CLEVELAND — Few players have changed their profiles as dramatically as Francisco Lindor.
As a minor league prospect, Lindor was not the masher who currently sits atop the Cleveland Indians’ lineup. While he was still the fluid and graceful athlete at shortstop that he is today, he was a completely different player at the plate. He lunged at pitches outside the zone. He often made weak contact. When evaluating Lindor as a minor league hitter, scouts typically capped his power potential between 15 and 20 home runs — something fitting for his slight, 5-foot-11 frame.
To the left of Lindor in the Cleveland infield this season is an even more unlikely MVP candidate. As a minor league shortstop, the 5-foot-9 Jose Ramirez never hit more than five home runs at any stop. While Lindor was a first-round pick, it wasn’t clear if Ramirez could be a major league regular if and when Lindor pushed him off shortstop to another more bat-dependent position. Ramirez was never a top 100 prospect.
In their first couple of years in the majors, neither showed a hint of extreme power potential. Then, a year ago, something happened. Lindor smashed 33 homers in his third season, and Ramirez hit 29 in his fourth.1 This year, Ramirez trails only J.D. Martinez in home runs, and Lindor is 11th in the league.
While Martinez is one of many players who have made well-documented swing changes with the goal of lifting the ball in the air, he has always had a big frame and underlying raw power. Among the 336 hitters who have hit at least 25 fly balls this season, Martinez ranks fifth in average fly-ball distance at 350 feet.2 He can hit the ball out to all fields. Lindor and Ramirez, though, do not possess such elite raw power. The are tied, ranked 92nd, in average fly-ball distance (328 feet). They have to better direct the balls they do hit in the air to maximize their power.
Lindor and Ramirez are also two of the unlikeliest sluggers in the game because of their size. In baseball history, there have been 335 individual seasons of 40 or more homers by 146 different players. Only 17 players 5-foot-11 or shorter have hit 40 home runs in a major league season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. If he hits just three more homers, Ramirez will tie Roy Campanella (1953) and Mel Ott (1929) for second on the list of shortest players to reach 40 homers in a season.3 Their power-to-size output is even more impressive as players have gotten taller and stronger.
“Nobody thought I could do this,” Ramirez told ESPN. “I was too small.”
Said Indians assistant general manager Carter Hawkins: “My sense is there was one guy who felt this was going to happen, and that was Jose.”
The Indians’ diminutive duo isn’t alone in smashing expectations this season. At 5-foot-9, Boston’s Mookie Betts (27 home runs) is also one of the slightest sluggers in major league history. And though he’s taller, at 6-foot-3, St. Louis’s Matt Carpenter has transformed from an on-base-focused player to one leading the National League in home runs. Those players and others all fit a specific mold, sharing traits that have allowed them to become unlikely sluggers.
These players represent the next generation of the Fly-Ball Revolution. While the first stage is to get the ball up in the air, the next and more important step for many hitters is to get to the pull side. Elite contact hitters are learning to raise their offensive profiles, learning that it’s OK to be pull-happy. Some of the game’s smallest players are becoming home run kings.
Last Friday, facing Baltimore pitcher David Hess, Ramirez did something he has done so often this season: He took a fastball and pulled it into the right-field seats. It was his 37th home run of the season.
Lindor and Ramirez — actually the Indians in general — avoid talking about “launch angle,” which has become part of the baseball vernacular since the launch of Statcast in 2015. What they do talk about is contact point.
For decades, hitting coaches have talked about using the “big part” of the ballpark, going “gap to gap,” using the “whole field.” And in today’s game, with defenses shifting the infield more than ever, you might think hitters are increasingly incentivized to avoid pulling the ball. But Ramirez and Lindor (and Betts and Carpenter and others like Eddie Rosario and Aaron Hicks) are trying to pull the ball. They are trying to hook and yank pitches down the line for extra-base hits and home runs. After all, the shortest distance to record a home run is down the line.
Of fly balls hit to the pull side this season in the majors, 32.7 percent have become home runs, according to FanGraphs. To center field? Just 8 percent. And the opposite field? Just a 3.8 percent HR/FB ratio.
Lindor knows this. Before his locker at Progressive Field last week, wearing black sweats and white tennis shoes, he held an imaginary bat in his hand. Lindor mimicked where he wanted his contact point to be — out in front of the plate. That’s where his power is.
Lindor noted that he and Ramirez are far from the strongest players on the team. Ramirez ranks 126th in average exit velocity of fly balls and line drives (93 mph) in the majors,4 according to Baseball Savant leaderboards. Lindor ranks 77th (94.3 mph). Yet they might combine for 80 home runs this season.
Lindor, and particularly Ramirez and Betts, have become masters at lifting and pulling. Ramirez’s pull rate on fly balls and line drives rose from 28.5 percent in 2016 to 38.8 percent last season, and it’s at 44.7 percent this season, ranking third in the majors. Ramirez leads all hitters in total volume of line drives and fly balls hit to the pull side. Ramirez also tied Betts for the lead in the majors in pulled line drives and fly balls last season. Lindor ranked ninth. They seem to be reading from the same developmental plan.
“We talk,” Lindor said, breaking into his iconic ear-to-ear smile. “[Ramirez] helps me, I help him.”
Ramirez has hit 31 of his 37 home runs to the pull side, first in the majors. Carpenter is second, hitting 23 of his 34 home runs to his pull side. Betts is third. Lindor? Eighteen pull-side homers, good for 11th.
|Player||Pulled HR||Total HR||Pulled HR %|
Ramirez, Alex Bregman,5 Rosario, Carpenter and Betts rank first through fifth in total volume of air balls yanked to their pull side. Their averages on those balls are .593, .500, .600, .649 and .660, respectively. Lindor ranks 14th in volume with a .634 average.
“Even though we are not big, it’s something we develop when we get to this level,” Rosario said of pull power. “I think when you feel comfortable at this level, power [develops].”
In an era when so many have screamed out at the television for a player to hit the ball the other way, avoiding a defensive shift by pulling the ball — in the air — is the optimum path to offensive efficiency. It allows slap-hitting middle infielders to become MVP candidates.
One reason that the Indians don’t preach about launch angle is Cleveland hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo’s philosophy that contact point largely takes care of that. While the launch angles of Lindor and Ramirez have changed dramatically since 2016, for them, it’s the byproduct of timing and leverage, of catching the ball out farther in front of the plate.
“If you use the lower half correctly, and sequence the plane correctly, you don’t have to worry about launch angle,” Van Burkleo said. “Contact point is going to dictate launch angle. … If you contact the ball deeper, [the bat] plane is flatter. If you catch it out front, your plane is getting more on line with the ball.
The numbers support this. Sportvision analyst Graham Goldbeck found for FanGraphs last August that home run probability is maximized about 10 inches in front of home plate. And to pull a ball, the bat almost always has to make contact out in front of home plate. At that contact point, the barrel is typically going to be on the way up in any swing path.
“The barrel is going to drop” after the start of the swing, Lindor said. “It’s heavy. It’s going to drop no matter what.
“That’s gravity. I focus on contact point. Launch angle then takes care of itself.”
This explains the propensity of these hitters to rip the ball down the foul line — but only partially.
The World Series champion Houston Astros have developed a teamwide philosophy of only offering at the pitches they can damage. The Indians preach something similar.
“If it’s a pitch you can’t get your body into a leveraged position [to hit], then you probably want to take it early in the count, or when you are ahead in the count,” Van Burkleo said.
For so long, “covering the whole plate” was considered an important hitting characteristic. It was something that was taught to Lindor as a younger player.
“Yeah, that’s when I was a slap hitter,” Lindor said with a smirk. “When I try and cover the whole plate, that’s when I get in trouble. … I can cover the whole plate if I want to. I can put the ball in play any time I want. That’s not going to do any good for me or the team.”
Lindor is now eschewing pitches he cannot drive. He is becoming more disciplined. He is focused on attacking pitches — often fastballs — he can damage.
“I don’t want to cover the whole plate,” he said.
When explaining what led to home runs in post-game press conferences this season, Ramirez has often quipped to reporters, “home run pitch.” While Ramirez hasn’t been willing to divulge changes to his approach, he has become better able to hammer pitches he wants to hit.
It’s similar to a concept that Reds great Joey Votto defines as pitch funneling — being so patient and discerning that the pitcher eventually gives the batter the pitch he wants to hit. The overall swing rates for Lindor and Ramirez have dropped. They have concentrated their swings in certain zones. They have better avoided getting out in front and rolling over off-speed pitches for ground balls or making weak contact at out-of-zone pitches. They are now two of the best fastball hitters in the game. They hunt fastballs and crush them.
Consider a Baseball Savant data-density map, indicating where a batter swings most often, of Lindor’s swings against fastballs from 2016. The rectangular outline represents the batter’s strike zone.
Here’s Lindor’s swing density map in 2018:
Then consider a data-density map of Ramirez’s swings against fastballs from 2016:
And then 2018:
Of course, such a transformation is easier said than done. While most ground balls are pulled (hence the proliferation of shifts), fly balls are distributed more equally, with a slight tendency to the opposite field. How do you identify which players can make the leap to launching and pulling?
One challenge in today’s game for scouts — and projection forecasts — is evaluating future power grades. Power jumps can now seemingly materialize out of nowhere. How do you forecast the next Ramirez? FiveThirtyEight spoke to one NL evaluator who described Ramirez’s trajectory as the most baffling development story of his scouting career.
It isn’t just human evaluators. Projection forecasts didn’t buy in to Ramirez or Lindor as power hitters even after their 2017 breakouts. FanGraphs projected Ramirez to hit 20 home runs this year in its preseason forecast. Baseball Prospectus forecast 13. For Lindor, those projections were 24 and 21.
“The main thing for me is athleticism,” said the NL evaluator. “You have to have the hand-eye and feel for the strike zone.”
Lindor and Ramirez were, and remain, elite contact hitters. They can contact the ball at will and manipulate the barrel and contact point. Since 2016, they have made contact on swings at pitches in the zone at a rate of at least 91.1 percent, ranking in the top fifth of qualified major league hitters.
The trait suggests that of baseball’s five tools — hit, run, throw, power, field — the “hit” tool is now of even greater importance. The hit tool, more than ever, dictates how the power tool with develop.
“It’s easier for you to go from [contact focus] to the other side, to pulling,” Lindor said.
The Indians are placing more weight on contact hitting when working with their prospects, with the idea that they can teach power. Like many teams, the Indians have technology that can capture exit velocities and launch angles in their minor league stadiums and batting cages. Such tools help the teaching and skill-acquisition process. If the hit tool is in place, those tools can help build power.
“What’s old is new,” Hawkins said. “I think if you ask any evaluator or coach and said, ‘Hey, would you prefer a guy who can hit the ball 500 feet or a guy that can square up any ball that is in the zone?’ They are taking the later.
“It’s not like [power development] didn’t happen prior to it being able to be measured [via Statcast]. There were guys that were tapping into power later in their careers in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we just didn’t have the launch angle measurements, exit velocity measurements. I think one commonality between all those guys [like Ramirez, Lindor and Betts] is they control the zone really well. None of them are high-strikeout guys. They are extremely low-strikeout guys. They are swinging at pitches they can [damage].”
Perhaps the team that has turned high-contact, low-power middle infielders Ramirez and Lindor into power-hitting superstars is on to something. Maybe there’s a road map for hitters of any size in how to go from good to great.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.