Cleveland Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo expected back; did hitters miss him in 2020?

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – Does absence make the heart grow fonder or is it more like out of sight, out of mind?

It’s a line you usually hear about in long-distance romances, but can it apply to a big-league hitting coach?

Fourteen games into the 60-game sprint, Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo opted out of the season because of health and family concerns related to the coronavirus. The Indians were a struggling offense when Van Burkleo left, but things grew worse after his departure.

They finished the season near the bottom of the 15 teams in the AL in several key offensive categories. In this all or nothing age of baseball, here are the categories that matter: runs, home runs, walks, strikeouts and OPS (onbase percentage+slugging percentage).

The Indians finished tied for 13th in runs with 248. That means only one team scored fewer runs than they did. They finished last in homers with 59 and 13th in OPS at .689. They did finish tied for third with 239 walks and ranked 10th in strikeouts.

But even though they were patient at the plate and put runners on base, they couldn’t deliver them. The Indians finished 13th with a .240 average with runners in scoring position. Finishing third in walks meant mostly that they were a boring offensive team to watch.

If they didn’t have one of the best pitching staffs in the big leagues, they would have never made the postseason even with more than half of MLB’s 30 teams qualifying.

This is not a knock on assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez and the other coaches and instructors who helped the Indians hitters after Van Burkleo left on Aug. 7. It is an indication that Van Burkleo, who has taken plenty of heat since joining Terry Francona’s coaching staff in 2013, may know what he’s doing.

The Indians have been quiet about whether Van Burkleo and bench coach Brad Mills will rejoin the Francona’s coaching staff for 2021. Mills opted out before the season started. They both have option years in their contracts to return for 2021. Van Burkleo is expected to return, while Mills is still considering his options.

This was a difficult year for every player regardless of their position. Spring Training I ended on March 12 because of the pandemic. Three and a half months of down time followed before Spring Training II started in early July. The season started in a rush on July 23.

Several Indians players, many of them hitters, never reached game speed. It’s unfair to compare a player’s performance over 60 games compared to 162 games, but that’s the way 2020 will be remembered.

First baseman Carlos Santana hit .281 (161-for-573) with 34 homers, 93 RBI and a .911 OPS in 2019. It was a career year as he played in 158 of 162 games.

This year Santana hit .199 (41-for-206) with eight homers, 30 RBI with a .698 OPS. He played in all 60 of the Indians’ games.

For a closer comparison consider that Santana, in his first 60 games of the 2019 season, hit .285 (61-for-214) with 11 homers, 37 RBI and a .907 OPS.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor hit .258 (61-for-236) with eight homers, 27 RBI and a .750 OPS in 60 games this season. In his first 60 games in 2019 – he missed the first 18 games of the season with ankle and calf injuries – Lindor hit .291 (71-for-244) with 12 homers, 27 RBI and a .857 OPS.

Outfielder Oscar Mercado hit .128 (11-for-86) with one homer, six RBI and a .348 OPS in 36 games this year. Mercado, who didn’t join the Indians in 2019 until May 14, hit .307 (43-for-140) with four homers, 17 RBI and .822 OPS in his first 36 games.

Catcher Roberto Perez hit .165 (16-for-97) with one homer, five RBI and a .480 OPS in 36 games this year. He was on the injured list from July 29 to Aug. 17 with an injured right shoulder that stayed with him until the end of the season.

In his first 36 games in 2019, Perez hit .226 (24-for-106) with six homers, 15 RBI and a .746 OPS on his way to a career season.

Outfielder Tyler Naquin, who opened this year on the injured list with a fractured right big toe, hit .218 (29-for-133) with four homers, 20 RBI and a .632 OPS. He played in 40 games.

Naquin in 2019 hit .277 (33-for-119) with three homers, 15RBI and a .738 OPS through his first 40 games.

Finally, outfielder Jordan Luplow, who started slowly this year because of back problems, hit .192 (15-for-78) with two homers, eight RBI and a .663 OPS. He played in 29 games.

Luplow, in his first 29 games of 2019, hit .247 (20-for-81) with six homers, 11 RBI and a .870 OPS.

Could it be simple as saying Van Burkleo was there for the entire 2019 season and not there for the bulk of the 2020 season? Hard to say, but in such an unprecedented season it’s seems logical that it would be good to hear the same voice and follow the same work patterns. That could be especially true for the Indians, who played most of the season without Francona because of health problems.

The Indians were a middle-of-the-pack offensive team in 2019 when they won 93 games. They finished seventh in batting average (.250), runs (769), OPS (.756) and walks (563). They ranked eighth in homers with 223, 11th with a .247 average with runners in scoring position and 13th in strikeouts at 1,332.

They were not close to that this year. That shouldn’t be a shock because of the daily safety protocols and hurdles every player had to go through just to stay safe and on the field. But was such a big drop in production expected, especially when the Indians pitchers did so well, and the hitters were basically the same group from 2019?

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A variety of Cleveland Indians face masks available online today. (Fanatics.com)

New Indians face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Indians-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All MLB proceeds donated to charity.

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