baseball history, bunting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, productive outs, strike zone

My Strategic Line-Up: Moneyball + Situational IQ

I haven’t gotten used to Mike Trout and Manny Machado batting second… and then Snitker decides to slide Freddie Freeman into the Number Two slot.  It’s insane!  Or is it?

Proponents of the new line-up claim that you should want your best hitters to have the most plate appearances in the course of the afternoon.  As far as I know, no skipper has yet advanced Brian Harper or Cody Bellinger into the lead-off spot… but I grasp the general principle.  It is said (not always accurately) that yesteryear’s manager wanted a scrappy get-on-base hitter to lead off, a good bunter to follow who would sacrifice him over, and then the team’s best all-round hitter coming third.  The big bruisers wait to get their licks in the fourth and fifth positions, Six has some power but a rather anemic average, and then the bottom third… well, with the pitcher occupying Nine, the only remaining decision is the difficult Eight assignment.  You need somebody there who’s aggressive enough to go out of the zone successfully and do damage in front of the pitcher, but not so aggressive that he’s getting himself out with the same consistency as the .035-batting Slim Moundsman.

To cut to the chase, the old-school system pretty much conceded that one third of the line-up was virtually good for nothing.  Weak hitters were concentrated there.  Better to go three-up-and-three-down every second or third inning than to have rally-killers stitched throughout the batting order.

Yet even with the jettisoning of the pitcher’s turn at bat (and I suspect that the DH is now here to stay in both leagues: might as well be, since pitchers take no interest whatever in offensive preparation today), the New Way doesn’t seem to me all that different.  It may even magnify the effect I just identified: best hitters crowded toward the top, weaker hitters—elbowed to the bottom—told to take a lot of pitches in hopes of copping a walk or at least elevating pitch count.  Or stroke a homer.  Everybody now strokes homers… once in a while.  Even the humblest big-league second baseman hit 22 last year in Triple A, while batting .231.

So… what do you think of all this?  Again, the claim made by the talking heads is that the classic strategy played for single runs here and there, whereas today’s strategy is to keep betting Seven because you enjoy such a big payday if the bead stops at just the right place in the dish.  Is that really a fair statement of the contrast: playing for one run in the first, third, fifth, and seventh vs. tallying six runs in single innings every third game?  How many of those four-run games are losses?  How many losses are nestled between those nine-or-ten-run victories?

The sabermetrics guys could answer such questions with minute precision.  The problem is that we have no control group—no team legitimately going Old School to compare with the overhauled offensive strategies.  Even if a manager tried to resist the trend (and I don’t watch enough baseball now to propose a specific example… the Cardinals, maybe?), he would still inherit Emiliano at second base with his 22 taters, .231 BA, and .294 OBP.  You can’t play any hand but the one you’re dealt.

If I were granted king-for-a-year powers, there are lots of things in our confused, decaying society that I’d attempt to mend before undertaking to manage a ball club; but were I to be given carte blanche as a GM/manager, I’d strive to produce Moneyball, Part II.  That is, I’d select role-players rather than guys with eye-popping but contextless stats.  My roster would be filled with Tommy La Stellas and Bryan Reynoldses.  And here are some of the criteria which I would apply in making my selections.

Lead-Off: takes a lot of pitches, at least early in the game.  Lets everyone in the dugout see what Fireball Frank has today.  Hits to all fields, and keeps his drives low.  Good speed; can steal a base when needed.

Two Hole: very similar to lead-off, in that he takes close pitches before two strikes, hits to all fields, and doesn’t elevate his contacts.  Left-handed, so that he can exploit the gap when the lead-off man reaches and also give himself a better chance of frustrating a double-play attempt.  Notice I say nothing here about bunting.  Moving a runner from first to second with a sacrifice has a rather low probability of producing a run later, even when the bunt comes with no outs.

Third Spot: yes, my best all-round hitter.  High average, also show power (especially up the alleys for extra-base hits), can go out of the zone—especially on the outside corner—effectively and drive the ball; very high contact ratio; very confident in his abilities.  Again, I stress doubles and not home runs.

Clean-Up: Mighty Casey steps to the plate.  I’m certainly not waging war on four-baggers—we need Casey to hit his 35 per season.  But we need other, more subtle contributions from him, as well.  Hold on to your chairs: I’d like Casey, even more than the first or second hitters, to know how to bunt!  There will be many late-inning situations during the year when two outs have already been recorded against us and the Great One simply needs to get that one run home from third, or when no outs have yet been logged and the tying or winning run is on second.  Sure, I’m paying Casey a Cadillac salary (as Fritz Ostermueller would say) because he hits bombs… but at just this moment, a bomb is statistically improbable, whereas the infield is playing so deep that a bunt hit should be a given.  I don’t need a clean-up T-Rex who also kays twice a game and pops up when he isn’t clearing the fences.  I need a little humility and common sense to go with that energizing confidence.  I need Mike Schmidt, not Bye-Bye Balboni.

Fifth Hole: Here is where I turn everything conventional on its ear.  I know the accepted wisdom well: you have to protect your best hitters.  Maris is protecting Mantle, so you have to protect Roger with Elston Howard or Moose Skowron.  Tony Kubek was a fine hitter, but… protection means a power threat.  McGwire protects Canseco; so, to keep the chain of protection strong, you have to follow Mark not with Carney Lansford—who, while a one-time batting champ, was no heavy-weight—with Dave Parker or Dave Henderson.  Yet I say, give me Lansford in Slot Five.  Give me Kubek.  Essentially, I want to repeat the previous cycle: I want a lead-off hitter batting fifth.  Why?  Well, if my clean-up hitter is pitched around, then it’s probably because runners before him have reached base.  If he has the discipline that I need of him, he accepts the walk.  Now several base-runners are waiting to come home—and I send a guy to the plate who makes the pitcher throw strikes and hits low liners.  So let the pitcher, with runners all over the place, choose to work to this fellow instead of another who’s not quite strong enough and dependable enough to bat fourth.  Would you rather deliver the situation into the hands of a .241 hitter who bags 28 homers a season, or into those of a .312 hitter whose on-base percentage is over .400?  I’ll take the latter, or whoever is as close to him as I can get.  To be sure, in a given season, Elston Howard would likely bat higher than Kubek and Dave Parker higher than Lansford… but you follow my intent, hopefully.  Most teams aren’t loaded with superstars, and I would like my fifth hitter to have a high OBP and three homers rather than a high home run total and a .298 OBP.

Sixth Spot: Just as few teams would have a fifth-slot hitter of Dave Parker’s quality, so too would few have a sixth-place hitter as good at working counts and putting the ball in play as their Number Two hitter.  Still, this is ideally the kind of guy I’d like: knows the strike zone, doesn’t strike out or pop up, possesses the potential of moving along whatever base-runners he inherits.  The tradition has the Punch-and-Judy types rounding out the line-up at seventh and eighth, preceded by fellows with a little more sting in their bat.  I would flip-flop those selections.  Put guys at Five and Six who get on base (and will move up those who have preceded them on base).  Let the higher-caliber guns who haven’t yet learned to hit a target reliably make their noise farther toward the bottom.

Seven and Eight… and Ninth?: If we’re going to assume the presence of a Designated Hitter, then I would have the same little speech prepared for all three of these bottom-dwellers; viz., “You guys are in the line-up mostly because of your gloves, but also because you show promise with the bat.  Offensively, you’re works-in-progress… and I hope you get there sooner rather than later.  You have potential, but you’ve displayed too little situational sense.  You roll over low breaking balls when you know the pitcher is looking for a double play.  You can’t get out of the habit of pulling everything.  Then, to snap your slump, you take the first pitch right down the middle… or you start guessing, and give up on a two-strike pitch that’s not exactly where you expected it… or you chase something at the letters because it looks very pullable.  Sometimes you’ll hit me a solo home run.  Thanks.  But I need for you to be thinking about why you’re so low in the order, and what you need to do to climb higher.”

Again, the misery of the manager’s job today is that the cards in his hand are all a bunch of One-Eyed Jacks.  They all look the same, and they all have the same objective.  The game has made them so, in the process of greatly impoverishing itself… and I doubt that a big-league manager, paradoxically, has as much ability to reshape his material as a Single A skipper.  Once you’ve made it to the top by pulling hangers over the left-field wall, why should you listen to this mother hen who’ll be replaced by next spring?

So… yeah, why not just let Goldschmidt lead off?

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