Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Lineups Schmineups

Lineups are a funny thing. They’re easy to obsess about, especially because of the huge number of combinations available. But, at the same time many have concluded that they don’t make much of a difference, as long as you have the right eight guys in the lineup.

Most studies suggest there’s at most a 15 run per year difference in the best and worst lineups, a number that’s even lower if you eliminate the truly crazy ideas like batting Vinny Castilla leadoff.

The lineup for today’s game is set, and despite my better instincts to not moan about it, I’m going to.

Chavez, CF
Guzman, SS
Vidro, 2B
Gullen, RF
Wilkerson, LF
Castilla, 3B
Johnson, 1B
Schneider, C
Armas, P

Yeah, you can probably tell what I’m going to say before I even say it. But I’ll say it anyway!

Is there anyone out here who doesn’t think that Endy Chavez and Cristian Guzman are our two worst hitters? Anyone? So, why would Frank Robinson put them in the lineup spots that guarantee that they get the most plate appearances on their team? You wouldn’t dream of batting the pitcher leadoff, for obvious reasons. And obviously Guzman and Chavez are better hitters than the pitchers (Livan excepted!), but they’re still the teams two worst hitters. It doesn’t make sense to me.

The other reason I have a problem with it, is that I can see the way FRobby’s thinking. He’s hoping that Chavez will get on and then Guzman can “handle the bat”, either bunting him over or working some sort of hit and run. I won’t attack the silliness of the bunt-at-all-costs mentality in an era when even the 8th place hitter in a lineup can have 15-20 homeruns, but I will attack the silliness of the strategy.

I’ve never understood, and countless managers do this, why you would put a speedy guy in front of someone who bunts him over. Isn’t the point of him being speedy that he can get himself into scoring position without the need of wasting an out via the bunt? If Chavez has such great speed, and he’s had decent success as a base-stealer, wouldn’t it be better to let Chavez take off for second on his own? Then, if he’s successful, you’d have three chances to get a single to drive him in.

You see managers do that a lot in the playoffs; they’ll pinch run for the slugger who gets on and then bunt the new runner over. Why are you pinch-running if you’re just going to bunt him over? The advantage of a speedy runner is that he can score from first on an extra-base hit, or that he can get himself into scoring position. Almost any baserunner, other than Edgar Martinez, could score from second on a hit to the outfield, regardless of speed. The exception is when it’s a hard-hit liner right at the outfielder--and even then Dave Roberts isn’t going to score, unless it’s Bernie Williams’ arm.

The other problem this lineup could present is with double plays. There are few things more demoralizing to a fan sitting in the seats than watching the inning end with one swing of the bat. And, as constructed, this lineup will see lots of them. Guzman, despite his speed, hit into 15 double plays last year. He’s a slap-hitting ground-ball machine that might spell trouble if Chavez or the slow pitcher are on base. It’s the same thing with Vinny Castilla. Castilla has hit into 22 double-plays each of the last four years. In this lineup, he’d be hitting behind Brad Wilkerson who’s an on-base machine. Castilla will come up to the plate quite a few times with Wilkerson on first and the double-play a distinct possibility.

If I had my druthers (and I still had to keep Endy in the lineup), I’d probably go something like….
Johnson, Wilkerson, Vidro, Guillen, Castilla, Schneider, Guzman, Chavez.

I know it’s top-heavy, but this would almost guarantee that a runner or two would be on when Jose Guillen and Castilla, the lineups only true sluggers, are at the plate.

Yeah, Nick Johnson’s slow, but there are definitely more important things to being an effective leadoff hitter than being fast, namely getting on-base, something his career .372 on-base-percentage shows he does very well. (See also: Boggs, Wade; Downing, Brian)

And for you small-ball fetishists out there, the Guzman/Chavez combo at the bottom of the order, especially with the bunting possibility from the pitcher would delight you, and actually might be beneficial in squeaking out a run or two from the bottom of the order every now and then.

I don’t expect the team to go with that. And, like I said at the top, it’s probably not going to make a huge difference in the wins and losses total through the year, but when you’re going to be struggling to stay in playoff contention and you have a list of about 10 ‘ifs’ you need to go right, you need to take every advantage you can see.

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