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Inbox: Why does Kipnis still hit leadoff?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields Tribe fans' questions
August 7, 2017

Why does Jason Kipnis hit leadoff? He has a .229 average and hasn't hit all year. -- @ZachBradfordTOSYou have to keep in mind that when Indians manager Terry Francona makes out his daily lineup, he's weighing factors beyond batting average. One of Francona's biggest priorities with his order is balance,

Why does Jason Kipnis hit leadoff? He has a .229 average and hasn't hit all year.
-- @ZachBradfordTOS

You have to keep in mind that when Indians manager Terry Francona makes out his daily lineup, he's weighing factors beyond batting average. One of Francona's biggest priorities with his order is balance, which plays a role in Kipnis being slotted into the leadoff spot.
With switch-hitting Jose Ramirez recently being moved to the cleanup spot, Francona can alternate with switch-hitters through the first six slots. Francisco Lindor (No. 2) and Carlos Santana (No. 6) are the others, with lefties in the leadoff spot (Kipnis) and No. 3 hole (Michael Brantley), and a pure righty slugger batting fifth (Edwin Encarnacion). From there, Francona mixes and matches in the Nos. 7-9 spots, continuing to work toward balance throughout the lineup.
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So by batting Kipnis leadoff right now, it helps Francona avoid disrupting his preferred lineup too much. This year aside, it's also a spot in which Cleveland's second baseman has thrived in during past seasons.
Over his career, Kipnis has hit .277/.350/.437 in 1,003 career plate appearances out of the No. 1 spot. Between stints on the disabled list this year, Kipnis has struggled offensively, but Francona is also trying to do his part to get him back on a roll. When Kipnis gets into an offensive rhythm, he has shown that he can carry the offense for weeks on end.

If Kipnis continues to struggle in his latest return from the shelf, Francona will surely weight his alternatives for the top of the order. The fleet-footed Bradley Zimmer -- also a lefty hitter -- was given starts there in Kipnis' absence, for example. That kind of move would presumably drop Kipnis to seventh, and I'm not sure Francona feels that's the best way to try to get the second baseman going at the plate.
It seems to me that the Indians play much better when the focus is defense. Has there been any talk of keeping Giovanny Urshela at third base and having Ramirez stay at second, even with Kipnis back?
-- Joseph B.

Well, we got a glimpse into Francona's thinking on Sunday, when Kipnis was activated from the disabled list from his recent right hamstring injury. Utility man Erik Gonzalez was optioned back to Triple-A Columbus, and Urshela -- an elite defender at third -- remained on the active roster.
You're right, Joseph, Cleveland's defense looked stellar while Kipnis was out, with Francona either going with a Ramirez (third base) and Gonzalez (second) combo, or an Urshela (third) and Ramirez (second) alignment. With Urshela sticking around, I'd expect the Indians to continue to look for opportunities to get him on the field, considering his well above-average skill at the hot corner.

Kipnis is going to play second. That's his spot, he's under contract for a lot of money and he's one of the leaders on the field and in the clubhouse. Kipnis is not just suddenly going to be benched. That said, on days when a tough lefty is starting, for example, maybe Francona will go with Ramirez at second and Urshela at third. Urshela can also serve as a backup for shortstop.
Since Boone Logan is likely done for the year, are there concerns with the bullpen lacking a situational lefty? Obviously, Andrew Miller will return, but he's too talented to be considered "situational." Will Tyler Olson emerge into that role?
-- Oliver B.

One of the reasons the Indians didn't pay a hefty price in prospects for a lefty reliever before the non-waiver Trade Deadline was the belief that Olson can potentially handle the role. Between Triple-A and his stint with the Tribe so far, Olson has held left-handed batters to a .141 average with a 41.4 percent strikeout rate (87 plate appearances). Helping matters is the fact that righty relievers Nicholas Goody (.188 opponents average vs. lefties), Bryan Shaw (.226) and Cody Allen (.234) have also done well against left-handed hitters this year.

Earlier this year, Santana was struggling at the plate, necessitating a move lower in the lineup. Over his past 40 games, however, he's posted a .951 OPS. If Kipnis doesn't work out as the leadoff man, it's possible that Francona would consider moving Santana there again. That said, the Ramirez-Encarnacion-Santana combination in the heart of the order has been working of late. Moving Santana would probably create a ripple effect for the lineup, and Francona will try to avoid that, if possible.

The new Lou Boudreau statue is outside the center-field gate, alongside statues honoring Indians greats Bob Feller and Larry Doby. The Jim Thome effigy is now inside the center-field gate at the top of Heritage Park. If you walks down into Heritage Park -- home to the Indians' Hall of Fame plaques -- you'll also find the recently-added statue for Frank Robinson.

There are a few ways to answer this question. If you're asking for the longest-tenured player in the Indians organization, then the answer is Josh Tomlin. He was drafted by the club in June 2006. Next on that list would be Danny Salazar (signed as a non-drafted free agent in July 2006). If you're referring to MLB debuts for Cleveland, both Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco debuted with the Tribe on Sept. 1, 2009. Tomlin didn't debut until the 2010 season. The player with the most MLB service time with the Indians is Brantley (6.131, entering this year).

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.