Francisco Lindor was the long-awaited high-profile prospect in Cleveland who lived up to the hype. Earlier high-profile prospects like Matt LaPorta and Andy Marte had too often been complete flops, so naturally fans were wary of their expectations for Lindor, despite his universal top ten ranking among all minor league prospects. Lindor was pegged as an elite defensive shortstop with a solid bat who could anchor the Indians’ infield for years to come. Consider this excerpt from a scouting report from Kiley McDaniel on Lindor from Fangraphs before the 2015 season:
Lindor is an easy plus runner, defender and thrower with no real questions on any of those skills…I don’t think the bat will be a huge impact…but the speed, defense and position turn an above average but not outstanding offensive profile into a potential star.
When Lindor was finally promoted to Cleveland in mid-2015, he almost immediately made a huge impact. After an initial slump where he went 17 for his first 83, Lindor quickly became one of baseball’s best players, and exceeded the expectations of his scouting reports. In 2015 and 2016, Lindor was elite defensively (19.4 UZR/150) and strong on the bases (19.5 steals per 162 games) as expected, but he also was a force on offense, carrying a 118 wRC+ during that time frame. The result was Lindor posting the 6th-best fWAR among position players since his promotion. To boot, Lindor was young – he is still only 23 – and charismatic. All together, Lindor wasn’t just the face of the Cleveland Indians, but also potentially the future face of Major League Baseball.
However, in 2017, Lindor’s shine has faded ever so slightly. By all accounts he is still an excellent player – he was voted to go to the All-Star Game this week by his peers – but his fWAR of 2.0 heading into the break in 85 games is a marked decline in production. After putting up 10.8 WAR through his first 257 games in his career, Lindor’s pace coming into 2017 called for him to produce 3.5 fWAR by this point in the season. While Cleveland was expecting an MVP-type season from Lindor, they’ve “only” gotten an All-Star caliber year from their young shortstop.
Lindor hasn’t seen a drop off in any one area of his play, rather, he’s seen his production dip nearly across the board:
By looking at the table, we see Lindor has substantial declined in 2017 in batting average, on-base percentage, stolen bases, and defense from his first two years in the league. The one area that’s improved? His home run production. And it isn’t likely a coincidence that while his home run numbers have spiked, the rest of his offensive numbers have declined.
Most of Lindor’s power spike occurred early in the season, when many evaluators were actually praising Lindor for maximizing his power by increasing his average launch angle. After running around a 28% fly ball rate in 2015-16, Lindor’s rate was up to 44.4% in April and May of this season, resulting in 12 home runs in just 50 games, – and a would-be career high 130 wRC+. Lindor was hitting for substantial power – arguably the last facet of game that he could drastically improve on. During those two months, it looked like Lindor could very well jump into Mike Trout‘s category of value – a 30 home-run, 20 steal threat with elite defense.
But, that type of power spike was never going to last at 5-11 and 190 pounds. As he found some early success, it seemed Lindor got too home-run happy in his approach. The Indians’ coaches have admitted as much, with hitting Coach Matt Quataro telling The Athletic’s Travis Sawchik in a recent interview, “[Lindor] hit some of those home runs early, and just like anybody, some of those thoughts ‘Oh, man, I’m hitting some home runs’ starts creeping in a little bit. And that swing you’ve been working on: line drives, gap to gap, type of swings, it turns into a little bit more of an approach ‘Oh, I’m going to get another one.’.”
Lindor had gotten away from what had made him most successful: an all-fields, disciplined approach. Instead, he began trying to pull the ball too much, and increased his aggressiveness. Take a look at Lindor’s spray chart batting left-handed from the past two seasons, with 2016 on the left, and 2017 on the right.
On the left, we see an incredibly diverse approach, with red dots (line drives) and green dots (ground balls) all across the diamond. On the right, these dots are much more concentrated towards right field, Lindor’s pull side. When batting right-handed, we see a similar pattern, with Lindor’s 2017 spray chart leaning more toward his pull side.
Sure enough, Lindor is pulling the ball more frequently in 2017 than 2016, and it seems to be hurting him. The first table below display how often Lindor pulls each of his batted-ball types, and the second shows his batting average on those batted balls.
While certainly some of Lindor’s lower BABIP this year compared to last can be attributed to misfortune, it is no secret that pull-heavy, shift-prone hitters carry lower BABIPs than players that use all fields. Surely, that’s been part of what’s plagued Lindor this season. The good news? Linder seems committed to re-finding his all fields approach, and had been showing signs of improvement, with a 108 wRC+ in his last 29 plate appearances heading into the All-Star break.
Lindor’s decline defensively, according to the metrics, is more of a mystery. His sprint speed this season (28.1 feet/second) is higher than his mark last season (27.4 feet/second), which would seem to eliminate the idea of injury or fatigue sapping Lindor’s physical ability. We do know that defensive metrics can be noisy, but even by the infamous “eye-test” Lindor clearly hasn’t been as spectacular at shortstop as he has been in years prior.
That said, Indians’ fans have to trust that Lindor’s lauded defensive ability didn’t vanish in his age-23 season, and that eventually he will right the ship. Overall, there aren’t any easy answers to what’s led to this season’s disappointment, but everyone should be glad a slumping Lindor is still an above-average player overall. The key for everyone – Lindor included – is patience. His physical tools and make-up mean his return to top-form is almost certainly inevitable.