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The Next Level of Francisco Lindor

The Cleveland Indians shortstop was already a superstar, but now he’s one of the best power-hitting middle infielders in baseball. If he keeps it up, he’ll become MLB’s best non–Mike Trout position player. His secret? Well, he doesn’t really know.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Francisco Lindor looks like a shortstop. Since he is a shortstop, that wouldn’t typically be noteworthy, but things have changed over the past three years. In that time, a large group of broad-shouldered, power-hitting man-bears like Carlos Correa and Corey Seager have redefined a position traditionally filled by men who look like Lindor. While there’s precedent for that kind of player, from Alex Rodriguez to Cal Ripken Jr. all the way back to Honus Wagner, big shortstops are now the norm.

At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Lindor is sprightly where his contemporaries are beefy. With his ever-present smile and curly mop of a mohawk — now back to the peroxide blond look from the World Baseball Classic — the chatty Lindor is a shortstop in the mold of Ozzie Smith and 100,000 Little Leaguers across the country.

You wouldn’t know it from his stats, though: With 10 home runs and a .246 ISO, Lindor is hitting for more power than any other shortstop in baseball. This home run binge could be career-changing if he can sustain it. Even though his batting average and OBP are both down from his career norms, Lindor’s wRC+ is in line with what he did as a rookie, when he was about a 4.5-win player in just 99 games.

Last year, Lindor was a six-win player and a top-10 MVP vote-getter despite an OPS+ of just 105, because he might be the best defensive shortstop in the game apart from Andrelton Simmons, who might be the best defensive shortstop ever. If he just hits like he did as a rookie but over a full season, he could be a seven- or eight-win player. If he combines this kind of power with his traditional batting average and OBP — and considering that his hard-contact rate is up about eight percentage points from 2015 while his BABIP has dropped 60 points, that’s possible — he’d be the best non–Mike Trout player in the American League. That’s a player so productive he’d be a near-lock for the Hall of Fame once he hit the requisite 10 years of service time.

I wanted to talk to Lindor about the adjustments he’s made in his swing or approach to generate this much power. A real wonky mechanical breakdown seemed like it would reveal something about his swing plane — a slight uppercut is the new hot trend in hitting mechanics — or maybe how he’s clearing his hips earlier to generate more pull power. I could see how his statistical profile had changed, but I didn’t know why or how.

As it turns out, neither does Lindor.

Every bat is custom-made for its user. Between the color, the type of wood, length, weight, balance, lacquer, and handle style, it is an endlessly personalizable tool to which players often get attached: When Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn was on a hot streak, he used to take his bat home and sleep with it alongside him in bed. When you hear hitters talk about trying a new kind of bat and feeling a connection, the bat practically begs for comparisons to a wizard’s wand in the Harry Potter universe.

They don’t come out of the box ready to use; some hitters rub the bat with a bone to compress the wood, and nearly everyone uses some sort of grip aid, whether it’s pine tar, tape, or grip stick. Watching this process, a mix between an archer picking out arrows and a bassoonist carving a reed, you get the impression that hitters are craftsmen, and that there’s a special relationship between the tool and the person using it. It’s a solitary ritual that doesn’t exist in sports that have fewer instruments than baseball.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When I walked into the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park last Friday, Lindor was preparing his bats. He pulled three shiny blue-black Marucci bats from his locker, polished them end-to-end with a rag, then used a towel to apply huge, gross, chunky-peanut-butter-looking globs of pine tar to the handle.

Any statistical blip as big as Lindor’s surge in power cries out that something has changed, whether it’s mechanics, mindset, or even equipment. All good hitters make adjustments as pitchers learn how to attack them — there’s a certain point in a player’s minor league career where the ability to make adjustments starts to be viewed as a skill in and of itself. But Lindor said he isn’t making any; his swing and approach are the same as ever.

“Just trying to get a good pitch to hit, try to hit the ball hard anywhere in the field, not trying to do too much,” Lindor said. “Trying to find a good pitch to be able to get the barrel to it. Haven’t done anything different.”

The switch-hitting Lindor’s power is to the pull side: seven of his nine home runs in 2017 have landed within 20 degrees of the foul poles, including three home runs from the left side that hugged the right-field foul pole. This season, more hitters are opening up their front foot to get around on inside pitches, a practice long derided as “stepping in the bucket” because it compromises plate coverage. But more than ever, hitters are willing to trade plate coverage for pull power. That’s not exactly what Lindor is doing — he usually steps straight toward the pitcher — but you can see how quickly he opens his hips on this April home run against Sam Dyson.

“The home runs I hit, they’ve been on pitches right there in the same location, pretty much,” Lindor said, referring to the inside pitch he yanked out off Dyson. “The one against [Chris] Devenski, that was low; the one against [Jumbo] Díaz, a slider, was low as well. Besides that, everything else has been [belt-high]. It’s just a matter of getting the barrel to the ball, trying to drive the ball, not trying to get a base hit the other way.”

When I asked Lindor about his uptick in fly balls, he looked shocked.

“Am I really? I feel like I’m not hitting any.”

In 2017, Lindor’s hitting a ton of fly balls. In his first two big league seasons, about 50 percent of his batted balls were on the ground and about 28 percent were fly balls. This year, 37.9 percent of Lindor’s balls in play are grounders and 44.3 percent are fly balls.

“I feel like I’m hitting everything on the ground,” he said. “I didn’t even realize.”

Lindor’s longtime friend and World Baseball Classic teammate Carlos Correa said he remembers Lindor spending a lot of time in the batting cage during the WBC. But while he’s very much aware of Lindor’s power surge, he can’t name any specific changes to Lindor’s swing, nor have they discussed any.

“He has great hand-eye coordination and hits the ball on the nose,” Correa said. “If he hits one at the right angle he’s going to hit one out.”

Lindor wasn’t always a power hitter, or even a particularly good hitter. He was the no. 8 overall pick in the 2011 draft, the deepest of the past decade, and almost went second to Seattle. But his draft position came on the strength of his glove and hit tool, not any expected power — skinny as Lindor is at age 23, he was even skinnier at 17. Lindor struggled at the plate in the high minors; he hit .276/.338/.389 across two levels in 2014, and after he’d been in the majors a year, he was able to spell out why.

It’s a fascinating quote for two reasons. First, it’s unusual to see a high-level athlete speak so openly and unapologetically about not being focused, particularly when there’s no overriding off-field reason for him to struggle. Second, it implies that part of the reason he didn’t hit well in Triple-A is that without immediate pressure to win, he got bored. It speaks not only to Lindor’s talent — he’s that rare class of athlete for whom the game just comes more easily than it does to most people — but what motivates him.

“When you come to the big leagues, it’s not about development. It’s all about winning. It’s all about caring for your team,” Lindor told me. “Once you put 100 percent, 110 percent of everything to winning and doing whatever it takes to win, whether that’s bunting, whether it’s rolling over to get the runner over, or trying to hit a sac fly to bring him home, it makes you a better player, because you just focus on the little things.”

It seems paradoxical that the more Lindor is motivated by big goals like winning, the more he focuses on little goals, but it’s how he talks about defense, too.

“I think it’s a lot of wanting to make every play. Once you have that desire, to make every single play, you have the extra edge you’re trying to get,” Lindor said. “There are [times] that you really want to get it and you just dive and sometimes you end up with the ball. That’s how I play.”

Since Lindor arrived in Cleveland, motivation hasn’t been in short supply. He came up in June 2015 and joined a club that finished around .500, but last year, Cleveland won 94 games, strolled through the American League playoffs, and sent the seventh game of the World Series to extra innings.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This spring, Lindor was the shortstop on the Puerto Rico WBC team, displacing Correa, who took the temporary move to third base in stride: “He’s obviously a great shortstop — he won the Gold Glove last year,” Correa said. “It was fun to see him work every single day.”

Puerto Rico developed a huge following during the tournament en route to the final, which it lost to the United States.

“That was unreal. Those two series, the World Series and the World Baseball Classic, those two were by far the best experiences I’ve ever had in the game,” Lindor said. “Representing my country means everything to me. Being able to look back and say I represented my country, I gave everything for my country … is special. Playing for the Indians in the World Series is unreal. Seeing how the city went from all Cavs to ‘Cavs and Indians’ was something special. It was something that you’d remember for a very, very long time.”

Lindor’s charisma, defensive panache, and habit of hitting timely home runs made him an instant star even as a rookie. He’s the face of his team, despite being — even after 300 major league games — the youngest player on the big league roster by almost a full year. Lindor’s fixated on winning, but he’s also talkative and flashy. He has a cool haircut and cute dogs, attributes that have made it fashionable among fans and writers to wish that Lindor, and not the relatively boring Mike Trout, were being promoted as the game’s biggest star.

Even though he gets recognized on the street in Cleveland, Lindor doesn’t think he’s a celebrity, let alone the face of anything.

“That doesn’t make me a celebrity. I think of someone as a celebrity [when it doesn’t] matter where you go, you’re going to get recognized,” Lindor said. “Just because a couple of people recognize you, it’s special, it’s cool, and I always appreciate it, I always say hello, it feels kind of cool. When you’re walking around people will say, ‘Go Tribe.’ I guess that’s pretty cool. But for me, a celebrity is someone that’s on a way, way different stage.”

The first step toward that stage would involve a return trip to the World Series, but Cleveland has been a mild disappointment early. Injuries to Jason Kipnis and Corey Kluber have hampered the club, as the defending AL champions sit at 24–20, a game behind the first-place Twins.

“It’s a long season,” he said. “A lot of things happen, and we’ve only played the division once or twice, each team. We still got at least four more series with each team in the division.”

Lindor remains optimistic, and considering how his career has gone so far and where it seems to be going, it’s easy to understand why.

“If you’re not playing the game in the right way, and we’re not supporting each other, then of course you worry about it a little more,” he said. “But everybody is being supportive, everybody here is trying to play the game in the right way.”

Hit the ball on the nose and sometimes it’ll go out. Dive and sometimes you end up with the ball. Support your teammates, play hard, and you’ll win. Win and sometimes people will recognize you on the street.