Sunday, October 19, 2014

Loving Lindor on a Lazy Sunday

The Kansas City Royals have swept their way through three rounds of the playoffs. The Kansas…City…Royals…look like an unstoppable juggernaut destined to win the 2014 World Series. It’s starting to sink in, but it still doesn’t make a ton of sense. The Indians went 10-9 against the Royals this year, finishing up four games behind them in the chase for the 2nd AL Wild Card berth. The two teams appear similar when you look at those two stats, but in reality they couldn’t be more different. The Royals are winning with defense, speed, timely hitting, a lights out bullpen and two really good starting pitchers. The Indians won this year with incredible starting pitching, horrible defense, and enough hitting to support the former and overcome the latter. In the end, the defense and bullpen of the Royals won out over the pitching and offense of the Indians. There’s a lot more that I’d like to touch on when it comes to KC, but first I want take an in-depth look at everyone’s favorite shortstop prospect, Francisco Lindor. 

“When is Francisco Lindor coming up?” That’s one of the biggest questions for the Indians heading into next season, as Lindor represents by far the cheapest opportunity to dramatically improve the roster in 2015. One only need look at the Indians before and after Jose Ramirez replaced Asdrubal Cabrera in the starting lineup to see how much of an effect a decent defensive SS can have on a team. The Indians were floundering at 53-55 on July 31 when Cabrera was dealt to the Washington Nationals. With Ramirez as the primary shortstop, the Indians closed the season on a 32-22 run. Not all of that was solely due to Ramirez of course, but the switch certainly played a significant role in the club’s improvement. Then consider that Lindor projects to be a better defender and hitter than Ramirez (.646 OPS in 266 PA last year), probably from day one, and it’s easy to see why Tribe fans are drooling over the toolsy young SS. So will the three-headed decision making monster of Shapiro, Anonetti and Francona opt to have the soon-to-be 21-year old SS on the big-league roster from day one? That decision depends not just on whether or not they feel he’s ready to contribute, but whether or not it makes financial sense to start his service time clock in April rather than June or July.
To gain some insight into whether or not Lindor is “ready,” I wanted to take a look the performance of some of his recent contemporary SS prospects. Fortunately, being in the golden age of the shortstop as we are, there were several guys that we can take a look at who are similar to Lindor. I chose the below shortstops because they made their MLB debuts at age 22 or earlier and were ranked in the Baseball Prospectus top-100 prospect rankings. This first table will be the selected SS comps from their respective final minor league seasons:

Name
Age
PA
Slash
HR
BB
K
Xander Bogearts
20
515
.297/.388/.477
15
63
95
Javier Baez
21
434
.260/.323/.510
23
34
130
Chris Owings
21
575
.330/.359/.482
12
22
99
Jurickson Profar
20
166
.278/.370/.438
4
21
24
Manny Machado
19
202
.266/.352/.438
11
48
70
Jean Segura
22
451
.304/.358/.413
7
23
57

As you see, pretty solid numbers across the board. Jean Segura had the lowest OPS at .771. Javier Baez was one of the most prolific sluggers in all of minor league baseball last year, popping 23 HR in just 434 plate appearances. Machado was the only one on the list who was still 19 in the MiLB season in question, and he ended up leading the AL in doubles and making an all-star team as a 20-year old. Chris Owings put up really good numbers that have to be taken with a grain of salt, as they were accumulated in the offense-friendly environment of the Pacific Coast League. All in all, the average season for the six players in our sample was an .818 OPS, 12 HR, 35 BB and 79 K over 390 plate appearances. For comparison’s sake, Francisco Lindor accumulated 567 plate appearances last year between AA Akron and AAA Columbus, putting together a .276/.338/.389 (.727 OPS) line with 11 HR, 49 BB and 97 K. That would put him on the lower end of this sample when talking about offensive production only.
Now that we’ve taken a good look at minor league production from our sample, let’s see how those same six guys did in their first exposure to major league pitching:

Name
Age
PA
Slash
HR
BB
K
Xander Bogaerts
21
594
.240/.297/.362
12
39
138
Javier Baez
21
229
.169/.227/.324
9
15
95
Chris Owings
22
310
.261/.300/.406
6
16
67
Jurickson Profar
20
324
.234/.308/.336
2
26
63
Manny Machado
19
202
.262/.294/.445
7
9
38
Jean Segura
22
166
.258/.315/.325
0
13
23

Yikes. That’s…that’s not pretty. Bogaerts was the only player in the sample to play a full season at the MLB level, and he responded with a .659 OPS and a 3.5/1 K/BB ratio. And that was after getting a cup of coffee with the Sox during his age-20 season. Javier Baez struck out in 41% of his plate appearances. Jurickson Profar, tabbed by many as the top prospect in all of baseball, put up an OPS 164 points lower in MLB than MiLB. All in all, our sample averaged 304 plate appearances with a .656 OPS, 6 HR, 19 BB and 70 strikeouts. That’s not a knock on these guys, two of whom have already appeared in the Midsummer Classic and all of whom still have the potential to be fantastic shortstops (or 2B, or 3B depending on the player) at some point in the near future. The point is that making the jump from the minors to The Show is very, very difficult. Expecting Lindor to come up and make an impact right away with his bat is farfetched. He probably won’t be a total zero, but certainly won’t provide a dramatic upgrade to the Indians offensive issues in 2015. If I had to project offensive numbers for him at the major league level next season, I’d guess that he could end up in the .250/.310/.380 range.

With all that said, Lindor’s main tool isn’t his bat, it’s his glove. Fans who were thrilled with the defensive upgrade that Jose Ramirez offered last year are going to be beside themselves when they watch Lindor play the position. Going from Asdrubal to Ramirez was like upgrading from a McDonalds burger to Five Guys. Going from Ramirez to Lindor will be like getting a Ruth’s Chris bacon-wrapped fillet. And it’s very possible that the most important improvements to the Indians going into 2015 will be on the defensive side of the ledger, not offense like many fans are clamoring for.

Getting back to the World Series-bound Kansas City Royals for a second; they hit 95 HR to the Indians 142, scored 651 runs to the Indians 669 and posted an OPS+ of 91 to the Indians 102 (100 OPS+ is league average). The Indians were an above-average offensive team in the AL last year, and the Royals were well below average (lowest OPS+ of any team in the league). The Royals pitching was a little better by ERA (3.51 to 3.57) but the Indians FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was 3.42 to the Royals 3.69. The big difference came on the defensive side of the ledger. The Royals allowed 59 unearned runs in 2014, compared to the Indians 72. KC committed 104 errors, while the Indians made a league-leading 116. But the real hammer comes when you look at the advanced defensive metrics. By Baseball-Reference.com’s Defensive Runs Saved formula*, the Royals were able to prevent 41 more runs from scoring than the average American League team. The Indians allowed 74 more runs (again, worst in the league) than average. So by that formula, the Indians were 115 runs worse than Kansas City, a team that beat them out for the AL Wild Card by four games. A team that has swept their way through the playoffs to a World Series berth. A team that had three players hit double-digit HR, none more than 19 (the Indians had 3 hit over 20). Maybe, just maybe, the Indians offense is going to be good enough to win in 2015, especially when you consider what the pitching staff is capable of. Maybe what the team needs more than a “big bat” is a defensive wizard at shortstop. Based on his 56 games at SS last year, Jose Ramirez projects to be worth 10 runs above average at SS (Asdrubal was worth -10 in 2014, -17 in 2013). Lindor could be worth 20 or more, right from the moment he steps onto the diamond. Combine that with expected regression from Ramirez (I like him a lot, more than most, but I don’t think he’s going to be a +10 run SS for his career), and you see the type of impact that Lindor could have on the Indians 2015 pennant chase.

*B-Ref explains their “Rdrs” formula: The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made.
This number combines the Rpm, Rbdp, Rbof, Rbcatch numbers into a total defensive contribution. Provided by Baseball Info Solutions

So now that we’ve looked at what we might be able to expect out of Lindor the player when he does come up, let’s shift our attention to the Indians front office to try and predict when he will come up. Conventional wisdom holds that ready or not, Lindor will start the season right where he finished last year, playing SS for AAA Columbus. In a recent chat, ESPN’s Keith Law was asked where he thought Lindor would be to open the 2015 season, and his response was “service time uber alles.” Managing service time does have its advantages, but to me, some of those advantages are overblown. Let’s start with the commonly-used “Super Two” argument. For the uninitiated; players must accrue three years of MLB service time before they are eligible for salary arbitration, then three years of arbitration-eligible seasons before they are eligible for free agency. “Super Two” grants players in the top 22% (changed from 17% in the most recent CBA) of two-year service time an extra year of arbitration. If the Indians keep Lindor in the minors long enough, they can make sure to avoid Super Two with their top prospect. I have two counter-arguments to this line of reasoning. One, since that 22% figure is based on that season’s eligible players, the cutoff date is different every year. So it’ll likely be sometime in late-June to mid-July, but no one knows exactly when. It’s possible the Indians could keep Lindor in the minors until Independence Day, and still end up with a Super Two case. My second counter-argument is that this doesn’t affect free agency, only arbitration. Lindor won’t be able to become a free agent any earlier if he ends up a Super Two player. It could wind up costing the team money, but if they end up buying out arbitration years (and at least a year or two of free agency) as they’ve been doing with their young position-player stars (Gomes, Kipnis, Brantley), it’ll wind up being irrelevant anyway. If the Indians miss the playoffs by a game or two and Lindor could’ve been up helping the ballclub even a 
week earlier, then we’ll all be second-guessing the timing of the call-up.

So we’ve looked at some of Lindor’s shortstop contemporaries, broken down how he could potentially contribute to the ballclub on both sides of the baseball and talked about contract issues. Let’s take it one step further and try and predict how the Indians front office might time the call-up based on how they’ve handled top prospects in the somewhat-recent past. I’m going to call upon my Excel “expertise” one last time and throw another chart at you:

Name
Age
Date
AAA PA
Matt LaPorta
24
3-May
1235
Carlos Santana
24
11-Jun
246
Jason Kipnis
24
22-Jul
409
Lonnie Chisenhall
22
22-Jun
543
Andy Marte
22
28-Jul
2509
Michael Brantley
22
2-Jun
844
Trevor Crowe
25
9-Apr
1407
Yan Gomes
25
9-Apr
373

All of these guys came up under the Shapiro or Antonetti regime. LaPorta, Santana, Kipnis, Chisenhall and Marte were all consensus top-100 guys in their final minor league seasons. All of the “blue chip” guys came up after May 1. None came up before they turned 22. The only two players who started a season in MLB with the Indians were Trevor Crowe and Yan Gomes, neither of which were considered to be top prospects at the time of their call-up, and both of whom were 25 years old at the time. None came up before they collected at least 246 plate appearances at the AAA level. For reference, Francisco Lindor will be 21 on opening day next year and has just 180 AAA plate appearances under his belt. Super Two or no Super Two, the Indians may feel like Lindor could benefit from some additional seasoning in AAA Columbus before he’s ready to jump up to the big league level.

We’re 2000+ words into answering the Lindor question, and I’m not sure if we have any better of an idea when he’s actually going to make his Indians debut. I’ve long been on the Opening Day train (we need some sort of hashtag…#LindoronApril6 just doesn’t flow), but I’m becoming less and less convinced that is going to happen. No less than Anthony Castrovice thinks the Indians are going to pick up Mike Aviles’ option for 2015, so that would leave he and Jose Ramirez splitting SS to start the season with Lindor opening up in back AAA Columbus. Indians beat writer Jordan Bastian was asked about Lindor in his inbox this week, and here feels like the job is Lindor’s in 2015, just not right away:

Barring an injury or unexpected trade, I would be absolutely stunned if we don't see Lindor in the big leagues with the Indians at some point during the 2015 season. I do not expect that to be on Opening Day. The job out of the gates would seem to fall to Ramirez, who played admirably at shortstop in the second half of this season.
I of course have no insight into the Indians thought process (#sources) on the matter, nor am I a professional scout who can claim to accurately project how Lindor will handle the rigors of a major league schedule. I have seen Lindor play more than most though, and would stake my very insignificant internet reputation on his defense not only playing, but excelling at the highest level. Can his glove justify burning a year of service time for a 21-year old prospect who might not be quite “ready” for The Show? If you expect the Indians to contend for a playoff spot next year (and I do), then I think the answer has to be yes. So yes, I want Lindor up in April. But if you’re asking when I think he should get the call to the big leagues? This may sound like a cop out, but I think he should come up as soon as the Indians brain trust feels he’s ready to contribute. If Antonetti and Tito think he can be the best option in April, bring him up in April. If they don’t think he’s ready right away but are convinced that June 6 is the day, then bring him up on June 6. I trust them to know their own assets better than I do, and will suck it up and soldier on if they don’t feel he’s ready to be The Guy right away. I just hope that decision is made based on what happens between the foul lines, not what may or may not happen in a negotiating session sometime in 2020.

Bringing everything back to Anthony Castrovice and the Royals, Castro penned a predictably outstanding piece on Friday about the Royals unpredictable playoff run, and how the Indians can be encouraged by the success that KC is having this postseason. If you haven’t read the entire thing, you should do so now, but I want to draw your attention to one paragraph in particular:

No, it wouldn’t have happened this year, even if the Indians had somehow snuck into the Wild Card game. The Royals play D, the Indians didn’t. To me, it’s really that simple. Nothing separated the Royals from the O’s in this ALCS more than their ability to make it seem as if they routinely had 18 gloves in the field. So let’s not indulge in any undue fantasies. Stick to the Super Bowl beliefs borne out of a 3-2 start, or go watch LeBron and the boys stroll through the NBA’s plodding and predictable regular season.

The Royals play D, the Indians didn’t. Assuming Castro is right (and Castro has never steered me wrong…Castro is gold), let’s take Occam’s Razor to this issue. What if the Indians improve their defense next year instead of their offense? If Lindor starts the season at SS, that’s a big step in the right direction. Then say the team decides to move Lonnie Chisenhall (to OF, DH or another team) to make way for Gio Urshela, another guy who might not hit right away but who should have no trouble providing above-average defense at the hot corner? Suddenly the left side of the infield turns from a liability to an asset. Maybe Lindor and Urshela don’t contribute much on the offensive side, but Cabrera/Ramirez and Chisenhall weren’t exactly setting the world on fire at the plate during the 2nd half of 2014 anyway. Imagine the Indians starting pitching with a non-putrid defense behind them? All of this sounds more effective, simpler, lower risk and much cheaper than chasing a mythical “Big Bat” on the free agent market this year. Especially when you consider just how scarce offense is around the league right now. Jordan Bastian took an in-depth look at how baseball is shifting away from waiting for the 3-run HR to a more balanced approach, and how that middle-of-the-order thumper that you can pencil in for a 40 HR season doesn’t really exist right now. And if there is a legit power bat on the open market, it’s unlikely that the Indians can afford to pay him.


Maybe Nick Swisher stays healthy next year and regains his pre-2014 form at the plate. Maybe Kipnis bounces back to another all-star season at 2B. Maybe Victor really wants to come back to Cleveland and cuts the team a dramatic and unexpected hometown discount. But absent that, I think the Indians quickest path to contention in 2015 lies on the defensive side of the diamond, not at the plate. Lindor can and should be a big part of that solution, and I hope he’s there in April. Service time be damned. 

3 comments:

Josh Zellers said...

I'm not totally in love with the defense thing. I think that it is possible that we've been romanced by this Royals team and not realizing that the royals were like 1 pitch away from a one-and-done to a home run hitting A's team. What if the O's hit 10 home runs in the ALCS would we be talking about the need for more offense? I think this might be a fad. Just remember Jack Hannahan.

Al Ciammaichella said...

"Remember Jack Hannahan" should absolutely be the name of a blog somewhere. Or a band.

I don't think defense could be described as a "fad." And if the defense can be improved without sacrificing much (if any) in the way of offense, so much the better. Lindor is a better hitter than Ramirez right now, so I wouldn't see the switch as selling out the O in favor of D. And making that move is much more realistic than signing a "big bat" this offseason.

Josh Zellers said...

So every time I try to figure out the defense I get stumped. Bourn has been amazing in the past by defense metrics. Brantly is above average especially with that accurate arm. Santana is not a bad 1st base if not above average. Gomes is good (minus some of those throws into CF that started to get concerning at some point). Ok, Chiz is awful. I think Kipnis doesn't get crdeit for how bad at defense he is. HE NEVER MAKES THOSE OVER THE SHOULDER CATCHES ON POP UPS. Don't believe me? just watch. And that RF! yikes. Raburn, Murphy and (gasp) Aviles etc. Even with those young dudes trying to play defense out there... ain't no Lorenzo Cain. Ok... so I think the defense really settled down the second half after the santana move obviously and the acab trade. #ramirez@2b