Lineup Genius in Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in 2013. They did, briefly, thanks to a 10-game winning streak to end the season. But analysts, pundits and other words for sports bloggers were not impressed enough by the Indians come-from-behind success to predict a return engagement in 2014. Maybe they’re right. As of this writing, Cleveland resides in the basement of the American League Central, but they’re also just two-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers.

One thing seems certain: Some very smart people are working for Team Cleveland. In addition to their focus on those intangible things we’ve had such a hard time measuring — like manager influence and chemistry — the club has also made some smart decisions about the roster’s composition.

The Indians lineup has leaned left-handed for years. There might be some method to the madness. Last season, despite a predominantly lefty regular lineup, the Indians were able to post the best wOBA in baseball against left-handed pitchers. The driving forces behind the Tribe’s success were Ryan Raburn, Yan Gomes, Nick Swisher and to a lesser extent, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds. Stubbs and Reynolds have moved on, but the big players remain in town. Raburn was brought in specifically to platoon against southpaws, but Gomes was a revelation straight out of left field. Even the most bullish scouts couldn’t have predicted the .327/.376/.558 line he put up against lefties.

This season, the Indians remain capable of fielding an extremely left-handed lineup. Let’s look at the unit deployed against Blue Jays righty Drew Hutchison last Friday.

Michael Bourn – L
Swisher – S
Jason Kipnis – L
Carlos Santana – S
Michael Brantley – L
Asdrubal Cabrera – S
David Murphy – L
Gomes – R
Lonnie Chisenhall – L

“S,” of course, refers to switch-hitters. An aesthete will note this particular lineup is capable of fielding eight left-handed batters. Said deployment can also alternate handedness. Should the opposing manager choose to bring in a left-handed reliever, every other hitter will retain the platoon advantage. Moreover, the Indians are capable of deploying both Raburn and Mike Aviles when opposed by south paw starters.

Over the course of a 162-game season, there’s an inherent advantage to fielding a lefty-leaning lineup. Roughly 70% of pitchers are right-handed, so we’re talking about a lot of platoon advantage. Of course, if 70%  are right-handed, then 30% are left-handed. That can be a problem, which is where Raburn and the switch-hitters enter the equation.

A left-handed lineup is strategic in the AL Central. The Indians biggest rival, the Tigers, features a rotation of four righties and Drew Smyly. The Twins feature an all right-handed rotation, while the Royals and White Sox are evenly split between right and left. All told, the Indians regularly face 14 righties and six lefties when playing intra-division games.

Most importantly, the Tribe has the platoon advantage against the top threat in the division. The Royals are considered the other threat in the division, and their lefty duo consists of Bruce Chen and Jason Vargas, who are hardly not the most intimidating pair. The White Sox are the only team in the division to feature any tough left-handed starters with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.

If you’re the Cleveland Indians, the advantage of a left-leaning lineup goes beyond the standard platoon advantages. Consider the handedness park factors available at FanGraphs Guts! Progressive Field has a 105 HR park factor for left-handed batters. In other words, lefties hit 5% more home runs in Cleveland than in a neutral park. Contrast this to an 89 HR park factor for righties. Basically, Progressive Field reduces righty bombs by 11%. Add it all up and a generic lefty bat is 16% more likely to go yard than a generic righty hitter.

The Indians may not have the sexiest lineup in baseball, but they have built one of the smartest. Not only does the typical lineup take advantage of league and division-wide handedness trends, it’s also ideally suited for Progressive Field. The Indians are a very analytically aware organization — some might call them a “Moneyball” organization. The next time you hear somebody belittling the Moneyball mentality and OBP, mention what the Cleveland Indians have done.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

34 Responses to “Lineup Genius in Cleveland”

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  1. Tim_the_Beaver says:

    Curious… are these switch hitters that split like righties? Lefties? no split? To simply label them as “S” and say “every other hitter will retain the platoon advantage” vs. a lefty reliever AND that the lineup is “capable of fielding eight left-handed batters” seems to defy logic. no?

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    • Poor Man's Rick Reed says:

      A couple quick clicks shows the following career wOBA splits for the switch hitters in the lineup listed:

      vs L vs R
      Swish: .374 .347
      Asdrubal: .335 .325
      Santana: .364 .347

      Not toooooo much of a platoon split there, with all three better against lefties.

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      • ncb says:

        So in other words you want a lefty facing 8 out of the 9 hitters in that lineup. Wouldn’t call that genius, but still interesting.

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        • ncb says:

          misread above comment. Yeah so that S hitters are good against lefties. Essentially found S with platoons more typical of R. Interesting.

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        • jim says:

          And the 9th guy is the catcher, always in the lineup for catcherness more than anything else

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Very, very few switch hitters have even platoon splits. All three of the regular switch hitters in the Indians’ lineup have splits that favor them against left-handed batters, so that consideration probably should have been included.

      However, he’s theoretically correct in that the Indians’ lineup does get the nominal platoon advantage because for the most part, hitters do better against opposite-sided pitching. Additionally, one can’t assume that a switch-hitter would do better if they stopped switch-hitting and focused only on one side (usually the opposite is true, or they’d stop switch-hitting). A hitter that is a bit better from the right side may still switch-hit because he’s better as a lefty against righties than as a righty against righties: as R v. L > as L v. R > as R v. R.

      It is a bit incongruous to go into the specifics of the rotations featured by division mates and not note that all three switch-hitters are favored from the right side, so most often they’ll be hitting from their weak side. At the same time, there’s little doubt that the Indians are gaining an advantage by having switch-hitters and lefty batters than the opposite case.

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  2. here goes nothing says:

    Unless Bruce Chen and Jason Vargas are much more ferocious than I think them to be, I think you mean they are “hardly the most intimidating pair,” leaving out “not.”

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  3. dude says:

    They also had a collective 37.5% K-rate against that same Drew Hutchinson.

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    • anon says:

      They have the fifth lowest K% in the AL, but by all means, use a single game to argue against the author’s point.

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    • Billy says:

      Dude, he only listed Drew Hutchison because he’s a right handed starter that faced them. Them striking out against him doesn’t make the lineup awful. Settle down.

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  4. Pennsy says:

    Do people get mad about Moneyball because they think teams shouldn’t find clever new ways to win baseball games, or do they get mad because the book is essentially used as a tract to argue against league-imposed competitiveness measures? Because I can appreciate that teams find crafty ways to win ballgames while believing that it’s in the league’s longterm interest to promote (or enforce, if you insist) parity from the top down.

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    • Sal Fasano's Mustache says:

      Some fans hate it because they’re old fuddie duddies and it gave credibility to the SABR movement, which is a movement that takes away the power from REAL baseball analysts to computer nerds in their mom’s basements. These fans are also named Hawk Harrelson and are insufferable.

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    • HH says:

      I think haters of Moneyball just don’t like being wrong. If you believe that the approach you grew up with is the right approach, and suddenly someone tells you there’s a better approach, you’re bound to resist. You like your beliefs – that’s why you have them. As Hayek said:

      “One of the forms of private property that people cherish most is their ideas. If you convince them that their ideas are wrong, you have caused them to suffer a capital loss.”

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      • Pale Hose Kyle says:

        I think it’s worth noting though, that baseball research has moved forward a lot since Moneyball happened. It really isn’t a source of baseball wisdom anymore, just a fun read.

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        • HH says:

          I agree. I say “Moneyball” since it’s become a catchall term for sabermetric analysis, and because I think the real message of the book was “find and exploit inefficiencies.” I agree that the particular inefficiencies like OBP are basically no longer undervalued, but there are probably others like pitch framing or defensive shifts that are still out there.

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    • evo34 says:

      Some people hate it because it’s given rise to an army smarter-than-thou bloggers who think they’ve found the next big thing in baseball after spending 15 minutes on an analysis.

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      • Jason B says:

        Which has led, in turn, to a rise of an army of old-guard baseball folk who are resistant to change and quantitative analysis.

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    • jdbolick says:

      I think it’s primarily because the book is more propaganda than insight. In that sense it reminds me of some analytical sites that shall go unnamed who came up with a new acronym every month they sold to subscribers as the next big thing, all while contributing relatively little of actual value to our statistical understanding of the game. Moneyball highlighted the importance of exploiting inefficiencies and being open to new information, but it got a lot of the details wrong regarding what was actually important, which is why it held up prospects that never became anything while ignoring the real source of the A’s success at that time.

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  5. quack attack says:

    So what does that make Milwaukee’s predominantly right handed lineup, in a division where the best pitchers are right handed?

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  6. Jon says:

    Almost reminds me of the 1980’s Cardinals with their five switch hitters. Never looked before but they all had pretty big platoon splits, at least that year (but offsetting). Ozzie’s was famously bad (no homers in first xxxx ABs lefthanded), and in today’s world we’d probably all be saying he needed to give up trying to hit lefty.

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  7. Scott says:

    I thought park factors were halved for use on full seasons. Or am I wrong?

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  8. Remaerd says:

    The Indians used their left-hand-heavy lineup last year to go 4-15 against the Tigers and all their right-handed starting pitchers.

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  9. VonHayes9 says:

    I saw this with the 1993 phillies with 6 left-handed bats and 2 switch hitters. Wish I had time to do the homework on their splits right now, but have always wondered why this isn’t a popular norm.

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  10. SporTEmINd says:

    Not to nitpick, but I expect clean math at fangraphs. Generic lefty has an 18% better chance of going yard- you have to divide, not subtract. Even better for the Indians.

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