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Francisco Lindor: Challenger to Trout’s Throne

Francisco Lindor has seemingly always been the platonic ideal of a shortstop since was drafted eighth overall in 2011. Most shortstop scouting reports contain phrases like “if he can stick at the position” or “will likely move off the position as he develops,” but Lindor was the rare prospect that scouts universally believed to be a shortstop. Lindor was clearly a major-league shortstop, but whether he was an everyday player or All-Star hinged on his bat. In his first season, Lindor showed his bat belonged in the majors, hitting .313/.353/.482 for a 126 wRC+ with 12 home runs and stolen bases in just 99 games. Defying calls for regression, he followed up with a .301/.358/.435 line for a 112 wRC+ in 2016, while essentially tying Brandon Crawford as the most valuable defender in baseball. He was Andrelton Simmons with a bat.

However, it appears Lindor isn’t satisfied with being a perennial All-Star. He is gunning to dethrone Mike Trout for American League MVP. In a mere 42 PA in the 2017 season, Lindor already has four dingers and is topping the offensive leaderboards with a 216 wRC+. While Lindor has yet to collect 50 plate appearances this season, there are indications that Lindor has taken another step forward and will frighten pitchers as much as he does ground-ball hitters.

Because it stabilizes very quickly, the first place to look for evidence in his plate discipline. Lindor is walking in 14.3% of his plate appearances, nearly double his walk rate last season, while managing to keep his strikeouts under control. There is a reason to believe this walk-rate increase is real — just take a look at some of the plate-discipline numbers:

 

Table A: Lindor’s career plate discipline

Year O-Swing % Z-Swing % Contact % SwgStk %
2015 31.8% 73.7% 82.9% 8.6%
2016 30.3% 69.7% 83.6% 7.7%
2017 20.0% 72.0% 86.7% 5.5%

 

Lindor has cut down on the pitches he is swinging at outside the zone by over 10% since last season, while making slightly more contact and whiffing less often. Lindor has stopped swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, cutting down to rates only rivaled by kings of plate discipline such as Joey Votto or Matt Carpenter, but while continuing to swing at pitches in the zone and make contact. In order to see if Lindor will maintain the increase in walk rate, we can look at players with similar discipline. In this case, hitters with an O-Swing% < 23%, a Z-Swing% over 65%, and a SwStk% < 10%.

 

Table B: Comparison of similar hitters, 2012-2016 seasons

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing % Contact% SwgStk% BB%
Joey Votto 20.1% 65.2% 81.0% .7.3% 18.5%
Anthony Rendon 21.3% 62.5% 86.3% 5.5% 9.1%
John Jaso 21.7% 65.2% 82.5% 7.1% 12.2%
Dexter Fowler 22.2% 68.9% 78.1% 9.2% 13.1%

 

Anthony Rendon doesn’t quite meet the criteria set above, but is an interesting comparison of another young hitter with a somewhat similar skillset. Based on comparison, it is easy to believe Lindor’s increasing patience and improving eye will lead to a sustained increase in his walk rate. Looking further into what kind of pitches Lindor is laying off, he has stopped swinging at breaking balls outside the zone. In 2017, Lindor has only swung at 22.4% of breaking balls, compared to 47.9% in 2016 and 53.8% in 2015.

While I won’t suggest that Lindor has become Joey Votto, it is entirely reasonable to believe he is developing into one of the rare hitters that can excel at laying off balls while continuing to make solid contact with pitches inside the strike zone.

Speaking of making solid contact, Lindor appears to have embraced the fly-ball revolution that is sweeping baseball. So far, Lindor has hit 53.1% of his batted balls in the air in 2017, drastically contrasting the stereotypical ground-ball-heavy approach that Cleveland’s shortstop had used in the past. By increasing his FB% by nearly 25% and decreasing his GB% by nearly 20%, Lindor has gone from a GB/FB of 1.75 to one of .59. With the wonder that is Statcast, we can see this is supported by his 20° launch angle on batted balls this season, compared to a launch angle of 9.6° last season. While we shouldn’t expect Lindor’s launch angle to stay this high, it is worth noting that players whose launch angles were at least 18° include enigma Ryan Schmipf, Brandon Belt, Kris Bryant, Todd Frazier, and Matt Carpenter.

Lindor isn’t just hitting the ball in the air; he is hitting it harder, too. Using the more simple batted-ball data, 48.5% of Lindor’s batted balls are considered “Hard,” which is currently good for 19th in baseball, and only nine players have made less “Soft” contact than his 6.1%. Statcast gives us a more clear picture of Lindor’s batted balls, but he excels here as well with the average ball coming off his bat reaching 92.4mph, a 3mph increase over his 89.3mph mark in 2016. The increase in exit velocity puts Lindor in good company with the names around him, including names like Miguel Sano, Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Nelson Cruz. Interestingly enough, Yandy Diaz (96.4mph) is the only name above him that will make you believe Carson Cistulli has magical powers. Lindor’s current 23.5% HR/FB obviously isn’t sustainable, but the exit velocity shows that we should expect Lindor to post an improvement.

While there is a limited sample size this season, if we look back to last season, we can see Lindor’s transformation appeared to begin in September and October.

We can see that the potential changes appear to have started late last season, where we can see that Lindor saw a spike in his FB%, BB%, and exit velocity late last season while seeing his O-Swing% drop. Normally, these things would look like regular fluctuation, but it helps provide some additional evidence that these changes are real.

It appears Lindor has improved his plate discipline and joined the fly-ball revolution, all while hitting the ball harder than he has before. With some regression, it is possible Lindor is transforming into something along the lines of the Matt Carpenter mold. A hitter who walks nearly as often as he strikes out while hitting the ball hard on contact. If he keeps hitting fly balls, it isn’t hard to see Lindor as a 25-30 homer hitter that flirts with a .400 OBP in some years. A hitter who is also one of the best defenders in baseball at a premium position on a playoff team. Mike Trout may be a historic talent, but he can’t do this.

And if Lindor can do more of this, perhaps Mike Trout has a challenger to his AL MVP crown.