Through the end of 2016, it had become clear that Francisco Lindor became everything that scouts thought he could be. He is an outstanding defensive shortstop with speed who can get on base. He is also a true switch-hitter, meaning he does not have much of a platoon split. His power is below average, but the combination of his strengths were worth 10.3 bWAR over the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Over his first two seasons, Lindor hit .306/.356/.454 and seldom struck out. With his defense, he could have gotten away with a lot less than his 118 wRC+. I would say that his .148 ISO was pretty surprising, seeing as how Baseball Reference lists Lindor at 5’11’’ and 190 lbs. I am not a scout, but had I been presented with Lindor’s scouting report before his major league debut, I would have projected a .125 ISO at most.
Now Lindor is hitting .273/.335/.532 with 8 HR. That is a whopping .259 ISO, and his home run total is already more than half of his total from last season. His strikeout and walk rates are no different than his career rates. There are no significant changes in his plate discipline numbers, either. The rest of his batted-ball profile, however, reveals much more.
According to FanGraphs, Lindor is pulling the ball more and hitting it hard more often. His HR/FB ratio is a bit high compared to his career rate, but not excessively so. What really jumps out at you is the change in his groundball and flyball rates. He went from hitting way more groundballs than flyballs, to being a flyball hitter. His flyball rate went from 28 percent to 45 percent. That is a huge change.
It used to be that coaches at all levels would encourage their hitters to swing down and keep the ball on the ground. In recent years, hitters are learning how ineffective that really is. Groundballs will go for base hits more often than flyballs will, but will go for extra bases less often. It is really hard to score by stringing together a bunch of singles.
If a hitter is especially fast and does not have any power, then they can be exceptions and should keep the ball on the ground. Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, and Ben Revere fit this description. Lindor does not fit this mold, though. He is not a big guy, but he does not have 20 power either, nor is he as fast as the guys listed above...in fact, FanGraphs lists Lindor at 40-grade power.
Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman are two examples of players who have enjoyed great success simply from trying to keep the ball off the ground. Lindor’s drop in groundball rate was even greater than those two.
Unfortunately, Lindor’s OBP has dropped as a result of his change in approach. It is all a result in a drop of batting average. Hitting less groundballs has resulted in a huge drop in BABIP for him, which in turn has dropped his average. Getting on base is more important than hitting for power, so sacrificing it can lead to being an overall worse hitter. However, Lindor’s power surge is so great that it can overcome the drop in OBP.
Jeff Sullivan recently compared Lindor to Mookie Betts. The comparison makes sense when you read the article. Both players are roughly the same size, very athletic, and neither one of them was expected to hit for power. Betts actually came up as a second baseman, where the bar for hitting for power is quite low, but was blocked at the major league level by Dustin Pedroia.
I would argue that Lindor’s current display of power is far more surprising that that of Betts. Let’s take a look at third similarly sized player: Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is struggling mightily right now, but at his best he hit for a good amount of power. Sometimes these undersized players have a lot of hand and forearm strength that translates to power. Betts has been an outstanding bowler his entire life. It stands to reason that his hobby helped him develop a lot of hand and forearm strength.
It appears that for Lindor, his power surge is the result of simply keeping the ball off the ground. I can’t imaging that he will continue to maintain a .259 ISO, but it looks like he has made a real improvement in his true talent game power. That is great news for the best smile in baseball!
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.