CLEVELAND – It took four pitches for Indians fans to recognize the impact of a revamped lineup on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field.
After mustering six hits in their first two games of the series – four of which came off the bat of Michael Brantley – the Tribe exploded for eight runs on 13 hits to salvage a series sweep to the Minnesota Twins.
In addition to the promotions of Daniel Robertson and Erik Gonzalez from Triple-A Columbus, manager Terry Francona mixed up his traditional lineup by batting Jason Kipnis first rather than sixth and Carlos Santana fifth rather than first.
“I’m not a big fan of shuffling to shuffle or however you want to put it,” said Francona prior to the game. “One, I thought maybe it would be good for Kip, maybe give him a little jumpstart. I don’t know, nobody has a crystal ball, but I also want to keep someone behind Edwin where, we don’t want to hurt his chances of getting hot, ever.”
Francona’s decision-making paid dividends again.
The duo combined for three runs, five hits, three home runs and five RBIs behind a bounce back outing from Trevor Bauer for an 8-3 win. Had it not been for Byron Buxton’s leaping catch at the wall in center field, Santana may have added a double to his stat line.
In looking at each player’s splits, this move was much more than an experiment…
Jason Kipnis when batting first: .281/.355/.429, .779 OPS, 50 2Bs, 14 HRs and 73 RBIs in 180 games (178 starts).
Career-high in batting average.
Carlos Santana when batting fifth: .281/.371/.493, .864 OPS, 54 2Bs, 35 HRs and 115 HRs in 213 games (212 starts).
Career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base + slugging percentage.
While the 2017 versions of Kipnis and Santana are drastically different from their 2015 forms, this move is still intriguing. Here is the typical 2015 lineup from a campaign in which Cleveland finished 81-80 (3rd place in AL Central).
Jason Kipnis 2B
Francisco Lindor SS
Michael Brantley LF
Ryan Raburn / David Murphy RF
Carlos Santana 1B
Brandon Moss DH
Yan Gomes C
Giovanny Urshela 3B
Michael Bourn CF
Francona is beginning to revert back to this construction as he approaches the middle portion of May with a team struggling to keep a firm grasp on first place positioning.
“I might get a first-pitch fastball of the game, that might be the only one I can count on, then the rest is up in the air from there,” Kipnis said of the advantages of batting leadoff. “I think [Francona] knows, has a feel for when I’m coming around with my swing, like I do.”
Similar to Kipnis, Santana tends to put his trust in Tito and let the rest run its course.
“I’m happy to be in the lineup, it doesn’t matter for me,” said Santana of batting fifth rather than first. “Couple years ago, Kipnis (was) hitting well to leadoff. He did a good job.”
Whether the enhanced performance is a coincidence or not, Kipnis believes the change does pick up his pace of play.
“There is something to that,” Kipnis said in regards to batting first instead of sixth. “Instead of maybe just jogging off after the top of the first and kind of (having) a little quicker pace to get to the helmet rack to get my bat and get going and get loose.”
In the end, Francona seems to be the source of wisdom when it comes to adjusting on the fly.
“Sometime when guys get pushed back, I think there’s a little bit of a letdown,” said Francona. “I think [Kipnis] was really excited.”
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.