A look at why Luplow struggles against righties, and a plea to give him a shot at figuring it out
We here at Covering the Corner try to be responsible with our calls to free, unleash, or otherwise let some of our favorite unheralded players receive more playing time.
In the past we have advocated for Bradley Zimmer to get a call-up, Oscar Mercado to be the starting centerfielder, and for Yandy Diaz to get a damn chance, man. Now let’s just check in on how those three are doing with our favorite Cleveland baseball team and — yikes.
Well, those didn’t go well, so let’s do it again.
It’s time to throw caution to the wind, unleash Jordan Luplow, and let the man hit baseballs, no matter the handedness of his opponent. He is currently mashing a very sustainable .500/.500/1.667 slash (510 wRC+) in six at-bats against righties. Two of those hits were home runs, and a third should have been if home run lines meant anything to umpires.
I suspect Cleveland may already slowly doing this, actually. The fact that he has already been in a position to hit three home runs against righties, let alone actually hit three (ok, fine, two and a double that was overturned) this early in the season is maybe a hint at Cleveland’s true intentions. It could also just be a roster crunch, but I choose to be optimistic.
To date this season, Luplow has seen most of his playing time against lefties, as expected. Terry Francona made the smart, out-of-the-box move to have him lead-off against southpaws, and he’s done it seven times already. He is off to a weird start against lefties, with a .182/.308/.455 slash and 116 wRC+. He’s walked in 15.4% of his plate appearances against them, though, and history would suggest that he’ll start seeing more balls fall into play and improve his .143 BABIP. Putting him in the leadoff role when a lefty is on the mound was the right choice, and it’s already paying off.
We already know that Luplow is excellent against lefties. He is, no exaggeration, approaching Mike Trout levels against southpaws, with a career .267/.373/.590 slash against them. If he was able to do that against pitchers who throw with either arm, he would rank second in the majors since 2017 with a 151 wRC+.
The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t done that against righties so far in his career (current hot start over 6 PA notwithstanding). He has zero power against people who can find scissors easily, and his overall slash line plummets to .200/.279/.348 when he’s not facing a lefty. He has walked 4% less against righties than he does against lefties, but it’s still at a decent 9.3% clip. He doesn’t appear to have a problem identifying balls and strikes — he just can’t do it at an elite level, but that’s fine. The problem is purely making solid contact.
Luplow pulls the ball around 45% against either handed pitcher, but his line drive drops from 19.8% against lefties to 13.9% against righties; he puts the ball on the ground almost 14% more against right-handed pitching. The important thing to figure out if it truly is time to unleash Jordan Luplow simple: why can’t he seem to hit righties?
Thanks to the magic of Baseball Savant’s Illustrator tool, we can drill down and get to the bottom of it. Let’s start at the top with the results. Observe Luplow’s batting average facing lefties (left) and righties (right) below by the zone he is attacked in.
Right off the bat, this tells you a lot of what you need to know about his bat-to-ball skills. Luplow struggles down and away and up and in on the plate against lefties. Anywhere else, he’s likely to get a hit. Pitch him down and in the zone, and he’s Ted Williams. Against righties, he seemingly has no nitro zone. He can hit a bad pitch over the heart of the plate, but who can’t?
Let’s go deeper. Take a look at his exit velocities below.
Without his success up and away against lefties, it would be hard to tell which chart is which at first glance. The biggest difference is that he hits almost nothing weakly against lefties, whereas he has some weak — but not terrible — spots against right-handed pitching. But keep in mind, this is raw exit velocity; not taking into account launch angle, swings and misses, and other bad events that can happen even if you can hit the ball hard when you manage to make contact.
As with most players with a severe platoon disadvantage (and most all players to a lesser degree), Luplow’s troubles against righties are off-speed pitches and breaking balls. It might be that he has a harder time picking up the ball as the pitch basically comes behind his head from same-handed pitching, or maybe it’s the breaking balls going away instead of coming in on him. It’s a platoon issue as old as baseball that has yet to be solved, only effectively worked around.
The charts below illustrate how much his opponents exploit this. This heatmap shows the location of changeups, sliders, and curveballs thrown against him over his career. Where lefties don’t dare to miss with a ball that breaks in on Luplow, right-handed pitchers are free to throw anything, with an emphasis on balls that break away from Luplow.
Now, why would pitchers exploit these spots so hard? Because Luplow can’t hit it. Trying to hit the outside edge of the zone (or just off the plate) with breaking and off-speed stuff isn’t only a way to attack Jordan Luplow — that’s just baseball, baby. But the worrying part for Luplow is how much he has a called strike or whiff (CSW) on the outside edge of the plate, and frankly, breaking pitches over the heart of the plate as well.
Opposing righties can just hammer that zone with wipeout sliders or anything with down-and-away movement and Luplow can’t seem to pick it up. Even if they miss? Oh well, he’ll still probably whiff.
Thanks to MLB Film Room, it’s easier than ever to see this in action, with these righties terrorizing Luplow over the last couple of years.
Here are a few cherry-picked examples of righties throwing breaking pitches down and away to Luplow. I apologize in advance to any Jordan Luplow fanclub or family members who are about to witness this. Because it’s ugly.
Granted, this might be a weird way to try and make a case for Luplow playing every day, but this issue isn’t going to away without working on it. There’s no magic fix to not being able to see pitches out of a hand better than seeing those pitches in game action.
And to be fair, Cleveland has tried it in the past. Just last year, Luplow faced more righties (49 PA) than lefties (43 PA), but he wasn’t particularly elite against either. He was platooned much harder in 2019 and had a career year. So this hardly a seething, foaming-at-the-mouth yell from the highest mountain tops to demand that Jordan Luplow be given more at-bats against righties (there will be no Jordan Luplow Watch 2021), but giving Luplow a full-time position shouldn’t be off the table entirely.
With the state of Cleveland’s outfield, there’s no better time to just let him start every day in centerfield and see what happens. Eddie Rosario in left, Jordan Luplow in center, Josh Naylor/maybe occasionally Amed Rosario in right, and Ben Gamel roaming free on a farm in Columbus all sounds splendid right about now. Bring up Daniel Johnson at some point and get a stew going.