Southpaw Struggles No Longer an Issue for the Cleveland Indians

After taking the series opener against Chicago on Friday night against right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, the Cleveland Indians will face a pair of White Sox left-handers, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon, in the final two games of their series and homestand before hitting the road to wrap up the 2016 regular season schedule.

Once upon a time, the sight of a left-handed pitcher on the mound for the opposition would have felt like a death sentence, a near guaranteed loss, for the Indians. As recent history would have it, those feelings were justified as the Indians had not played very good baseball against lefty starting pitching. Those woes have led to an increasingly louder and louder cry for the elusive “right-handed power bat” in recent years, something the Indians found in the affordable offseason signing of the right-handed hitting Mike Napoli.

Quietly, those losing ways against lefties have very much become a concern of the past as the Indians have been one of the best teams in baseball against southpaw pitchers in 2016.

The Indians will finish the season with a winning record against left-handers. If it doesn’t feel right or sound right, it’s likely due to the long history of struggles the Indians have had against lefties that has left a permanent scar in your mind at the sight of “LHP” in the pitching probables.

Those concerns for the Tribe were hardly a new issue – since the turn of the century, the Indians have had just three seasons above the .500 mark in games started by left-handers.

Whether it be by a stroke of coincidence, unusual timing, or the purposeful placement of left-handers by opposing managers, the Indians have played the third-most games against lefty starters (49) of any team in the Majors this year. Only Seattle (56) and Houston (51) have played more, with San Francisco locked with Cleveland at 49 as the National League’s high water representative. The Indians will claim that third-highest total for their own on Saturday before the Giants face Padres left-hander Clayton Richard on Sunday.

While the Indians have played a lot of games against lefties, they have also managed to win a lot of those matchups. With a record of 31-18 (.633), they have the top winning percentage against left-handed starters in the American League and trail just Pittsburgh (20-9; .690) and Miami (22-12; .647) overall. The two have played 20 and 15 fewer games against lefties, respectively.

The Indians’ 31 wins against left-handed starters are the most in the Majors.

Cleveland has pulled in the wins behind a steady offensive attack against left-handed pitching as a whole that ranks consistently at the top of the AL leaderboard.

The team is hitting .272 (fourth in the league) with a .332 on-base percentage (third in the league) against lefties. Their 212 runs are the second most behind Seattle’s 247, but the Indians are in the middle of the pack in the league at 4.33 runs scored per game.

The biggest surprise may be in how the Indians are scoring the runs, because they have not used the long ball to do so like the other teams in the league. With 41 homers against lefties, they are tied for the third-fewest blasts against lefties (Seattle leads the league with 75). Cleveland has made up for it with the double, hitting a MLB-best 101 (13 more than Houston), presumably helping the team manufacture and produce the 202 RBI it has against left-handed pitching.

Individually, the regulars have gotten the job done with a lineup that features three regular switch-hitters (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santana) as well as platoon situations across the outfield.

Ramirez leads the team with a .314 average and .370 on-base percentage against lefties. He is second on the club with a dozen doubles and is fourth on the team with 22 RBI against them in 159 at bats.

Lefty Jason Kipnis has not been hurt by the usual platoon splits at all, hitting .293 on the year. He entered a .247 hitter against lefties, but his numbers this year would be the second-best of his Major League career if he did not face another left-hander the rest of the season. He leads the team in doubles off of lefty starters with 17. His 30 RBI against all left-handed pitchers is tops on the club and he is tied for the team lead with Napoli with seven homers against them.

Lindor is tied with Kipnis with a .293 average (in 198 at bats each) and has 45 singles against them this season. Add in eight doubles, a triple, four homers, and 24 RBI (third on the team), and Lindor has provided a balanced contribution.

Santana has historically hit for higher average from the right side of the plate and that remains true again this season. While he has just eight doubles and four homers with 18 RBI against lefties this season, he has hit .263 with a .348 OBP while drawing more walks (21) than strikeouts (20). His career slash lines (prior to Friday) against left-handers (.277/.384/.439) and right-handers (.232/.355/.444) illustrate the differences in his approach. With a lefty on the mound, Terry Francona has tended to drop him into the middle of the lineup and bat Rajai Davis leadoff.

Napoli has hit .263, down 15 points from his career mark. He is tied for the team lead in homers off of lefties while driving in 25 runs, second on the team.

Even the bench bunch has had success against lefties. Right-handed hitting Brandon Guyer, who was added at the trade deadline by the club because of his effectiveness in the batter’s box against lefties, has hit .308 against them overall with the Indians and .327/.450/.510 against lefty starters in particular. Switch-hitter Coco Crisp has three hits in nine at bats for Cleveland against lefties in a very limited sample, but will see more chances come October. Chris Gimenez has hit .286 against lefty starters in 49 at bats. Davis has hit just .246 against them, but he is 17-for-18 stealing bases against lefties on the season.

The Indians finished last season seven games below the .500 mark at 24-31 (.436) against lefties, making this season’s 31-18 (.633) look all the more impressive of a turnaround for the club. It will be the first season since 2013 (36-20; .643) that the club has finished with a winning record against them and just the third time in the last ten years (2007 – 32-19; .627). Incidentally enough, all three seasons that the Indians were positive in the win column against lefties, they played meaningful bonus October baseball. The only other time the club posted a winning record against left-handers since 2000 was in 2005, when the Tribe went 26-24 (.520) while falling just short of the playoffs thanks to their late September collapse.

Looking ahead, the Indians may need the strong numbers against lefties to match up against the potential playoff opposition. There are a pair of dangerous left-handed starters either heading to the postseason already in Texas’ Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.30 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) or well on his way in Boston’s David Price (17-8, 3.91 ERA, 1.18 WHIP). The Rangers also have lefties Martin Perez (10-10, 4.14 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) and Derek Holland (7-9, 5.04 ERA, 1.42 WHIP) in their rotation, while the Red Sox have former Indians first rounder and 2016 All-Star Drew Pomeranz (11-12, 3.35 ERA, 1.19 WHIP). The current AL Wild Card leaders, the Toronto Blue Jays, have gotten a career year out of J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.28 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) and added Francisco Liriano (8-13, 4.88 ERA, 1.50 WHIP) at the trade deadline.

Regardless of how the playoff picture shakes up, there is a chance that the Indians will be facing down one of the aforementioned southpaws at some point. They will need more of the strong results that they have gotten all season long from their lineup to secure the much-needed October victories against those possible playoff opponents.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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