How Francisco Lindor Exploded into Home Run Machine Without Getting Yolked

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 21, 2018

TEMPE, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians in action during the game between Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels on February 28, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona.  (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)
Masterpress/Getty Images

From inside the Cleveland Indians' clubhouse, Jason Kipnis sometimes feels the need for shade, so often is he blinded by the sheer brilliance of superstar-in-the-making Francisco Lindor's toothpaste-perfect smile.

"I hate that," Kipnis gruffly grumbles, good-naturedly. "Annoys the hell out of me."

Lindor's grin expands so much upon hearing this that you wonder what kind of lip exercises a guy must perform to smile this wide.

"He says those things a lot," Lindor says. "I enjoy my life. I enjoy the game, and I love being around the guys. I'm like a little kid around them. I play around with them a lot."

The newly platinum-blond Lindor and the Indians are especially enjoying life this spring as they look forward to contending again in 2018, but it's unclear at this moment which contains more power: Lindor's ever-present, effervescent smile or his game-changing thump.

Before smashing that memorable Game 2 grand slam in last year's American League Division Series heartbreaker to the New York Yankees, Lindor clobbered 33 home runs during the regular season. It was more than double his 2016 output (15).

And while Kipnis kids his teammate amid the calm of spring training, he was dead serious when he conducted an exit interview of sorts with Lindor two autumns ago following Cleveland's World Series near-miss against the Chicago Cubs. Kipnis told Lindor how much he admired his game, how much he loved his work ethic, and then offered one essential bit of wisdom that he hoped Lindor would take to heart.

Whatever you do this winter, Kipnis told him, please, please do not bulk up.

"I told him that because I did it to myself," Kipnis says. "I tore my oblique because I was too stiff."

Lindor listened as Kipnis told him the tale of his own lost season of 2014. Kipnis had been an All-Star in 2013, went home that winter, thought that with 17 homers and 84 RBI in his rear-view mirror that season, more muscle would only make things better.

Kipnis gained 10 pounds for 2014. He showed up ready to take on the world. And near the end of April, he swung so hard one day in Anaheim that his oblique popped.

The injury hampered him the rest of the summer. Even though he came back a month later, his batting average that season dropped 44 points from his All-Star '13 campaign, his on-base percentage tailed off 56 points and he finished with just six homers and 41 RBI.

Jason Kipnis has tried to use his own experiences, and troubles, regarding his training methods to guide Francisco Lindor to follow a different path.
Jason Kipnis has tried to use his own experiences, and troubles, regarding his training methods to guide Francisco Lindor to follow a different path.Phil Long/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It was a learning experience for me and something I wanted to pass on," Kipnis says.

Lindor, as he usually is with his beloved Indians teammates, was all ears.

"I follow what he said," says Lindor, who did not become noticeably yolked either of the past two offseasons. Instead, he attributes his power surge to experience and earned wisdom in the batter's box.

He now hunts pitches he can drive, and he has slightly adjusted his swing to improve his launch angle. The adjustment is so slight that he will not even admit it is a conscious thing. But it is there.

"I try to stay within myself, get a good pitch and drive it," says Lindor, who, at 190 pounds this spring, is the same weight as he's been. "If it goes out, it goes out. And if it doesn't go out and it goes as a hit, I'm good."

His increased power output, he says, is the result of the lethal combination of piling up plate appearances and taking thorough mental notes along the way.

"Understanding yourself," he says. "Understanding what pitch you can actually swing at and drive, and what pitch you won't be able to drive. You've got a good range where you can hit the baseball. [Recognize that range], try to get a good pitch and don't miss it."

Though he is still only 24, Lindor says he is a much smarter hitter now than he was even one or two seasons ago.

"The more you play, the more teammates you talk to, the more coaches you talk to, the more pitches you see, you learn and get better," he says.

"And if you don't, then that's on you."

The open dialogue between Lindor and his teammates extends beyond just Kipnis. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Puerto Rican countryman Enrique Hernandez tells B/R that during the World Baseball Classic last spring, Lindor could not stop talking about what a great influence veteran Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley has been on him.

In fact, when the Dodgers played Cleveland last June, Hernandez made it a point to seek out Brantley, and Brantley chuckles at the memory.

"All he kept saying was 'Lindor, Lindor, Lindor,'" Brantley says.

To hear from his Cleveland teammates and manager Terry Francona, Lindor has been a model teammate, willing to solicit advice as well as offer leadership when asked.
To hear from his Cleveland teammates and manager Terry Francona, Lindor has been a model teammate, willing to solicit advice as well as offer leadership when asked.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Brantley shrugs off the accolades.

"I don't want to take the credit," Brantley says, allowing only that, yes, the two of them talk hitting incessantly, and at all hours. "He just worked so hard, and he has a phenomenal swing."

Chalk it up as another winning attribute of this admirable Cleveland team that even as Brantley missed roughly half of last season with shoulder and ankle injuries, the Indians kept him around as much as possible. As club president Chris Antonetti says, "He's such a phenomenal teammate."

That, and the rest of the phenomenal teammates stocked inside one of the most likable clubhouses in the game, is no small part of the rocket fuel that has helped Lindor launch his career in such spectacular fashion. Only three years into his career, Lindor has already reached two All-Star Games and finished among the top 10 vote-getters for the AL MVP twice.

As important as his production has been, so too has been Lindor's enthusiasm and love of the game.

When middle-of-the-lineup slugger Edwin Encarnacion went down with a sprained ankle in last year's playoffs against the Yankees, a grotesque ankle turn at second base that in the moment clearly knocked the Indians off-balance, it was Lindor whom manager Terry Francona approached with a request.

"We can't act like we got hit in the stomach and got the wind knocked out of us," Francona told Lindor in the dugout, asking that his shortstop keep both Encarnacion and the team going.

"He's wise beyond his years," Francona says. "Shoot, if I had that talent, I'd like playing, too. But I mean...you can see why we like him so much."

Lindor is a fan of Francona, too, saying that the Indians manager "allows me to be myself, and that's just awesome. He keeps the clubhouse as loose as it can be, and that's a blessing to all of us."

The best advice his manager has given him, Lindor adds, is "be yourself. Don't back down from any challenges."

And so, given both the rope and the latitude, Lindor plows forward. And Francona rarely infringes upon that freedom. At most, if Lindor's exuberance carries him a step too far—say, if he is thrown out attempting to steal when maybe he should have stayed put—Francona will simply ask him why he did whatever it was he did.

"And if I have a good reason, he'll be like, 'OK, you're right, that's fine. Just make sure...you don't go over the top a bit,'" Lindor says. "If you have a good reason behind doing something, that's all he wants to know.

"He doesn't care if you make mistakes thinking. But if you go out and just run and get thrown out, then that's just pointless. That's not right."

Lindor's new hair style has drawn no small share of joking from his teammates this spring.
Lindor's new hair style has drawn no small share of joking from his teammates this spring.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

Of course, it's spring now, and the impact of Lindor's baserunning decisions can wait. But that isn't the case regarding his newly dyed hair, at least among his teammates. One even plastered black and white photos of model Amber Rose around the Indians' complex with the word "Lindor" scrawled across them.

Brantley grins and emphasizes that taking the shortstop under his wing does not extend to the hair choice.

"Oh no," Brantley says. "The hair styling, the dressing, he does all of that himself. I'm too old for that stuff."

Lindor's maturity, he says, comes from always playing ball with the older kids back home at Puerto Rico, and from his family (he has one older brother, two older sisters and one younger sister). Soaking in the 2016 World Series didn't hurt, either. The loss was so painful that Lindor still hasn't watched any highlightsincluding from the spectacular Game 7.

The overall experience, though, helped him to understand what it takes to play and win in the month of October. The nerves, the excitement, how to channel them and how to "tunnel vision things and forget about what's happening around me and focus on the moment, on that pitch right there."

He doesn't recall specifics about the Indians' World Series run two autumns ago. Instead, in keeping within character, he remembers the fun.

"I remember a lot about how much joy we had in the clubhouse, how the practices were," says Lindor, who wasn't exactly enamored with the extra weeks off this winter after the Indians were bounced in the Division Series. "That's what I remember the most."

"So impressive," says Mets outfielder Jay Bruce, who got a taste of Lindor when the Indians added Bruce for the stretch run last year. "And just a kid, too. He definitely doesn't know what he could be as a player. Nobody does.

"My hope for him is that he continues not knowing, and that he continues to get better."

       

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

B/R's Danny Knobler also contributed to the reporting of this feature.

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