Indians lean hard to port

May, 14, 2010
5/14/10
11:00
AM ET
The Cleveland Indians are near the bottom of the AL in most offensive categories, and certainly a general malaise permeates the entire lineup besides Shin-Soo Choo and the surprising Austin Kearns. However, there’s another way to look at the offensive woes:

The Indians can’t hit left-handed pitching. (All stats compiled Wednesday morning.)

This isn’t altogether unusual: the AL as a whole hits .260/.335/.415 against right-handers and .244/.319/.374 against lefties. The problem is that the Indians are near-average against righties at a .256/.331/.404 clip that’s like two doubles away from the mean. But against left-handers, the Tribe “hits” .209/.289/.281, living in the Tyner Zone (OBP > SLG).

Now, before I get started, let me get this out of the way. Here is what the Indians WILL do about this: nothing. They aren’t going to make any roster moves until June 1, in the name of “seeing what they have” and “developing the youngsters” and “hurting my spleen.” But it’s worth running a Gedanken Experiment anyway.

It’s not hard to identify the major culprits:

Travis Hafner: .158/.250/.158 (38 AB)
Russ Branyan: .154/.154/.231 (13 AB)
Grady Sizemore: .109/.196/.109 (46 AB)
Matt LaPorta: .077/.172/.077 (26 AB)

There’s not a whole lot to say about 13 plate appearances for Branyan, except that he hasn’t ever really hit lefties well in the past, either. And LaPorta … well … he’s probably not this bad because a manatee in a clown suit is barely this bad. He’s been working with hitting coach Jon Nunnally instead of playing, and hopefully he will improve.

In the interest of full disclosure, Hafner (.288/.433/.538), Sizemore (.303/.356/.455), and Branyan (.296/.406/.593) are all valuable hitters against right-handers. Those are good players, and should play regularly against righties.

Hafner and Sizemore, however, have been declining against lefties for a couple years now, and each looks awkward against left-handed pitching, possibly because of injuries (Hafner’s shoulder, Sizemore’s body at large). They look like they’re lunging, guessing, and generally confused, taking weak or slow swings. Sizemore in particular keeps pulling outside pitches, the mark of a hitter with spongiform encephalopathy. Okay, well, maybe not, but it sure drives me crazy.

A somewhat mild way to address this would be to drop Sizemore in the order against lefties, out of the 2 slot and into, say, the 8 hole. For the time being, the No. 2 hitter could be Mark Grudzielanek. This would also split the lineup away from Sizemore-Choo-Kearns-Hafner, which begs for a left-handed reliever in the late innings.

A more radical fix would be to simply sit Sizemore against lefties, using Choo in center, Kearns in right, and LaPorta in left. This would necessitate using Andy Marte at first or leaving Branyan in there to flail, but really now: what part of .109/.196/.109 makes you think this would be worse? If you’re looking for right-handed help on the farm, it probably comes in the form of Wes Hodges (having traded his third-base frying pan for a first-base oven mitt): you could take a chance on adding Shelley Duncan to the 40-man roster at the expense of, say, Rafael Perez or Trevor Crowe, but Hodges would require fewer moving parts.

You might wonder if a proud player like Sizemore might chafe at being pseudo-platooned. You know what would be less chafing? Winning more games. You know what would increase Cleveland’s chance of winning more games? Getting Sizemore out of the 2-slot against lefties.

There’s also room for a “three-man weave” sort of approach, where EITHER Sizemore OR Hafner sits against lefties.

Of course, June could bring relief in the form of Jason Donald, now hitting .305/.418/.475 as a right-handed second baseman, and/or Carlos Santana, now hitting .314/.444/.529 as a switch-hitting catcher. Santana in particular could DH some days: ostensibly he is being held back because his defense needs development, although watching Tofu Lou Marson chase pitches to the screen makes me wonder how much “development” Santana would need to match this effort.

This wouldn’t solve all of Cleveland’s woes: after all, LaPorta is currently even worse against lefties than Sizemore or Hafner, Marte is largely fraudulent, Hodges is nothing special, and you’re still running Jhonny Peralta and Tofu Lou or Mike Oldmond out there every day. There’s a fair amount of “progression to the mean” available to this offense. But great googly moogly, that’s some kind of putrid against lefties in a division featuring Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Francisco Liriano, and Dontrelle Willis’ revenant, not to mention matchup guys like Brian Duensing, Fu-Te Ni, Phil Coke, and Matt Thornton.

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