The Indians lean left again with Moss

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Chicago White SoxEvery offseason, it seems the common refrain from Tribe fans is that the team needs to add a right-handed power bat. Do you know who has never come out and said that specifically? The Indians.

Cleveland knows better than to target a hitter strictly based on the batter’s box he chooses to stand in. The Indians headed into this offseason in need of an impact bat — preferably one with power as a main attribute — and that meant acquiring a hitter, no matter which way his hands happen to wrap around a bat handle. The Indians found one in slugger Brandon Moss.

“We think he fits our ballpark very well and his power plays to our ballpark,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said after landing Moss from the A’s on Monday in exchange for Minor League infielder Joe Wendle.

That’s an important quote, because it sheds some light into why the Indians continue to lean so heavy to the left when it comes to their lineup.

With Moss in the fold, Cleveland could potentially have eight left-handed batters (six pure lefties and two switch hitters) in a lineup against a right-handed starter. A few seasons ago, the Indians were constructed in a way that led to an all-lefty lineup at times. While offensive balance is obviously ideal, so is building a team to account for the place a team plays 50-percent of its games.

Progressive Field is very favorable for lefty hitters and is especially friendly for left-handed power hitters. Antonetti also brought up another point.

“And 70-percent of the pitching is right-handed,” noted the GM.

So, while some fans might have rolled their eyes at adding yet another lefty-swinging batter to the mix, the Indians were thrilled with their acquisition. One reason for that is the fact that Moss was one of baseball’s top power hitters over the past three seasons, while hitting in an offensive graveyard in Oakland. Getting a chance to move his home games to Cleveland is something Moss is looking forward to for 2015.

“I’ll be honest,” Moss said, “other than it being our home stadium — I love the fans there — I hated playing at the Coliseum. It killed me as a hitter. … I’ve pretty much made my seasons on the road. I’d hit 10 or 11 or 12 home runs there, but it’s just a tough place to hit. You don’t get rewarded for fly balls unless you absolutely crush the ball. It’s just a tough place to play, so I’m really excited about playing in a park where I’ve had some success. I’ve always enjoyed playing there.”

MossABHRchartConsider this: Moss posted a .232/.317/459/.776 slash line in 569 at-bats (18.35 at-bats per home run) in Oakland over the past three seasons combined. Even so, he posted a rate of one homer per 15.93 at-bats overall in that span, ranking ninth among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2012-14. Moss accomplished that by posting a .274/.361/.544/.904 slash line in 642 road at-bats (14.27 at-bats per homer) in the same time period.

That .544 road slugging percentage for the past three years combined ranks fourth in the Majors among players with at least 500 plate appearances, trailing only David Ortiz (.557), Mike Trout (.555) and Miguel Cabrera (.554). Moss’ .904 road OPS in that same span ranks seventh in the same grouping. Only eight players in baseball have a .900+ OPS in that span: Trout (.958), Cabrera (.941), Ortiz (.924), Buster Posey (.921), Paul Goldschmidt (.920), Andrew McCutchen (.911), Moss and Edwin Encarnacion (.901).

How badly was Moss “killed” as a hitter in O.co Coliseum? Consider the difference between the production of all left-handed hitters combined in Cleveland vs. Oakland over the past 10 seasons. Lefties have posted a .420 slugging percentage and .759 OPS at Progressive Field, ranking sixth and fifth, respectively, among current stadiums. Lefty hitters in Oakland have turned in a combined .385 slugging percentage and .709 OPS.

According to Fangraphs, left-handed hitters experienced a nine-percent boost in home run rate over league average in Cleveland last season (fourth-highest in the American League). Then, there is Oakland, which produced a home run rate 12-percent below league average.  That is a 21-percent difference — a power boost percentage that has Moss excited to step up to the plate in Cleveland for half of his games.

What can we expect Moss’ potential power spike to look like in 2015?

Looking at his past three years of production, Moss had a rate of 14.14 at-bats per home run in his road games (Cleveland excluded). Swap his Oakland rate (18.35) in for Cleveland and you get an estimate of 14.59 at-bats per homer. For his home rate, you get 15.04 by taking his three-year homer rate and giving it a 21-percent boost. I took those two rates, calculated for an 500 at-bat sample (250 for home and 250 for road) and came up with 33.76 home runs.

This is where it’s fair to point out that I didn’t take age regression or Moss’ atypical fly-ball success rate into account for that projection. That said, August Fagerstom of the Akron Beacon Journal (and Fangraphs) attempted to factor those aspects into his own projection, and he came up with roughly 30 homers for a sample of 600 plate appearances. Chad Young did a similar projection (click here) for Let’s Go Tribe. The general consensus is that Moss stands to benefit greatly simply with a change of address.

Of course, this is all assuming Moss — coming off October hip surgery — is healthy next season.

The hip was problematic for Moss as early as May last year and his numbers dramatically dropped off beginning that month. Through May 21, Moss was sporting a .301/.393/.595/.988 through 153 at-bats. Over his next 347 at-bats through the end of the season, he hit .205/.308/.369/.677. In his final 25 games, Moss hit .127/.273/.270/.543 in 63 at-bats.

Moss was asked on Monday how much the hip was to blame for his drastic second-half decline:

“The hip was probably 90-percent of the problem. It started bothering me in early May and then I just kind of dealt with it, because it was just tight. But, as the season wore on, other things started flaring up and it started to have some actual pain and then it started to affect the muscles in my glutes and stuff like that. By the end, I couldn’t even hit into my front leg. I was hitting against it. I was hitting away from it and it caused me to pull off the ball a little bit. My numbers as far as fly balls, ground balls and strikeouts didn’t change very much. I still hit as many fly balls as I always do. It’s just that, by not hitting into that front side, I wasn’t getting the carry on the ball. That’s really all it was. I didn’t have that power.”

Moss stayed in the lineup for the A’s, who were dealing with a rash of injuries, even as tightness in his hip developed into pain and hindered his ability to drive the ball. After a cortisone shot late in the season, though, he felt much improved and then had two home runs and five RBIs in the AL Wild Card Game against the Royals. Sample size alert! But that feeling, and that performance, convinced Moss that the hip was indeed to blame for his statistical nightmare over the final four months.

Now, could the Indians use another right-handed bat, especially for power, to help balance the lineup? Of course. Right now, Cleveland’s righty options include starting catcher Yan Gomes, first baseman Carlos Santana (switch hitter), designated hitter Nick Swisher (switch), shortstop Jose Ramirez (switch), backup catcher Roberto Perez and utility men Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.

Maybe Cleveland will find another righty bat to add to the fold (trades remain the most likely avenue for upgrading upon the lineup in place), but it’s important to know why the team values lefties so much.

Not only is Progressive Field very favorable for lefty hitters (the 11,296 total bases by left-handed hitters in Cleveland over the past decade rank first in that span among MLB ballparks), but it’s a park that hinders righties. One glace to left field, where there is a 19-foot wall, should tell you that right-handed batters have an uphill battle. Over the past 10 seasons, righty hitters have posted a combined .391 slugging percentage and .707 OPS in Cleveland. Only Oakland, new Yankee Stadium and Seattle rank lower in that time period.

Per Fangraphs, home runs for right-handed batters at Progressive Field were suppressed by seven percent in comparison to league average in 2014. That was tied for last in the American League. The last time Cleveland came within five percent of league average was 2006. This doesn’t mean the Tribe should avoid right-handed batters, but it shows how those hitters are at a disadvantage in Cleveland.

Last year, the Indians’ right-handed batters posted a .647 OPS (22nd in MLB) against right-handed pitching and a .684 OPS (24th) against lefties. Cleveland’s righties combined for 805 plate appearances against righties — far and away the fewest in baseball. Seattle ranked 29th with 1,026 PAs. That tells you that opposing teams threw as many lefty pitchers at the Tribe as possible to create a platoon advantage.

Those are all reasons to feel that the Indians could use a right-handed addition, but they are not reasons to bemoan the addition of Moss. What Cleveland really needs is for players such as Aviles (.645 OPS vs. LHP in 2014), Raburn (.596) and Swisher (.481) to perform better against southpaws.

–JB

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