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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | November 24, 2017

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Hafner’s Presence Changes Tribe’s Offense

By Craig Gifford

To look at the numbers for Cleveland designated hitter Travis Hafner, one wouldn’t think he is anywhere near the difference-maker he was during his heyday of 2004-2007. In some respects, that is true.

However, despite a huge drop off in home runs over the past five seasons, Hafner is still a key cog in the middle of the Indians lineup. His return from injury Wednesday was just what the doctor ordered for a Tribe offense that struggles to score runs more times than not.

Hafner’s offensive numbers this season are seven home runs, 24 RBI and a .245 batting average in 41 games played. He missed more than a month with a knee injury, going on the disabled list May 23. Those triple-crown-category numbers are low. However, Pronk has a better-than-average .383 on base percentage. Despite a lack of hits, Hafner gets on base a lot. He has 28 walks to go with his 34 hits. Hafner is averaging more than one time on base per game.

While he is not powering the ball out the way he did when he hit more than 20 home runs each year from 2004-2007, the DH is still wreaking havoc in his own way. The Indians missed that while Hafner was on the shelf. Before a surge in runs over the last eight games, Cleveland was really hurting for offense. It is easy to see why.

With Hafner gone, the cleanup hitting duties went to Jose Lopez, Michael Brantley or Carlos Santana on most nights. Those three have had their moments, but none seem to be respected by opposing hitters quite like the veteran 35-year-old. None of the three certainly have the plate discipline of Hafner. Brantley and Lopez both have higher batting averages than Hafner, but their on base percentages are .328 and .292 are far lower. It is often a hit or nothing for them. The struggles of Santana this season have been more than well-documented.

Even when Hafner is struggling to hit, he will find a way on base. This ability means the guys in front of him are going to see even better pitches. If the opposition knows Hafner will be a tough out, it is harder to pitch around Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, Cleveland’s 1-3 hitters. A pitcher doesn’t want to walk one or more of them and then have Hafner work a count to his favor. That can set up a big inning for the Tribe.

Conversely, with someone else in the four-hole, a pitcher can be a little more selective with his pitches to the big three at the top of the Tribe order. If you can walk a Jason Kipnis and then pitch to a free swinger, that is a plus for the other team.

Of course, a lot of fans are angry Hafner is not hitting the long ball like he once did. This is a guy who hit 42 home runs in 2006. In 2007, he recorded 24 taters and 100 RBI. Then injuries struck his shoulder and knee. He can no longer play first base, as he once did, rendering him no more than a pinch hitter in interleague play. The injuries are precisely the reason Hafner’s power numbers are low. If you took his six home runs in 40 games and averaged it out over a full 162-game season, that’s 24 times going deep. Not spectacular, but still respectable. A guy who could hit 25-30 shots in a full season deserves a measure of respect when it comes to being thrown to.

Hafner is a difference-maker in the middle of that lineup. Whether it’s cranking one out of the park or just getting on base, which he is more adept at these days, Hafner is as good as just about anyone on the Cleveland roster at making something happen at the plate.

Look how crucial Hafner was in Wednesday’s 12-3 laugher over the Angels. Choo and Cabrera started that game with outs. Kipnis walked. When Hafner was out of the lineup, anything after that would have been a crap shoot. Hafner also worked a walk against Los Angeles starter Ervin Santana. He forced Santana to throw 11 pitches, perhaps making him weary for Michael Brantley, who drilled a three-run homer to get the Indians on their way to the rout.

Forcing the opposing pitcher to work is something the Indians fail to do too often. When you have a good pitcher, the best thing to do is to make him throw a lot of pitches and try to get him out of the game early. Hafner is one to make that hurler waste pitches.

So while the second deck in right field, once known as Pronkville, may not be visited as often by Hafner, make no mistake he is still a vital part of the offense. He gives pitchers another batter to think about and can only be a positive to others in the lineup who will see better pitches just because of his presence. When he is out of the lineup, he is very much missed.

Tribe management probably still needs to find a way to go out and get another bat via trade, but getting Hafner back is a good start toward keeping a now-hot batting order revved up.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan