Are the Indians Right to Think Jordan Luplow Can Be More Than a Platoon Outfielder?
We’ve spent plenty of time digesting the most notable comments heard from Tribe Fest this past weekend. Francisco Lindor’s commentary on a contract extension, Franmil Reyes’ weight loss, Mike Clevinger’s take on the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing ways. Each moment provided plenty for Cleveland Indians fans to digest.
The same could be said for manager Terry Francona's thoughts about outfielder Jordan Luplow.
Luplow spent his first year in Cleveland on platoon duty. He struggled mightily against right-handed pitching, but his success against lefties helped make him a surprisingly productive player.
Productive enough for Francona to believe he can be more than just a platoon player. Cleveland’s manager noted during Tribe Fest that Luplow has earned the opportunity to become an everyday outfielder, no longer limited to mostly facing southpaw pitchers.
The Indians’ outfield is clearly their biggest area of concern, and the team continues to seek solutions internally. However, can Luplow be one of those solves? Has he earned the chance to prove himself against right-handed pitching?
Well, that’s not a completely fair statement. Luplow’s final 2019 line is quite surprising considering his inability to catch on after two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He finished the year with a solid slash line (.276/.372/.551), an impressive OPS (.923) and the highest WAR of any Cleveland outfielder (2.2).
And yet, it’s still debatable to insist Luplow has earned more at-bats against righties.
Year-over-year, Luplow saw a 74% increase in plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Despite this, most of his offensive numbers dropped from 2018. He couldn’t get on base (.251 wOBA), couldn’t generate runs (48 wRC+) and his slash line was ineffective defined (.216/.274/.299).
Those numbers don’t indicate success against right-handers is right around the corner for Luplow.
What they do highlight, though, is how much of his overall offensive success was driven by his astounding performance against left-handed pitching.
Essentially, if a southpaw was on the mound, Luplow was a completely different player. Almost all of his numbers, from his OPS (1.181) to his wRAA (20.6), from his wOBA (.474) to his wRC+ (198), were absolutely absurd. He walked more (16.8%), struck out less (20.6%) and hit all but one of his 15 home runs against lefties.
It’s important to note Luplow’s stats weren’t inflated by his only facing left-handers in 2019, as 41% of his plate appearances came against righties.
It also can’t be overstated just how much of an impact Luplow’s performance against southpaw pitching had with the Indians. No Cleveland player had a higher overall wOBA (.383). No one on the Indians generated a better wRC+ (137).
Despite this, Francona’s insistence on giving Luplow more looks against righties remains questionable. After all, he gave zero indication more plate appearances will lead to more success.
So, what is it then?
What are the Indians seeing in Luplow’s performance against right-handed pitching that has them thinking he can be pulled off the platoon, that he can be an everyday outfielder? What has Francona saying he’s earned the opportunity to face more righties, even as his stats loudly beg to differ?
If forced to guess, I’m thinking Cleveland doesn’t view Luplow’s success against left-handers as the abnormality here. Instead, the team seems to be assuming his trouble against right-handed pitching is the anomaly.
Francona is likely thinking that Luplow’s production against southpaws was so torrid, so dominant, that it seems impossible for him to be that bad against righties. That there shouldn’t be such a glaring, canyon-sized discrepancy in his splits based solely on what hand the pitch is coming from.
On the surface, it’s not the craziest thought. Luplow produced all-star caliber numbers against southpaws, and was absolutely putrid against right-handers. It’s understandable to hope the latter is some sort of fluke.
At the same time, this also seems to be another instance of the Indians hoping the solution to their underwhelming outfield has been in the clubhouse the whole time.
Just as they expect Oscar Mercado to out-perform sub-par projections, just as they’re hoping weight loss will result in defensive improvement from Reyes, the Indians are also assuming Luplow’s dramatic success against southpaws serves as proof he can eventually figure out how to hit righties.
If Cleveland is right, then we’ve spent a lot of time griping about an outfield which won’t be that bad this summer.
If the team is wrong – and Luplow’s splits certainly hint that could be the case – then it’ll spend the next few months taking it in the teeth for thinking it could make do with an in-house outfield covered in red flags.