The Best Cleanup Hitters in Cleveland Indians History

David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

A look at the greatest #4 hitters in franchise history, a list that includes many of the biggest bats ever to play for the Tribe.

This is the fourth entry in a series on the best players in Cleveland Indians history for each spot in the batting order. Here are links to previous entries in the series: Batting 1st, Batting 2nd, and Batting 3rd

In 2012 six different players started at least one game in the #4 spot of the lineup for the Indians, led by Carlos Santana, who was there for 82 games. Travis Hafner, Michael Brantley and Jose Lopez (?!) each also started there 20+ times. It's possible Santana will spend most of 2013 there as well, or Nick Swisher may bat cleanup more frequently instead.

According to the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, since 1916 (which is as far back as complete box scores go), there have been 241 different players to start a game as the #4 hitter for the Indians (that's noticeably fewer than have started in the lead-off, #2, or #3 spots). 37* of those players have collected at least 500 plate appearances while batting cleanup. That's the cut-off point for these rankings.

*Among those 37 players is one best known to fans of baseball history for his pitching: Smoky Joe Wood. Wood was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 1909 to 1915 (with the Red Sox). He led the American League with 34 wins, 35 complete games, and 10 shutouts in 1912. Baseball-Reference has him at 10 WAR that season. In 218 career games with Boston, Wood's ERA was 2.03, good for an ERA+ of 150. In 1913 though, he broke his thumb. It never healed properly, and while he continued to pitch, and his results remained strong, he was in great pain for the next three years. He decided to sit out the 1916 season and most of 1917 too.

The Indians purchased his contract late that season and converted him into an outfielder. He hit cleanup semi-regularly, starting there 159 times between 1918 and 1922. He had an OPS+ of 116 over those five seasons, and was even a bit better than that when hitting cleanup. Wood scored two runs for the Tribe (including what proved to be the game winner) in Game 1 of the 1920 World Series. Babe Ruth overshadowed him at the time, but few players in history have been such good pitchers and transformed into such a good position player too. He didn't crack this top ten, but I thought his story worth mentioning.

In creating these rankings, I've attempted to balance rate stats against counting figures. In other words, while an OPS of 850 is better than an OPS of 825, if the former came in 600 PA and the latter came in 2,000 PA, I'm probably going to favor the second player. I've also attempted to make adjustments for the run-scoring environments of different eras, including an estimated OPS+ for each player, based on comparable figures from their era. Finally, these rankings are based solely on players’ contributions on offense.

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TOP TEN #4 HITTERS IN INDIANS HISTORY

10) Larry Doby

255 G, 1114 PA, .291/.393/.486, .879 OPS, ~134 OPS+, 41 HR, 182 R, 161 RBI

Doby was the team's regular cleanup hitter in 1949, and then occasionally again between 1950 and 1955. He was an All-Star in each of those seven seasons and would rank higher on this list if he hadn't spent much more time hitting third for the Tribe (he came in at #3 on that list). Doby's walk-rate while batting cleanup ranks 3rd in franchise history.

9) Al Rosen

481 G, 2124 PA, .284/.380/.472, .851 OPS, ~128 OPS+, 85 HR, 288 R, 332 RBI

Rosen was the Tribe's #4 hitter for stretches from 1950 to 1956, especially between '53 and '55. In 1953 he hit cleanup 107 times (out of 154 games) and won the American League MVP. He was an All-Star in all three of the seasons he spent as the Indians' primary #4 hitter.

8) Rocky Colavito

524 G, 2232 PA, .304/.339/.451, .791 OPS, ~130 OPS+, 103 HR, 261 R, 319 RBI

Colavito spent time in the #4 spot in both of his stints with the Tribe. '59, '65, and '66 were the seasons he spent the most time batting cleanup. He was an All-Star each of those years. In 1959 he led the league in home runs and in 1965 he led the league in walks and RBI. In a pitchers' era, the .451 slugging percentage figure you see here was a very impressive figure.

7) Travis Hafner

369 G, 1599 PA, .278/.381/.523, .904, ~143 OPS+, 80 HR, 213 R, 246 RBI

Hafner hit cleanup at times from 2003 to 2012, spending most of the season there in '05, '06, and '10.In 2006 especially, he was an absolute force there, with an OPS+ of ~185 from the #4 spot (181 overall, which led the league). As we all know, injuries kept Pronk out of the lineup frequently in the years since then, and slowed his production. Hafner was also 7th on the list of #3 hitters.

6) Andre Thornton

1035 G, 4488 PA, .258/.360/.454, .814 OPS, ~123 OPS+, 184 HR, 570 R, 662 RBI

Thornton was the Indians' primary cleanup hitter from 1977 to 1986 (except for 1980, when he missed the entire season with a severe knee injury). He started far more games in the #4 spot than any other player in team history. He was an All-Star twice in those years and fives times he finished among the top five in the American League in walks. He is the franchise leader for walks, hits, and runs from the cleanup spot.

5) Hal Trosky

665 G, 2938 PA, .312/.380/.554, .934 OPS, ~135 OPS+, 137 HR, 449 R, 555 RBI

Trosky was in the #4 spot at times between 1933 and 1941 and was the main guy there from '35 to '37 and again in '40. His 665 games started there are the third-most in team history. That was a big era for offense, but his numbers were still quite impressive. In 1936 Trosky batted cleanup in 98 of his 151 games. He put up 405 total bases that season, still a franchise record.

4) Jim Thome

323 G, 1398 PA, .297/.428/.630, 1.059 OPS, ~172 OPS+, 100 HR, 235 R, 245 RBI

Thome only spent two seasons as the Tribe's main #4 hitter, 1998 and 2002, though he did start there occasionally in other years as well. In 2002 Thome had probably the best season by any hitter in franchise history. His OPS+ was 197, when batting cleanup it was ~203! Thome was 5th on my list of the best #3 hitters for the Indians. His rate stats at both spots are as good or better than anyone's, but splitting time between different lineup spots keep him from topping either list.

3) Manny Ramirez

377 G, 1665 PA, .330/.430/.649, 1.079 OPS, ~169 OPS+, 111 HR, 296 R, 376 RBI

Ramirez hit cleanup for Boston almost his entire time there, but in Cleveland he was often pushed further down by the depth of the lineup (oh, what a lineup!). Only in 1999 and 2000, his final two years with the Tribe, did Manny regularly bat from the #4 spot. In 1999 he was there for all but one of his starts. That of course was the year he set a franchise record with 165 RBI and also led the league in SLG, OPS, and OPS+.

2) Jeff Heath

619 G, 2687 PA, .309/.379/.522, .901 OPS, ~145 OPS+, 84 HR, 388 R, 433 RBI

Okay, I'm as surprised to see him here as you are. Heath was the Indians' #4 hitter in 1938, again from 1941 to 1943, and in 1945 too. Offense was down in those years, so his .901 OPS just grab your attention the way Ramirez and Thome's figures do, but it was good for an OPS+ of ~145. He finished in the top 3 in the American League for OPS+ three times in those years. His numbers were great and Heath hit cleanup almost twice as often as Manny or Jim, so I think it's fair to boost him ahead of them.

1) Albert Belle

824 G, 3598 PA, .299/.377/.591, .968 OPS, ~154 OPS+, 228 HR, 557 R, 697 RBI

Belle hit cleanup in almost every game he played for the Indians from 1991 to 1996, giving him the second-most games there in franchise history (since 1916 anyway). Four times in that stretch he finished in the top ten in MVP voting. Three times he was among the top three and in 1995 he'd almost certainly have won if many baseball writers didn't prefer Mo Vaughn's company. That was the year when, despite losing 18 games to the end of the strike, Belle became the only player in history with 50+ doubles and 50+ home runs. Belle is an easy choice for the #1 spot on this list.

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There isn't anyone with a chance at cracking this list in 2013. Santana is two good years of batting cleanup away from approaching even the #10 spot. The Indians have had a lot of great cleanup hitters over the last two decades. Belle wins out because he spent so much more time there. Had he not been there, batting #4 spot for so long, it's likely that Ramirez or Thome would have gotten enough at bats to top the list instead. Prior to the 90's, many more of the Tribe's best hitters worked out of the #3 spot, so that list represents a wider cut of the team's history, but this list includes more pop than any other spot will.

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