Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Protecting Pronk

As the Indians continue to do exactly what they need to do against the soft underbelly of their schedule (and even against these teams, they’re really steamrolling) and since Indians litter the top of thestill-largely-irrelevant leaderboards in MLB, let us bask in the glory that is Hafner, Duncan, Hannahan, and Santana at the top of the OBP list in the AL.  To say that seeing two of those names on that list is a surprise is a bit of an understatement, but the inclusion of Hafner and Santana provide fond memories of past success of cause positive projections for future success.

Without delving too deeply into the early success of Duncan (why do visions of Chris Shelton cloud my brain) and Hannahan (which, as much as I’m enjoying this, is still largely a result of luck and BABIP…though I continue to abhor my role as “realist” in this fairy tale story), to see Hafner and Santana on that list provides a glimpse as to why the Indians are scoring more runs per game (X) than anyone else in the league as the middle-of-the-order hitters are thumping their way through the early schedule and providing the drumbeat for the rhythm of the offense.

With Santana, his performance is everything that we have hoped it would be and – oddly enough – it’s not all that surprising, given his success last year, his pedigree, and his potential.  Seeing The Axe Man mash is unquestionably exciting (his 162 game average is a 38 2B, 27 HR while he has walked only 28 fewer times than he has struck out in 914 MLB PA) for the future of this team and the idea that Santana will sit in the middle of this lineup for the next six or so seasons.

But what’s been even more enjoyable is to bask in the the performance of Travis Hafner to date.  While numbers are still pretty tough to parse through, it’s impossible to NOT get excited about what Hafner’s done so far:
.333 BA / .500 OBP / .533 SLG / 1.033 OPS with 3 2B and 2 HR in 60 PA

While depositing balls into people’s salads and wraps in Kansas City, Hafner has gotten on base in HALF of his plate appearances to date as – going further than just numbers and going into the gut – he “looks” like the Hafner of old as he’s striking the ball with authority, driving the ball in a way that we haven’t seen for some time.  However, in this age of instant analysis and the 24-hour news cycle, have we all forgotten that it really hasn’t been that long since we’ve seen this same Hafner?

Just to remind you, this is what Hafner had done in his first 59 plate appearances last year:
.346 BA / .407 OBP / .635 SLG / 1.041 OPS with 3 2B and 4 HR in 15 games

Compare those to the numbers for 2011 shown above (which is as close as I can get in terms of plate appearances) and realize that Hafner burst out of the gate last year as well, yet would finish the season having played in only 94 games in 2011.

If you remember (or even if you don’t), Hafner had a .959 OPS at the end of April and a .958 OPS in mid-May as the Indians raced out to their lead in the AL Central.  Then, after racing out to his blazing start and (this is important) after playing in 32 of the Indians’ first 39 games in 2011, he hit the DL with a strained oblique that would sideline him for a month until mid-June.  Of course, he came back just in time for NL games (creating a glorified PH role for him) as the Indians’ season started to slide.

But just to go back to the frequency in which Hafner was used last year prior to his injury, he played in 32 of the first 39 games (posting a .958 in those 32games) and would play only 62 of the final 123 games (posting a .732 OPS in those final 62 games) and so far he’s played in 13 of the first 15 games and while I’m not suggesting that anything is about to go SPROING with Hafner as he “looks” healthy, he started out in this manner last year and looked just as healthy as we read stories about how he was finally ready for a year of full health.  Again, he played in only 94 games last year as his absence from the team coincided with the team’s slide in the standings and while I won’t say that the team overused Hafner in the early going, causing him to the DL for a month from mid-May to mid-June (and he hit the DL again later in the year), the idea that Hafner has returned to form this year comes with the caveats and precautions that cannot be ignored, as they may have been last year.

What I’m getting at is that protecting Hafner, who is out to a huge start, is vitally important to the offense’s productivity this season, as wonderful as it is to see him hit like this and imagine that he’s FINALLY back.  Hafner is what makes this offense go (settling the middle of the lineup and providing protection for Santana) and – though it may be hard to remember, particularly given the alternatives – it is important to remember that a healthy Hafner is more important than an everyday Hafner.

As nice as it is to have that “everyday Hafner”, there should be a concerted effort to rest him periodically to prevent him going on the DL for a solid couple of weeks when the Indians need him in the lineup without a prolonged absence.  This is not a new concept (though I’m surprised that Hafner is playing this frequently in the early going) and as much as some want to simply push Santana down to 1B against LHP because (surprise!) Casey Kotchman can’t hit LHP (2 of 28 this season as he’s been inexplicably playing against LHP), I’d still prefer to have Santana slot to DH against LHP (with Marson as the catcher) to protect the health of the Indians’ best two offensive players.  With Hafner, it’s about giving his body a rest to maximize his effectiveness and with Santana, it’s about getting him completely off the field (while keeping his VERY IMPORTANT bat in the lineup) to rest up from all of those foul tips that he’s been taking off of batted balls.

In terms of what to do at 1B vs. LHP (because Kotchman shouldn’t face LHP…and this is not a new line of thinking), I still think that Hannahan is an interesting option at 1B vs. LHP or using Lopez in some capacity or Duncan at 1B (once Damon arrives) could be an option.  Ultimately (and this should come as no surprise), Casey Kotchman isn’t hitting in 2012 because…well, because he really never hit outside of his BABIP-driven 2011 in Tampa and he hasn’t hit LHP in his recent past (.245 BA / .305 OBP / .305 OBP / .610 OPS in his last 367 AB vs. LHP going into 2012) and since he hasn’t hit LHP this year, it’s just a continuation of a trend, not a new development.  All of this means that the Indians are going to have some moving pieces in an effort to put Kotchman in a position to succeed.

Maybe they pull some sort of double platoon here to protect the health of Hafner and Santana while limiting Kotchman’s exposure to LHP, maybe utilizing Jason Donald as more than a super-utility player, playing him at 3B vs. LHP, with the two alignments looking something like this:
Against RHP
C – Santana
1B – Kotchman
3B – Hannahan
DH – Hafner

Against LHP
C – Marson
1B – Hannahan
3B – Donald
DH – Santana

Remember that usually about 75% of a season’s AB come against RHP and only about 25% come from LHP, so the Indians are still getting the lion’s share of PA for Hafner (and Kotchman) in there in spots that play to their strengths.  In that arrangement, Santana and Hannahan are the everyday players here (so long as Hannahan’s hot start continues…even if it’s largely explained by BABIP here) with guys like Lopez and Duncan having some flexibility to play 1B if necessary.

Regardless of how those parts move and mesh together, the most important factor in those alignments is resting Hafner more than he’s being rested now and using the open DH spot (when Hafner is off) to give Santana as much of a break as possible, allowing him to only hit and reducing the wear-and-tear on his body.  The Indians’ offensive success in 2012 is likely to be paced by (or maybe even reliant upon) the presence of Hafner and Santana in the lineup and losing one or both of those players to injury would thin out the lineup to a point that this offense simply couldn’t take…particularly with this Choo hamstring issue.

As enjoyable as it may be to see the past (Hafner) and the future (Santana) collide in the present, the Indians need to avoid getting overzealous with their usage for each, and particularly with Hafner.  With the lessons of 2011 being so close in the rearview mirror, and with the idea that this may be the final season in which Hafner is able to do this (even sporadically) in an Indians’ uniform, protecting Hafner for the length of the season will only lengthen the odds of the Indians’ continuing to compete in the AL Central.

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