Pondering Power Production for the 2016 Cleveland Indians

Since the glory days of the 1990s, Cleveland Indians fans have been clamoring for power bats. What a lot of them don’t realize is that the definition of a power hitter has changed dramatically since the days when the Indians were loaded with right-handed and left-handed power in a lineup that featured Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome, among others. Now, hitting 20 home runs in a season is considered by some to be the benchmark for power. It used to be 30. Or even 40.

Of course, we have other stats like ISO (slugging percentage – batting average), HR/FB% (percentage of home runs hit out of the total number of fly balls), and more to help quantify offensive power. The days of PED and steroid-induced power are in the past. Among qualified hitters from 2013-2015, six of them hit over 100 home runs. They are Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Trout, Jose Bautista, and David Ortiz. Two others, Josh Donaldson and Chris Carter, hit 94 and 90, respectively. That means that exactly eight players averaged 30 or more home runs per season from 2013-15.

In today’s high-strikeout environment, with the low strike affecting run scoring, as August Fagerstrom and Jon Roegele have pointed out, as well as the highest average fastball velocity ever, “power hitter” doesn’t have nearly the same connotation that it once did. That’s not to say that power does not exist. It’s to say that the definition has changed and that teams are not going to find these 30+ home run guys with regularity. We’ve reached a state in Major League Baseball where we have some promising young sluggers, like Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Joey Gallo, and various others, but it’s time to change the expectations that we, as baseball fans, have from “power hitters”.

There are a lot of people that believe that the Indians have no power hitters. The Indians finished 22nd in home runs last season and 13th in the American League. Coincidentally, the two teams behind them are division rivals, the Kansas City Royals and the Chicago White Sox. Despite a lack of home run power, the Indians finished 11th in slugging percentage, ahead of the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Oakland Athletics, and Chicago White Sox. To be fair, the Angels and Athletics play in home environments that suppress power. Minnesota is not a good power park for lefties because of the high limestone wall and the chilly conditions for essentially one-third of the baseball season that will also negate some power.

The notion that the Indians have no power is not entirely true. That being said, it could be truer than some of us want to believe. Consider this very basic table lacking in fun bells and whistles:

2014 SLG
2015 SLG
Career SLG
2014 ISO
2015 ISO
Career ISO

These four men have some things in common from last season. All of them finished 2015 with a lower slugging percentage than 2014. Three of them finished with slugging percentages well below their career averages. Three of them finished with a lower ISO than the previous season.

There’s one other big thing that these four men have in common. As Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs wrote on January 14, all four of them rank in the top eight in batted ball distance decline from the previous season. Gomes was first. Santana was second. Napoli was third. Brantley was eighth. Gomes, as we all know, suffered what was termed a “moderate” MCL sprain in the first week of the season, missed several weeks, and took a while to get back to being the same player. Santana volunteered to the media that he had been dealing with a back issue throughout the season. Napoli is a different story that requires more analysis. Brantley also had a back issue throughout the first half, but is such an elite hitter that he was able to overcome some of those injury-related issues.

We’ll start with Gomes, because he had the biggest decline in baseball by a significant margin. Gomes went from an average batted ball distance of 289.9 feet in 2014 to 268.2 feet in 2015. His HR/FB% dropped by over three percent. It’s slightly presumptuous to say that Gomes would have matched or even exceeded his total of 21 home runs in 2014, but if he had matched it, the Indians would have gone from 13th in the AL in home runs to 12th. We’re movin’ on up!

It’s obvious that Gomes’s knee injury had an effect on him. (It also affected his pitch presentation skills, but that’s a conversation for another day.) In order to try and explain how, exactly, that knee injury affected Gomes, I reached out to a good friend of mine. Mike Stout, a licensed athletic trainer at Virginia Tech and his wife, Dr. Stephanie Betts, DO, were kind enough to consider my questions and provide some answers.

Did the nature of this particular MCL injury make things worse?

“Being that the injury was on his back leg, I feel it has a greater effect than if it was his front leg. Going through a weight transfer with the rotational aspects of the back knee would definitely put some additional stress on that MCL ligament.”

So it would linger?

“The biggest issue I see, being a former player (author’s note, Mike was a three-sport varsity athlete in football, baseball, and hockey before focusing on his education in college), there is really no way to “rehab” it efficiently towards the later stages. What I mean is that, over the course of rehab, they worked on his range of motion, strength, balance, and everything else typically done during the rehab process. But, is there really a way to get his knee back to “normal” function without seeing live pitching? Sure, he saw live pitching during his rehab. But, there’s no way to recreate game at bats. If I had to guess, it probably took him between 75 and 100 at bats in game situations to trust the knee fully. I can guarantee there was a point where all his BP and practice live ABs felt fine, but those first several times he had to react to a 90 mph slider, shift his weight to stay on balance, and cover the corners of the plate, things probably felt shaky for a while. Not to mention simply having to acclimate to missing so much time.”

When we talk about 100 at bats, we’re talking about essentially one-sixth of a season, and probably more than that for a catcher. Gomes was hurt on April 11. He returned on May 24. His 100th at bat after his injury came during the July 3 game against Pittsburgh. In those first 102 at bats, Gomes posted a .225/.241/.343 slash, with just three doubles, three home runs, and a 31/3 K/BB ratio. From July 4 through the end of the season, Gomes still struggled from a BABIP standpoint, posting a .241 average with a .287 on-base percentage, but his slugging percentage climbed to .427. He had 18 doubles and nine home runs.

You cannot look at a six-week injury as simply being a six-week injury. Depending on the nature of the injury, it may take another two, four, or even six or more weeks to get back into game shape. For Gomes, there should be a lot of hope for a bounce back.

That brings us to Carlos Santana. Santana was supposed to take major strides forward offensively last season. Playing first base full-time is easier on the body than catching, and so the hope for Santana was an increase in offensive production. The result was anything but. A 15.5-foot drop in average batted ball distance was a contributing factor to a 4.2 percent drop in HR/FB%.

Santana went from 27 home runs to 19. His slugging percentage dropped by over 30 points. We were never privy to the nature of Santana’s back injury, but his slugging percentage against left-handed pitching dropped by 95 points in a similar sample size. His SLG against righties was almost equal (.406 from .407). His slugging percentage when he pulled the ball dropped from .656 in 2014 to .565 in 2015.

Santana is one of the most polarizing players in Cleveland sports. The godless sabermetric pigs appreciate his value. Those that believe that sabermetrics are the work of the devil or are made-up statistics do not. It’s worth pointing out that Santana, in the worst offensive season of his career, was still 10 percent above league average. That’s not why you’re here and reading, but it needed to be said.

For Gomes, we have a very clear reason why the power production dropped off. For Santana, because we don’t know the nature of the back injury, we cannot definitively say that his power will return this season. Unfortunately, Eno Sarris wrote back in 2012 about power declines in hitters and found that hitters really begin to drop off around age 29. Santana will turn 30 four days after Opening Day.

On the other hand, Chad Young found in 2013 that hitters that lose 15+ feet of distance will see some bounce back the following year. But, the caveat there is that hitters aged 29-32 were found to lose about three feet in distance on average in that age group.

Certainly there are other variables to a guy like Santana, being a switch hitter and a patient guy. Santana was ahead in the count in 330 of his batting outcomes last season. He posted a .281/.515/.484 slash in these situations, with 108 walks. In 2014, Santana posted a .287/.525/.538 slash in these situations. That’s a big drop in SLG. The Indians were 13th in AL SLG when the outcome of an at bat was determined with a batter ahead in the count. Santana was second to Manny Machado in number of outcomes, excluding walks, when ahead in the count. He was 162nd in SLG out of 276 hitters with at least 50 such at bats when ahead in the count. For what it’s worth, Yan Gomes was 119th. Getting into advantageous counts should benefit Santana in terms of increasing his batted ball distance and power production, but it’s tough to project if it will actually happen.

Because Santana dropped down from what appeared to be an abnormally-high batted ball distance in 2014, as Podhorzer pointed out, there has to be some concern that this may be Santana’s power production for the foreseeable future. Santana enjoyed a 17-foot jump from 2013 to 2014 and that resulted in a jump from 20 dongs to 27. Did the back injury do it? Was it regression? From the outside looking in, it’s tough to tell. As elite as the on-base skills are, the power simply may not return to that 2014 level, and that could be part of the reason Mike Napoli was signed.

The Indians bought reasonably low on Napoli, who had a horrendous season against right-handed pitching last year. On the season, 61.8 percent of Napoli’s plate appearances came against righties and he posted a miserable .191/.283/.320 slash. The Indians are banking on a bounce back from his .239 BABIP and his 8.3 percent HR/FB%. For his career, Napoli owns a .243/.340/.464 slash, a .296 BABIP, and a .220 ISO against righties.

In terms of his batted ball distance difference from 2014 to 2015, Napoli ranked third. He went from 302.2 feet per batted ball to 287.6 feet. That 14.6-foot drop coincided with a 1.9 percent decrease in HR/FB%.

Napoli turned 34 on Halloween, so he’s certainly in the wrong part of the aging curve. Four-seam fastballs gave Napoli a significant amount of trouble last season. He batted just .170 with a .287 SLG and a .117 ISO against the heat. He also posted a .216 BABIP, which has to see some positive regression this season. Entering 2015, Napoli owned a .252 average with a .541 SLG against four-seamers and a .299 BABIP. Per PITCHf/x data, Napoli saw 848 fastballs in 2015 and swung through over 24 percent of them when he took a cut. That was nearly double his career rate entering 2015.

Are we talking about a player significantly losing bat speed in his mid-30s? Are we talking about an outlier of a season? After an injury-riddled 2014 campaign, Napoli did not appear on the disabled list at all in 2015. We’ll have to wait and see. Napoli is still an effective hitter in the sense that he works counts and has a great platoon advantage against left-handed pitching.

In Michael Brantley’s case, there was probably some simple regression coupled with a bad back. Brantley’s .506 SLG in 2014 was a big surprise and his 20 home runs were as well. That’s not to say that Brantley couldn’t climb back up to 20 home runs in the future, but 15-18 home runs with a ton of doubles probably seems like the best-case scenario in a full season. With the shoulder injury, a torn labrum, it’s fair to wonder what effect that will have on Brantley offensively. That is undoubtedly a major concern entering this season.

There are some segments of the fan base clamoring for Dexter Fowler, the top free agent outfield bat left on the market. Fowler, despite a big jump in home runs, actually lost average batted ball distance this season. In Podhorzer’s list, Fowler was sixth, with a decline of 13.3 feet. Part of the reason that Fowler isn’t signed yet is because teams aren’t buying into the 17 home runs and the power jump because it comes with such a big red flag. He’s also a brutal defensive outfielder by the metrics. A drop in power production coupled with his subpar defense means the chance to severely overpay a player.

In terms of tangible power upgrades for the Indians, Mike Napoli should be one to Brandon Moss and Yan Gomes will improve in that department with a healthier season. A bounce back from Carlos Santana seems somewhat unlikely and the expectations for Michael Brantley should be set low in his return from a major shoulder operation. That certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the offense.

But, power is not everything. The Indians will once again be at or near the top of the AL leaderboard in BB%. Last season’s Indians were woefully and historically inept with the bases loaded and struggled with runners in scoring position. Some positive regression in run-scoring opportunities could make all the difference.

Come to the ballpark to watch elite pitching and good defense. Just don’t expect to leave with a souvenir unless you buy one.
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