Francisco Lindor Versus the Sophomore Slump

Major League Baseball was shocked last season by the rise of a ton of young talent including Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager. There’s an obvious youth movement that’s passing through the MLB, and the Indians are right in the core of it. They’ve been blessed with some quality drafting over the last four years or more. Aside from Jason Kipnis, who was drafted in 2008, their most exciting draft pick to come up through the system of late was Francisco Lindor.

Lindor, 22, took the league by storm last year when he finally broke into the majors after working on a “litany” of things in Triple-A to start the season. After he made his debut on June 14 and despite starting off slow, he went on to have a monster second half and posted a WAR of 4.6. He was runner-up as rookie of the year to Correa, and has now situated himself as one of the top shortstops in the game.

The question coming into this season though is: how much regression can we expect from Lindor? Can he survive the dreaded sophomore slump?

Not every rookie goes through the sophomore slump during their second season. Mike Trout, for example, put up back-to-back 10+ WAR seasons in 2012 and 2013. Also, Bryce Harper put up 4.0 or higher WAR seasons in those same two years. Granted, these are two of the best players in baseball, but it is possible to avoid. Not everyone, however, is as lucky as these two All-Stars.

One guy that comes to mind that severely suffered from the slump was new St. Louis Cardinals infielder Jedd Gyorko. In 2013, Gyorko put up a 2.4 WAR season where he hit 23 home runs in 125 games. Coming into 2014, Gyorko was slated to be one of the Padres premier power hitters and bat right in the middle of their lineup. Instead, he ended up putting together a 0.0 WAR season where he smacked ten home runs and batted .210/.280/.333. In Gyorko’s case, being an extreme power hitter only type of player, the chances of his regression were front and center. Gyorko was able to put a charge into a ball when he made contact, but he was striking out 23.4% of the time he was at the plate. That alone is troublesome, but predictable for a power hitter. It was more of a matter of pitchers adjusting to Gyorko, and he never re-adjusted. Whether this is just a lack of effort from his perspective or not, Gyorko obviously suffered in his second season and never seemed to recover.

This shouldn’t be the case with Lindor.

Unlike the aforementioned Gyorko, Lindor is probably one of the most intelligent baseball players in the game. He also brings more than one tool to the field. His game isn’t reliant on just hitting the ball out of the park, even though he smacked 12 home runs last season. There are certainly reasons to believe that Lindor will regress, but it may not be as drastic as some people believe.

The biggest area that Lindor will probably regress is his power output. In the minors, Lindor never hit more than eleven homers in one season, and in half a season in Cleveland, he hit more than that. This is probably more of a pitcher not knowing how to pitch effectively to Lindor and Lindor adjusting to the pitch, but that won’t be the case in 2016. His ISO was at .169, while it’s never been higher than .118 in his entire minor league career. I expect his ISO to drop more to the norm, but probably rest somewhere around .130. I think we’ll see a higher power output from Lindor than most expect, but it’ll probably land somewhere between 10-15 home runs per season.

His BABIP last season ended at .348, and his average was .313. I think we can expect the BABIP and average to drop, but I still think that Lindor can be close to a .300 hitter. I keep going back to his intelligence at the plate, but I think it’s warranted. Lindor has a great eye at the plate. It rivals Carlos Santana’s patience, but he’s able to slap the ball around the field and knows not to pull it all the time. When Lindor gets ahead in a count, his average takes a big leap forward, rather than earlier in the count. This is credited to him being able to read pitches very quickly, and adjust on the fly.

A key for Lindor going forward, when it comes to avoiding the sophomore slump, is going to be staying within himself, which should not be an issue. Throughout his entire time with the Indians, there’s been pressure surrounding their top pick from 2011. He has constantly been questioned of when he’ll be in Cleveland, and why he hasn’t become the savior of the team yet. When he finally made it, he exploded on to the scene. Now, the expectations for him may be even higher, but that won’t affect the calm and collected young shortstop.

He’s used to this, and he thrives on it. For other rookies, the pressure gets to them, and they can’t focus at the plate.

This is obviously not quantifiable, but if you’ve ever heard Lindor talk about baseball, and his journey here then you’ll understand.

Something that’s interesting about Lindor’s game from when he was first called up compared to his second half is how long it took him to really adjust to the level of the MLB. In his first 26 games, he only batted .223, with two home runs, nine RBI and one stolen base. In his next 73, he batted .345 with 19 doubles, four triples, ten homers, 42 RBI, and eleven stolen bases. He spent those first 23 games figuring out what it’s like to play at the MLB level. The funny thing is, and most people probably don’t realize this, but he’s done this at every single level that he’s played on.

He takes some time at the start of each new level to adjust to the level of playing style, but once he figures it out, he’s able to take off. That seemed to be the case last year, and I’m sure that’ll be the case at the start of this season as well. As pitchers will change the way they face Lindor, he’ll have to change his approach towards them.

It’s encouraging to look at Lindor’s batted ball splits and see that his line drive rate sat at 20.6% and his ground ball was at 50.8%. The high ground ball rate certainly plays into his inflated BABIP, which will come down in 2016 to regress to the norm, but the line drive rate is solid, and his strikeout rate is good as well. These are definite indicators that he wasn’t exactly playing over his head.

We should expect another year of production from Lindor, but we still need to keep our heads on our shoulders and not expect the Lindor to single-handedly bring us a World Series.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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