Despite injuries to key pitchers heading into October, the Cleveland Indians were able to come within a game of winning the world series. This remarkable feat was credited by the media to manager Terry Francona’s non-conventional and absolutely masterful use of his dominant bullpen. Not much coverage was given to the Indians’ offense, and rightfully so as it wasn’t some force to be reckoned with like the Cubs’ were. But still, the lineup is full of very good hitters, specifically three infield pillars in Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and Jose Ramirez.
Francisco Lindor is well-known by prospect fans as his potential 80 grade defense and plus contact gave him the look of your prototypical all-star shortstop. He cruised through the minors, barely struggling for any significant stretch of time, and his success has carried well into the majors. He’s hit over .300 in both his seasons so far, and knocked 12 and 15 bombs as well. Power was never in the cards for the lanky shortstop, but as his body has matured and filled out, it’s starting to look like he might have 20 homer potential. He has a career isolated slugging of .140, which is below average, but as someone who just turned 23 a month ago, he has plenty of room to grow into his power potential.
What really separates Lindor from other players is his plate discipline. His strikeout rate in 2016 was a minuscule 12.9%, and his walk rate was a strong 8.3%, despite being more of a contact hitter. These numbers allow him to put the ball in play often, using his plus speed to get on base, as well as creating havoc on the base paths for opposing teams. His 49.8% career ground ball rate is definitely on the high side, and doesn’t bode well for increased homer opportunities since he needs to put the ball in the air for that, but it does help him get on base more consistently as grounders have a high balls in play average when struck well.
As Lindor gets bigger and stronger, it’s possible to see a shift from grounders and getting on base to more fly balls to tap into some more power. He has basically two full seasons under his belt at the major league level, so 2017 would be the perfect time to see some power develop. Consider him a dark horse candidate for 20 bombs, but a lock for great contact and strong production from the shortstop position.
His middle infield partner in Jason Kipnis has been around a little longer (will turn 30 in 2017), but has been every bit as productive as anyone on the team. While 2016 saw home runs increases across the entire league, Kipnis was a huge benefactor of whatever caused this, launching a career high 23 bombs despite never cracking 20 in a season before. But while some may try to say juiced balls or something else of the sort was responsible for this, looking into his peripheral rates, it looks like Kipnis’ power surge was a little more intentional.
He started changing his launch angles, ramping up the fly balls to career high 37.4% (career average 30.8%), while keeping his home run to fly ball rate similar to his career marks (13.1% to 10.2%). Kipnis was able to keep his discipline and contact numbers similar to his career averages as well, which ends up with him increasing his power organically. Overall, Kipnis now can boast plus contact with plus power if he keeps it up, and all signs point that he will. The Indians’ middle infield options are both great buys.
Jose Ramirez plays mostly third base, but will qualify in most leagues in the outfield as well, and some also as shortstop. Although his power hasn’t been enough yet to justify a start in outfield when power has become more common, the left side of the infield is a desirable spot to plug him in. Ramirez struggled with both contact and power in his first real look at the majors in 2015, but last year he hit over .300 and managed to get 11 homers. Some of this is due to luck, although he was so unlucky in 2015 that his most recent campaign is closer to normal amounts of it, but Ramirez really started to spread the ball to all fields effectively in 2016. Doing so prevented defensive alignments to keep his BABIP low, and helps explain how it regressed up, and then progressed over average.
He’s definitely more of a late round flier, as his power hasn’t developed and doesn’t look like it will ever really materialize. But his plus contact and ability to reach double-digit bombs, combined with his speed and positional flexibility, makes him an interesting late round pickup.
The Indians are a strong contender out of the American League, and although pitching is leading the way for them, the offense has also stepped up as well. These three have helped give the Indians (and fantasy owners) some punch when hitting, and will continue to do so in the coming years.
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