Leadoff hitters are something of a dying breed in baseball. With the rise of sabermetrics, teams have gone to matchup based lineups rotating different players in and out of the leadoff spot. The days of seeing Grady Sizemore’s name penciled in at the top of the lineup card each game are long gone, as the Indians have used a groups of players for the last decade and a half to leadoff. The lack of a consistent leadoff hitter hasn’t really hurt the Tribe. Up until last year, the Indians had been top ten in baseball in runs scored three years running (espn.com). Seventeen games into the 2020 season and it appears the Indians have found a player they can plug into the top of the lineup each and every game in Caesar Hernandez.
Hernandez was signed last December to a one year deal, ostensibly to take over second base for the departed Jason Kipnis. The signing was the only Major League signing for the Indians this off season in what was the typical quiet offseason for the Indians. The deal gained little fanfare as Hernandez was little known outside of Philadelphia and was at best viewed as an upgrade over Kipnis, a pretty low bar considering the struggles Kipnis had at the plate his last few years in Cleveland. What it looks like now is quite the bargain for the Indians. Through sixteen games that Hernandez has started, he is hitting .305 with a .414 on base percentage. He has also reached base in all sixteen games he has appeared in. Those are the type of numbers that have been missing at the top of the lineup for the Indians for the last decade or so. Hernandez is a guy who can not only hit but also draws walks and works the counts early in the game.
As the Indians offense has been in an early season slumber Hernandez consistency has been important as someone they can plug into the lineup and know that they will reach base. They can’t score runs at a consistent clip without base runners and Hernandez has so far been able to provide that as other players are still trying to round into form. Being able to lock in the same guy into the top of the order is going to create more consistency in the top of the lineup. Baseball players are creatures of habit and the Indians players have been willing to move around the lineup as Francona sees fit, but hitters like to have consistency in where they are slated in the lineup. This has been difficult to do for the Indians when they have to rotate players in and out of the top spot, now that the top is solidified players like Santana, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor can feel comfortable knowing where they will be in the lineup day after day.
The Indians lineup lacked depth coming into this season and that is why it was all the more important that the top of the lineup got off to a hot start. Having Hernandez at the top allows Francona to have a set first five hitters with Ramirez, Lindor, Santana and Franmil Reyes following in the two through five slots in the order. Hernandez and Ramirez so far have been the only Tribe hitters to come out hot or at least midseason form. Luckily, the Indians pitching has been the best in the league thus far or the Indians might already be out of it. The lineup over the last two series has started to come alive with Franmil Reyes finally hitting the ball hard and some of the other guys starting to put together good at bats. Assuming that Lindor will find his stroke and Santana will heat up as he always does for stretches, the top five of the order will be a headache for any team they face.
Hernandez wasn’t a “sexy” signing this offseason but is looking to be one of the underrated deals as he has been better than advertised thus far. All signs point to this being his lone season with the Tribe for several reasons. First he is 30 and if he continues to hit as he has so far this year he will likely sign else where. Another reason is the Indians top prospect per mlb.com Nolan Jones is knocking on the door and will be competing to take over third base in 2021 and that will allow the Indians to move Ramirez to second base. The Indians will have a lot changes coming next year and will be looking once again for someone to take the leadoff role but at least for one year we will see Hernandez’s name there each and every day.