Just gotta keep grinding
The early explanations for Cleveland’s slow offensive start are clear. They are hitting the ball incredibly hard (second in hard-hit rate behind the Dodgers), but the ball isn’t being elevated enough and they are running into some rotten luck. Squint and you can see a future where the hits start to fall, but the lineup looks exploitable right now.
As a group, Cleveland batters are tied for the third-worst offense in the American League at 87 wRC+. They’ve slashed .210/.290/.383, and despite hitting the fourth-most homers in the AL (23), they have the second-fewest runs scored (65). A lack of clutch hitting is a big reason for that, as they sit with just a 53 wRC+ with runners in scoring position, and have left enough runners on base to circle the globe twice.
Is one particular pitch to blame for their early struggles?
It’s been almost two years since Lucas Giolito claimed he kept throwing changeups to Cleveland as he kept waiting for them to adjust to it but they “never really did that.” The lineup is almost completely now different than it was on that May night, so it’s not completely fair to compare it to what is going on now, but it sure looks like a consistent problem.
By FanGraphs’ weighted pitch values, only the Orioles have been worse facing the change (-8.1) than Cleveland (-4.8) in this fledgling season. As you might expect from any team reading a scouting report, Cleveland has also seen the second-most changeups this season (14.8%), trailing only the Mets (14.9%).
A lot was made of José Ramírez rediscovering how to hit offspeed pitches in 2019. Teams started to exploit his struggles against the changeup in 2018, and at least in part, caused his offense to crater. He figured things out midway through 2019, started to pull the ball again, and sailed to an MVP-caliber season in 2020.
Now, though, he appears to be back to struggling against changeups. He is second-worst in Cleveland with -1.2 weighted value versus changeups and 26th worst in baseball among qualified batters. According to Baseball Savant, he has whiffed (swung and missed) on 22.7% of the 59 offspeed pitches he’s seen so far this season. That is by far his most against any pitch this season, and it’s frequently used as a put-away pitch against him.
With all of that said, José is probably going to fine. He’s contributing to the bad changeup numbers, sure, but he’s also among the best hitters in baseball against everything else. He ranks in the 80th percentile or better in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and his average exit velocity is climbing as he gets more comfortable. When it comes to a pitcher needing a big out against him they’ll know what to use, though.
Cesar Hernandez, on the other hand, is being sliced and diced by changeups (and everything else). He has whiffed on an incredible 42.9% of the changeups he’s seen, with two hits in 14 plate appearances where he’s seen and at least one offspeed pitch. Hernandez has the 10th worst weighted value facing changeups (-2.1), putting him in the realm of Jurickson Profar, Kyle Tucker, and Yoan Moncada. Hernandez has seen seven changeups on counts with at least two strikes, and he’s struck out three times and grounded out the other four.
Overall, Hernandez is slashing .200/.307/.277 with a home run; hopefully, his three-hit game against the Yankees Thursday is a turning point.
Among Cleveland batters with at least 10 plate appearances this season, only Eddie Rosario, Roberto Pérez, Yu Chang, and Franmil Reyes have positive weighted values facing changeups. You would expect changeups to be hard to hit. They just are, it’s why they exist to begin with. But Cleveland’s ongoing battle with them is at least noteworthy.
The possible explanations for this could vary. For starters, it’s early — things get weird early in the season. Cleveland has already faced several starting pitchers with heavy offspeed usage (Lucas Giolito, Domingo Germán, and Dallas Keuchel) and small sample sizes are the devil. They could also be pressing, knowing that they need to get the ball in the air and trying to make contact out in front of the plate to generate lift, and in turn, being ahead of every changeup that floats toward them.
Whatever the issue, take solace in knowing that these numbers are not projectable. Just because they are terrible against changeups now, doesn’t mean they will be forever — especially if they keep hitting the ball hard. Hopefully.