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.
“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.