Was Francisco Lindor’s Rookie Season For Real?

Top prospects break into the majors every year, and the great majority fail to meet the high bar set by both media and fans. Then there are players like Francisco Lindor, who go above and beyond the bar set by outsiders. Ian York digs into the data to determine if there’s anything that points to Lindor’s rookie season being a fluke.

The Cleveland Indians’ Francisco Lindor placed second in 2015’s Rookie of the Year voting, playing 99 major-league games and ending up with a wRC+ of 128. His excellent defense was fully expected from his minor-league career, but his batting was not: His .835 OPS in the majors was more than 100 points higher than his AAA OPS.

It’s important to keep in mind that Lindor doesn’t need an OPS of .835 to be a very valuable player in the majors. His AAA OPS of .729 is just about the AL average, and a good to excellent defensive shortstop who hits at the league average is a potential All-Star player. The same shortstop hitting .835 is a superstar. Will Lindor be a superstar over the next few years? How much of his batting in 2015 was luck and chance?

The best argument for Lindor continuing to be an excellent batter in 2016 and forward is simple: He is 21-years-old. Players who reach the majors at 21 typically improve as they get older. As we showed previously, on average, a 21-year-old player in the majors is at about 85% of his peak level.

But as that chart also shows, “typical” and “average” doesn’t mean “inevitable”. The boxes outline the 50% interval, and the lines show the 95% range, and not only are the boxes and lines pretty wide, there are plenty of outliers. Quite a few players who debuted at 21-years-old never topper their rookie year performance.

While his age offers some encouragement, there are points that argue against Lindor sustaining his rookie batting numbers. His BABIP of .348 was 20th in baseball out of 211 players with at least 400 at-bats, and he doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to say that his high BABIP is all earned. His minor-league career and his scouting reports also say that he’s probably a glove-first shortstop without much power.

And yet, over 438 plate appearances in 2015, Lindor really did hit for an OPS of .835. If we look at his rolling averages, taking his batting numbers over 10-game blocks, we can see that he didn’t get there with a brief, lucky streak either:

The solid lines here show his end-of-season numbers for OBP, SLG, and OPS. He was called up on June 14, and for a month or so he was, unsurprisingly, pretty awful. But then, in mid-July, he started to hit, and he pretty much kept hitting through the whole season. There are some peaks and valleys in there, but even in his valleys – like the one that bottomed out in early September – he was hitting pretty well.

It happens sometimes that a rookie hits well until the league has a book on him, and pitchers discover that he can’t hit low outside fastballs, or that he loves fastballs but is baffled by offspeed pitches. Lindor has fairly good zone coverage, looking at total bases per pitch:

These charts are shown from the umpire’s viewpoint. Lindor is a switch-hitter, and his stance vs. right-handed pitchers, on the top row, and left-handed pitchers, on the bottom row, is shown. Lindor hit a little better from the right side of the plate, but he was perfectly adequate from the left side (OPS .890 vs LHP, .804 vs RHP). He did prefer fastballs, but was competent against offspeed and breaking pitches as well. Over the course of the season, pitchers did adjust their repertoire against him, showing him slightly fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches in September and October than he saw in June and July, but since he was still capable of dealing with non-fastballs the difference wasn’t huge.

Did pitchers adjust their location against Lindor? Just looking at fastballs, they clearly did have a book on Lindor as he started to heat up in July and August. Against both LHP and RHP, Lindor hit pitches inside and up best, and by late July they started to pitch him down and outside.

But that didn’t end up making much difference, even when they tried to adjust still more and tried up and outside. As the rolling batting charts show, Lindor kept his numbers at a very positive level even while pitchers were trying to adjust to him.

These data show that there are some encouraging signs when looking at the details of Lindor’s season. He didn’t show any glaring weaknesses, and he did show the ability to adjust to changing repertoire even while scouting reports were out on him. It is over-optimistic to expect another 130 wRC+ season, but perhaps he really is a league-average or better hitter. If so, the Indians have a very good player under their control for the next six years.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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