The Most Interesting Indians Plays and Trends of 2019
Four days after Hanley Ramirez provided the Indians' first run of 2019 with a solo home run against Minnesota on March 30, the right-handed hitter flicked his wrists and drove a pitch over the center-field wall at Progressive Field for his second long ball of the season. At the time, that round-tripper was just the second in team history to leave the yard with an exit velocity of at least 113 mph in the Statcast era.
Both belonged to the veteran slugger.
Seventeen days and zero homers later, Ramirez would be out of a job, the Indians would be on their way to their next attempt to catch lightning in a bottle -- remember Carlos Gonzalez? -- and the Twins would be on their way to capturing a division nearly everyone thought belonged to the Indians. Life comes at you fast.
Sometimes the most impressive plays or trends in a season come from places you don't foresee. Ramirez proved that with his first homer, which will now stand atop the Tribe's Statcast leaderboard until someone dethrones it. Other times, however, stars provide the interesting data, and the Indians had a healthy combination of expected and unexpected when it came to notable plays and trends in 2019. As 2020 approaches, let's take one last glimpse at the data that stood out in 2019.
Fastest exit velocity on homer: Hanley Ramirez (113.8 mph)
If you blinked, you missed the extent of Ramirez's lasting impact with the Indians, but his homer off Jake Odorizzi on March 30 will live on. Ramirez's 113.8 mph rocket to the upper deck offered signs of why the Indians took a chance on him in spring training -- he was still capable of hitting the ball as hard as anyone -- and that blast remains the hardest-hit homer by a Cleveland slugger in the Statcast era (since 2015). And while Ramirez's stay with the Indians ended after 16 games and a less-than-stellar .625 OPS, this highlight is one worth watching over and over again -- just probably not while you're at work.
Softest hit ball that went for homer: Oscar Mercado (91.6 mph)
Sometimes it's not about how hard you hit the ball, it's the direction in which it's hit. Mercado demonstrated that on July 16, smacking an offering from Ryan Carpenter to the opposite field, just clearing the wall in right field. The 330-foot projected distance on Mercado's ... ahem ... blast was the shortest distance of any Indians homer in 2019. With a 91.6 mph exit velocity and 35.5 degree launch angle, similar balls result in a homer just 3.9 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant. As we will later see, this was not the extent of Mercado's rookie magic.
Most fortunate base hit: Oscar Mercado
There are a few ways to evaluate the luck factor of a hit, but one of the quickest is examining the play's expected batting average, based on the exit velocity and launch angle of the contact. The lowest expected batting average of any ball that turned into a hit for an Indians batter belonged to Mercado on May 29. According to Baseball Savant, with an exit velocity of 90 mph and a launch angle of 54 degrees, similarly struck balls result in an expected average of .023. Of course, the ... uhhh ... miscommunication between Brock Holt and Mookie Betts of the Red Sox contributed to the single, which looks like a scorcher in the box score.
Unluckiest out: Tyler Naquin
On the other side of the luck scale, there is poor Naquin, who smoked this ball off Aaron Sanchez on April 4. Unfortunately, the early-season weather had no plans of letting the drive leave the yard, falling short of the fence despite a 106.5 mph exit velocity and 25.1 degree launch angle. Similar contact results in a .964 expected batting average and leaves the park around 91 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant. Instead, this falls comfortably into the fielder's glove and Naquin must retreat to the dugout with nothing to show for the well-struck ball. Brutal.
Unluckiest hit allowed: Dan Otero
We can perform the same sort of test for pitchers, and Otero drew the short straw by yielding this hit to Dylan Moore of Seattle on May 5. With an 88.2 mph exit velocity and 53.1 degree launch angle, similarly struck balls lead to an expected batting average of .009. Unfortunately, the sun was not on Otero's side this day, and Naquin, once again, was the victim of misfortunate of his own.
Most fortunate out recorded: Adam Plutko
Miguel Cabrera launched a 107.2 mph drive off Plutko on Sept. 17, a ball that owned a .970 expected batting average and leads to as a homer around 91 percent of the time on similar contact. But Oscar Mercado was able to track down this deep drive with his back to the wall in center field. Amazingly, Plutko also picked up an out later in the game on a ball that owned a .910 expected batting average. Harold Castro was rewarded for his 100 mph lineout with a big fat nothing, as Plutko's magic was seemingly on point that day.
Highest batting average on pitches outside the zone: Yasiel Puig (.292)
Generally, swinging at pitches outside the zone is bad. Those sorts of swings could certainly result in whiffs and worse counts. But hitters also don't experience the same sort of success as opposed to when they make contact on pitches within the zone. Puig cared not for those factors after joining the Indians at the deadline last year, going 14-for-48 on pitches outside the zone. Puig? Unconventional? Gasp!
Longest projected distance: Bobby Bradley (457 feet)
Sometimes, a hitter will blister a baseball seemingly into the next county, but when the projected distance is spit out by Statcast, it's less than impressive. That's because high-hit balls don't always translate into distance. But on some rare occasions, the eye candy of a long bomb is backed by the data. Bradley's first big-league homer was the embodiment of the get you someone who can do both internet meme, proving to be pleasing to the eye and also serving as the Tribe's longest projected homer distance in 2019. This blast off Tyler Duffey on July 13 was a brief reminder of why Bradley earned a promotion and could still factor into the Tribe's plans in years to come. His 113.5 mph exit velocity was also the second-hardest of any Indians homer this past year.
Most balls struck at least 111 mph that resulted in outs: Franmil Reyes (3)
Imagine making contact with a major-league pitch. Now imagine hitting that ball at 111 mph off the bat. Now imagine hitting the ball 111 mph and not getting a hit. Now imagine it happening three times within a two-month span. Woof. While Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor each had a 111+ mph ball create an out this past year, that happened to Reyes on three separate occasions after arriving in Cleveland. Of course, when you hit the ball as hard as Reyes does frequently -- he was in the top 1 percent in exit velocity in 2019 -- you do create a few more opportunities for despair than the average hitter.
Hardest hit ball by a pitcher: Adam Plutko (95 mph)
When you search the Tribe's leaderboard for highest average exit velocity, a surprising name shows up near the top: Adam Plutko [record scratch].
Before starting to consider if Plutko and his 95 mph average exit velocity should force him into some two-way action next year (Shohei, who?), it's worth noting that the average came on just one batted ball -- a hard-hit ball! -- a ground out against Marcus Stroman and the Mets on August 21. The play itself isn't too impressive, but it looks like a rocket on the spreadsheet, and pitchers should take what they can get when it comes to their lumber work.
Slowest pitch that induced a swinging-strike: Mike Freeman (62.9 mph)
OK, so this isn't exactly fair, given that Freeman isn't a pitcher. But the utility-man's slow offering to Keon Broxton of the Orioles on June 29 is technically the slowest Indians pitch to earn a swinging-strike this past year (Tyler Olson's 71.9 mph curve on April 12 was the slowest by an actual pitcher). Of note, after Broxton swings through the snail-like pitch -- gaining a lifetime of embarrassment in the process -- the O's broadcast remains completely silent, either out of complete shock or due to the age-old rule that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.
Most pitches at 98+ mph: Mike Clevinger (10)
Clevinger told me in spring training that his goal was to focus on increasing his average fastball velocity in 2019, and he certainly made good on that throughout the year (95.4 mph). Despite missing over two months due to injury, Clevinger still led the team in most pitches at 98 mph or faster, besting Trevor Bauer. Clevinger's hardest pitch of the season registered by Statcast came on June 28, a 99 mph heater to Orioles slugger Trey Mancini, the fastest pitch thrown by a Tribe hurler.
Most barrels: Carlos Santana (45)
Barrels are Statcast's ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, and no one on the Tribe collected more of those last year than Santana. Reyes bested Santana's rate of barrels after joining Cleveland at the deadline (14.8 percent compared to 9.6 percent), but Santana won the total team crown en route to his best offensive season of his career.
Lowest barrel rate: Aaron Civale (2.4 percent)
Civale demonstrated a lot to like in 2019 -- that includes an elite fastball and curveball spin rate that might pair together well for years to come -- but one of the most interesting and encouraging things about Civale this past year was his ability to avoid devastating contact. In fact, no one on the Tribe's staff avoided barrels at a greater rate than the rookie righty, actually owning the fourth-lowest barrel rate in the majors. In 227 plate appearances last year, Civale only yielded four barrels, and his xwOBA on contact (based on overall quality of contact) ranked him in the top 2 percent of the big leagues. Time will tell if that sort of elite contact management is repeatable, but it certainly helps explain his terrific performance.
Most called strikes on pitches outside the zone: Shane Bieber (109)
When you're paired with two catchers who earned extremely good framing marks in 2019 (Roberto Perez and Kevin Plawecki), pitchers are naturally going to benefit. No one benefited more than Bieber, who had 109 pitches classified as "outside the zone" by Baseball Savant called strikes this past year. Bieber helps his cause by demonstrating an elite ability to command the ball. And while being a starter gives him more of a sample size over his counterparts, the 3.4 percent of his pitches called strikes on pitches outside the zone also tied him with Brad Hand for the highest rate on the staff among those who earned regular work. Unfortunately for Michael Conforto, Bieber earned three of those types of calls against him on August 20 in New York, including the strike above.
Most called balls on pitches inside the zone: Mike Clevinger (36)
In the grand scheme of things, having 1.7 percent of your pitches "inside the zone" called balls isn't a massive deal -- Clevinger's 2.71 ERA and 2.49 FIP indicate it didn't get much in his way -- but the 36 instances were the most on the staff. The worst of the bunch came on the above breaking ball to Nationals infielder Brian Dozier on Sept. 29. The cross-up with Plawecki didn't help, and it will be interesting to see how players react if potential robot umpires of the future call a similar offering a strike, given how poorly the pitch was received by the former Tribe backstop.