounding area. The first one is for all of 2013, and the second is for all games so far in 2014.
As we can see, Swisher has swung at far more pitches outside of the zone. Particularly troubling are the pitches above the strike zone. As the charts show, he’s increased his swing percentage by an average of 15.5% in the middle-high area of the heatmap. Swings outside of the zone are obviously more likely to result in weak contact or swings and misses. However, if Swisher can resist swinging these pitches as well as he did last year, he’ll likely see a decrease in strikeouts and an increase in walks and line drive percentage.
5 “ifs” is a lot. And obviously there are no easy remedies or the team would have solved these problems already. But if the Indians are able to fix these basic things, they will have an incredibly good chance at making the playoffs. Let’s just hope that the players can make the necessary corrections sooner rather than later.