Starting from the Top: Bourn, Swisher and Kipnis
Taking a closer look at the trio at the top of the Indians lineup
Last year, they started from the bottom.
This year, we’re starting from the top—at the top of the Indians lineup that is.
No, the Tribe may have not reached the top just yet, but a new season with many of the same familiar faces in the clubhouse and on the field is something to be excited about.
For 56 times last year, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis hit one, two and three in the Indians order respectively. They were far from the most potent bunch in baseball, but they have given Cleveland a new look and a new identity offensively.
All three had their fair shares of ups and downs, but the trio want fans to know they are looking to improve both personally and as a whole in 2014.
Let’s start with the leadoff man.
Signing a four year, $48 million contract with the Tribe last February, Bourn battled the injury bug right out of the gate in his first season in the American League. Missing almost a month from April 14 – May 10 with a right index finger injury, the center fielder finished the first half strong, hitting .290 in 68 games.
Adjusting to a new league would eventually take its toll on the 31 year-old veteran in the second half, as he hit just .232 out of the leadoff spot after the All-Star break. It was the second straight season Bourn has had problems down baseball’s stretch, as he’s now batted a combined .228 the last two years in the second half.
“I feel like I’ll be better this year, as long as I’m healthy.” Bourn said.
As a player who has bounced around the league, he knows the importance of how tough it will for the Indians to better themselves after a great 2013 season.
“[Going from] 92-95 wins is probably a little harder than going from 70-92,” Bourn said. “Last year nobody expected us to be where we were at. This year coming in, they already know. Every team in the big leagues is going to try and get better.”
There’s no question Cleveland had their fair share of struggles against teams above .500 last season, most notably against their rival Detroit Tigers. The Indians lost 15 of 19 meetings with the Motor City Kitties, finishing with a 34-50 record against winning ball clubs. Despite dismal numbers, Bourn sees the A.L. Central up for grabs this year.
“To me it’s an open division” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyone that has a stamp on it. Detroit is the reigning champions, but I think there’s a team that can knock them off.”
It’s crazy to think the Tribe finished 2013 just one game behind the Tigers, and now, Detroit is without one of their big sluggers in Prince Fielder who was dealt to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
“It’s no secret that beat our heads in almost every game we played,” Bourn said. “But if you look at the games we did lose to them, there weren’t too many blowouts so that tells you something.”
Of the 15 losses to Detroit, seven of them came within three runs or less. Sometimes all it takes is one pitch to make all the difference. As an offensive player, Bourn stressed the importance of the other side of the ball defensively.
“Offense is great, but I don’t care what anyone says, it starts with pitching and defense. Look at the [Seattle] Seahawks, the defense got them all the way there, that’s how it works.”
Since the wild card loss to Tampa Bay, Bourn underwent offseason surgery on his left hamstring which he injured on the very last game of the regular season. As a player that relies on speed, he noted he will be 100 percent by the start of spring training. His health during the one game wild card playoff game was a different story.
“I knew the position we were in so I wanted to play,” Bourn said. “When I look back at it, I had opportunities to drive in a run. I think all we needed was to get on the board and get crowd ignited, they were waiting on us to give us a spark.”
Even without having a player hit 30 home runs or drive in 100 RBI for the last half decade, Cleveland did finish fourth in the A.L. with 745 runs scored.
“We put up just as many runs, so I think it evens out,” Bourn said. “I think we have the potential and some players that can do that though. One thing that we did good last year is beat up on the teams we were supposed to beat up on, we didn’t lose many games against teams with losing records so that means we’re coming to play every game.”
Under A.L. Manager of the Year Terry Francona, the Indians went 56-18 against teams below .500 last season.
“He’s been doing this for a long time and he had faith in us the who year," Bourn said. "He's not a manager that calls a whole bunch of meetings, he only speaks when he needs to speak."
Keeping the faith and knowing you have a chance to win day in and day out is just the start.
“I think we have a high ceiling, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. In baseball it’s such a long process, it’s a slow grind and you have to take it one game at a time.”
In the on-deck circle with Bourn at the plate is Cleveland’s favorite bro.
Like the Tribe center fielder, Swisher signed a huge four year, $56 million deal last offseason, the highest free agent contract in club history. With the pressure of a new deal, the Indians switch hitter knows he didn’t have his best season last year.
“Was it the year I wanted? No,” Swisher said. “Hey sometimes it happens. I’ve played for 11 seasons and I’ve had ups and downs. But I think more than anything what this team accomplished, and the closeness we gained as an organization from top to bottom was such an amazing thing to be a part of, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Swisher hit .246 in 145 games in his first year in Cleveland, the lowest average he’s posted since 2008. His 22 home runs however showed his consistency, as he has now hit 20 or more homers for nine straight seasons.
“It wasn’t even about me,” he said. “It was just more about the resurrection and getting back to where this team belongs. I wasn’t satisfied. Last year was hopefully that stepping stone we needed to get ourselves in the right direction, and we need to continue to build on that.”
From “Brohio” to his experience winning a championship, you could say Swisher is the perfect veteran leader the Indians need to take the next step toward their ultimate goal of winning the World Series.
“At least we got a taste of that and know what it’s like,” he said. “I want more, that’s what you play for and how you get your banners. If you would win the World Series around here, you know how amazing it would be? This place would go crazy and that’s the goal every single year.”
Swisher saw that goal still burning in the minds of Tribe fans when he and his wife (Joanna Garcia) walked around Crocker Park the day after losing to the Rays in the one game playoff.
“These people would come up to me and they would say, ‘Hey thank you so much for an amazing season, there’s going to be so many great things to come,’ and I think that’s exactly what we’re shooting for.”
Enjoying the new life of being a father, Swisher is starting to get that itch to get back on the field hoping the team can pick up where they left off. The first baseman led the team with seven homers and 17 RBI in September, helping Cleveland go 21-6 in the final month of the season.
"I’m just excited to be a puzzle on the field. I know we’re still two or three weeks away from camp but it seems like everybody wants to be there tomorrow. Hopefully this is the start of something really special for this organization."
With his experience playing on championship caliber teams in New York, he couldn't be more happier of the team chemistry and bonding he and his teammates have shared after just one season.
“Last year we really stressed that word camaraderie," Swisher said. "It was such an emotional roller coaster until the end, but I think it set in to where we can say, 'We can play, and we have a great team.'"
Swisher's passion and love for the game is genuine, wearing his emotions on his sleeve. He couldn't be more ready for the high expectations that lie ahead.
“I just know we’re just going to go out and give everything we got. People are talking about us and that’s a good thing. It’s going to be a tough road, but I think we’re ready for it.”
Hitting third is the heart and soul of the Indians.
Making his first All-Star appearance last year, Kipnis has become one of the most recognizable fan favorites in just his second full season in the big leagues. Knowing the star power he brings to the franchise, Cleveland may be looking at ways to keep him in a Tribe uniform for many years to come.
The team did approach the second baseman with a longterm contract last offseason, but could not work out a deal.
"Both of us are still trying and looking for the right number," Kipnis said. "We just didn't come to a middle point yet."
While the team has yet to resume extension talks this winter, the soon to be 27 year-old noted he is absolutely open to signing one before the regular season. After a slow start in 2013, Kipnis exploded to hit .419 in the month of June, leading the team in runs (84), hits (160), RBI (84) and stolen bases (30) by season's end.
Putting on 12-15 pounds of muscle this offseason, he is looking at ways to continue to get better.
"I picked up a boxing and a muay thai (MMA kickboxing) class," Kipnis said. "It's just something that's gained my interest and it helps with flexibility and cardio. I have a lot of fun doing it."
One thing Kipnis has struggled with the last two years is the second half of the season, especially in terms of power. Hitting a combined .289 with 24 homers and 106 RBI before the All-Star break the last two seasons, the second baseman has hit just .247 with seven home runs and 54 RBI in the second half over the last two years. Definitely something to bulid on going forward on a team that has quickly come together.
“You saw the chemistry that happened how much we gelled last year,” he said. “Everyone is more comfortable with each other now and looking forward to spring training. I don’t know if you could say that in years past, this year we know we can win with these guys in this locker room. It’s a great group of guys to play with.”
Experiencing playoff baseball for the first time in his young career, having the season come to a sudden end like it did last year wasn't something that you can get over after one night.
"It took a little bit to get over the loss, not going to like," Kipnis said. "I think everyone would say the same. You have such a strong season compared to the years before, and to have it come down to a nine inning game, there's nothing else to say but that it sucked, it was cut too short."
The great stretch run in September and making it to the Mid-Summer Classic that has Kipnis even more hungry for another shot at glory in 2014.
“You learn September can be a lot of fun. it really goes to show how many ups and downs a season can have. You need to take care of business in April and May to make it easier on yourself in September."
With millions of dollars being shelled out to free agents around the league, you can't blame Kipnis if he does not sign an extension with Cleveland this winter just yet. But with a winning combination and Francona at the helm, why wouldn't he want to stick around longer?
"Anything can happen down the stretch," Kipnis said. "Once a couple weeks went by and looking back at the season at a whole, we had a great year and a great run. A lot of guys didn’t even have their type of seasons, and that’s what I’m most excited about this season."
Follow Jim on Twitter @JBirdman27 or he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kipnis hits 3rd by virtue of his .854 OPS with runners in scoring position. His OBP (.366) and speed (30 SB's) would make him a nice leadoff hitter, but I'd rather see him hitting with men on base.
If it's been decided that Bourn hits leadoff, then Tony's lineup makes sense.
If Swisher goes into a slump like last June where he hit .160, I wouldn't hesitate to move him down until he comes out of it and slide Kipnis up to #2 and so forth.
Chiz has to be last. Kipnis 3 and Santana 4.Murphy/Rayburn 7 and cabby 8. Bourn may be 7 and Murphy 6. The rest fill in.
Things will get adjusted as the year goes by.
And we do lack a true 4.
One area I slightly disagree on is Brantley. I don't think he has to be in the top 5. Very good case can be made he's not a top 5 offensive guy in this lineup...Kipnis, Santana, and Swisher are better. Gomes was better last year and a Murphy/Raburn platoon would seem to be better as well.
I still think 7th is the spot for him, directly behind Bourn. When Bourn gets on base let him run, either direct steal or a hit and run...and Brantley is probably the best hit and run batter you have. Could see him 6th too, as I said, probably the 6th best hitter...though Asdrubal and Bourn easily could be better...and hell, even Chiz and a platoon mate. But 7th still gives him chances of hitting with men on base, and he does seem to project to be at worst average at least offensively.
That's the exact info I was actually going off. Which actually says your best two hitters should be batting 1st and 4th. Your 3rd best hitter should be hitting 2nd. And then your 4th and 5th best hitters should be batting 3rd and 5th, with more power going to the 3rd spot. Neither is saying your best hitter should hit 2nd...just that your best hitter definitely shouldn't hit 3rd, and explains why moving up just 1 spot is actually better.
Keith Law did an excellent piece on this last year. Not sure if you have insider, but it is here: http://insider.espn.go.com/blog/keith-law/post/_/id/789/joey-votto-bat-second-cincinnati-reds-mlb
Most of the information comes from "The Book" by Tango, Lichtman, Dolphin and Palmer: http://www.amazon.com/Book-Playing-Percentages-Baseball/dp/1597971294/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391186569&sr=1-1&keywords=the+book+playing+the+percentages+in+baseball
If you don't have insider, the crux of the piece is:
"Tango et al, point out, again with historical data, that when you consider the plate appearances each lineup spot receives, as well as the frequency with which each lineup spot gets each base-out situation*, a team's best hitter belongs in the No. 2 spot: It comes up about 2.5 percent more often over the course of a year, and generates more value with almost every way of reaching base due to who's typically on base and with how many outs. That is, a single or a double or a walk from the No. 2 hitter is worth more in run-scoring potential than the same event from a No. 3 hitter."
If you ask me, the top five of the lineup is pretty well set....it is how the Indians construct 6-8 which is more interesting (Chisenhall will be 9th). Do they put Cabrera 6th or slide him to 8th where he probably should be? Or do they take some pressure off Gomes and put him 8th rather than 6th? And where exactly does Murphy/Raburn hit? Will be interesting to see it sort out....but I guess Cabrera 6th (because he switch hits and breaks up the lefties), Murphy/Raburn 7th, and Gomes 8th.
What research shows you want your best hitter in the 2-hole? I definitely think you want a top 3 hitter there, but best hitter? Curious here where you got that (not saying you're wrong, just curious).
Your leadoff hitter bats more than the #2 hitter...and your #4 hitter will come up with more men on base than your #2 hitter. Stands to reason you'd want your two best hitters in those spots. I definitely agree with putting a better hitter in the #2 spot than the #3 spot though.
2-Santana (research shows you want your best hitter in the 2 hole)
I don't get though why you put Brantley leadoff...then say your lineup is about getting your best hitters more at-bats. Kipnis and Santana were our best two hitters....then Gomes, Raburn, and Swisher. Why would Brantley hit leadoff when he was at-best your 6th best hitter last year? Not to mention his value came from hitting with men on base. I'm not a fan of Bourn leading off but Brantley is really no better of an option.
What concerns me is the severe drop-off from the first to the second half the last two years, especially in terms of power. His HR's declined by 70% (24 to 7) and his RBI's by almost 50% (104 to 58).
That is probably due to fatigue as he rarely gets a day off. This off-season he says he's gained 10-15 pounds of muscle. That's a lot for a guy who's listed at 5'11", and but is probably shorter. It will be interesting to see if his power increases and if he can sustain it into August and September.
Bourn's batting average dropped from .290 to .232 after the AS break. Not sure why. With a .314 OBP for the season I don't know why he's hitting leadoff.
Swisher had a great year except for June, where he hit .160 in 114 at-bats. That month really dragged his numbers down.
As for the cleanup spot...
"Francona moved Santana into the cleanup spot in August and the Indians went 33-15 with him hitting fourth. In 48 starts in the cleanup spot, Santana posted a .910 OPS (slugging percentage + on base percentage) to rank ninth in the big leagues for No.4 hitters with at least 200 plate appearances." - 11/25/13 Hoynes column in the PD
My lineup would be:
I'm not crazy about Brantley leading off but he's better than Bourn. This batting order is all about getting more at-bats for the best hitters and vice-versa.
I agree on Bourn. Still not a huge fan of that signing, but do think the injury kept his numbers down. Did get off to a hot start. Think he can bounce back and have a solid year (just still don't think he's a better leadoff option than Kipnis).
Disagree strongly that we don't have a legitmate cleanup hitter. Santana is exactly what you want there. Good OBP skills and has power. I think too many people are living in the 90s/early 2000s still. Don't have multiple guys hitting 50 HRs...hell, even 35 HRs isn't something we see a ton of. Santana is a very solid cleanup option.
As far as not having a #3 hitter...we have tons of good optiosn there too. Kipnis is more than fine there...granted he'd be better utilized in the leadoff spot but if Bourn is going to hit there then Kipnis is more than fine in the 3-hole. Brantley, Murphy/Raburn, and Gomes all are good #3 options as well.
I kinda like this idea for the lineup thinking a bit outside the box.
Bourn just makes sense leading off. I expect a bounce back from Asdurbal and think hitting between Bourn and Kipnis will be good for him. You want your best clutch hitter hitting cleanup which is why I have Brantley there. It also gives us a very speedy top 4 spots in the lineup. Puts good base runners in front of Brantley. Santana-Murphey-Swisher these guys will be in charge of driving in the runs. Allows Chiz and Gomes to hopefully relax at the bottom of the lineup. I think those two guys are key this year. Both have the ability to really turn this into a dynamic lineup. Would be nice to have a RH bat to go along with Chiz.
If you want more traditional lineup just switch Santana and Ascab.
You're kidding, right? Kipnis isn't the 2nd best hitter on the team? Who is?
Among guys with at least 350 plate appearances last season, Santana was 1st in wRC+, wOBA, OBP, SLG, and OPS. Kipnis was 2nd in all of those categories. The identity of the 1st and 2nd best hitters on the team is really not up for debate. It's quite clear by any offensive metric.
Your argument that he is not the 2nd best hitter is based on what exactly? strikeout rate? He strikes out at about the same rate as Paul Goldschmidt. He strikes out less than Yasiel Puig, Evan Longoria and Wil Myers. Can any of those guys bat in the top 3 of a lineup?
Brantley is fine in the 3 hole as far as I'm concerned. In fact, I might agree with Brantley in the 3 hole, but you can't have Kipnis batting 5th. If I constructed the lineup, Kipnis would lead off, with some combination of Santana, Brantley, and Swisher behind him.
I don't think Kipnis is the 2nd best bitter. IMO, he strikes out too much to be any higher. In the first three spots, I want some who has bat control and no matter what can put bat on ball, is that Kipnis? I don't think so
The lineup is flexible in which different players can bat in different parts of the batting order.
Asdrubal(banking on bounce back)
Brantley(IMO, best #3 hitter)
Swisher(this is where Swisher should bat, IMO)
Chisenhall(against right handers)
You miss 5 weeks of the season your numbers are going to be down and playing baseball with a messed up hand is tough no matter what.
I'm looking forward to an Indians offense that I see easily scoring 15 or 20 more runs than last season and a lot of those are going to come from these three guys.
Bourn- I am really hoping for a better year from this guy, but I think we would be foolish to expect a lot of improvement. His offense wasn't too terribly far off his career totals, especially when you consider the fact that he is now on the wrong side of 30 and is a player that derives most of his offensive value from speed. However, even a moderate improvement to his OBP, SB totals and SB success rate would really help the offense, especially if he remains as the leadoff guy.
One area where I DO think we can expect some solid improvement is with his defense. Defensive metrics tend to bounce around year by year, and Bourn has been worth anywhere between 0 and 4 wins on defense. Last year he was worth a little less than a win, so hopefully that bounces back a little bit.
Swisher- I think what he did last year is pretty much who he is. A solidly above average offensive player, and a decent glove at 1st who can play OF on occasion, worth 3-3.5 wins. We're paying $15M a year for it, so hopefully it continues.
Kipnis- I think we'll continue to see some moderate improvement with the bat, especially against lefties as he continues to get more experience. He's a premium offensive player who has an adequate glove at 2B, entering his prime. He's a 4-5 win guy who could really breakout and give us 6-8 wins in his Age 27 season.
For me the key to offensive success next year is hitting RHP better. Tribe tied for 4th in runs scored overall...but were only 8th in runs scored vs RHP (and 11th in OPS). They lead the majors in runs scored and OPS vs LHP last year though. Problem is there are way more righties than lefties out there (and Detroit had 5 very good RH starters....anyone surprised we stunk against them?). Adding Murphy helps, and hopefully Bourn and Brantley improve...and really hoping Chiz can play well enough to at least be a good platoon guy against RHP.
What makes that all the more incredible is Tito managed to engineer that kind of production without a traditional 4-hole anchor & not one 100 RBI hitter.
Tells me we have a big advantage when it comes to who fills out he lineup card.
Bourn leadoff though....even if he improves, still not the best option there. Career OBP under .340 is just not what you want from the leadoff spot. Definitely think we will be seeing him there though, or as Tony said, at least to start the year. Really hate Kipnis 3rd. Should be the leadoff guy. Great combo of OBP, speed, and power. So not only can he get on base (#1 thing for a leadoff guy) but with one swing he could be in scoring position or better yet, have you up 1-0. Choo is the best leadoff man in baseball....Kipnis isn't there yet and problably never has the season Choo had in 2013 (doubt his OBP is ever that high), but could be a top 3 leadoff guy in baseball if he continues to improve.
As far as not having any middle of the lineup guys to hit 3rd...strongly disagree there. The combo of Murphy/Raburn easily could hit 3rd. If Gomes comes close to the year he had last year he's a great fit there as well. Hell, even Brantley could be a fit there.
I'd really like to see Bourn and his .316 OBP and .300 wOBA out of the leadoff spot. Maybe put Brantley leadoff - he had a .332 OBP and .320 wOBA last year.
In saying all this Tito and the "loyalty" factor won't allow him to do this so i'm going to count how many games it's going to cost the Indians.
I'm much more of a fan of Bourn than some people here, but I think getting him and putting him at the top of the lineup made a huge difference for the Tribe last year. He's a quality professional, and in the last few years before, we just weren't putting enough quality professional players out on the field. Sure, he didn't have his best season, but the guy plays at a very high level and I always appreciate his effort and commitment to winning. Actually, I'm a big fan of all three of these guys, even though Swisher's antics do drive me a little crazy now and then...