And the winner of request-a-post is, well, no one actually. No one specifically requested this post, but the direction a few of the comments combined with some thoughts kicking around in my head and so, here we go, let’s talk about the batting order.
First off, I guess we should list it, eh? While Wak is the man of a million line-up cards, there will probably be more stability this year than last, and I’d imagine we’ll see something like this, at least with the current roster.
Vs RHP: Ichiro-Figgins-Kotchman-Bradley-Griffey-Lopez-Gutierrez-Catcher-Wilson
Vs LHP: Ichiro-Figgins-Gutierrez-Bradley-Lopez-Byrnes/Sweeney-Kotchman-Cacher-Wilson
Let’s start at the top – Ichiro and Figgins. When the M’s signed another lead-off type hitter, it inevitably brought out the question of which player should hit first. The M’s have settled on keeping Ichiro where he’s comfortable, seeing no useful reason to move him to a new spot. Should they?
After all, there are arguments you can put together that show why flipping the two may be advantageous. Figgins draws a lot of his value from the base on balls, which fits better at the #1 slot in the order. As presently stands, an Ichiro single and a Figgins walk puts runners at first and second. If you flip them, and you get the Figgins walk first, there’s a good chance he could advance to third on Ichiro’s single with regularity, and you’d gain an extra base when that occurred. You can also argue that Ichiro’s bat control gives him a greater ability to take advantage of the hole on the right side of the infield, and that he could get pepper that hole with base hits while the first baseman holds Figgins on. So, don’t these make it worth considering flipping them?
Not really, no. Tackling the second point first, Ichiro is a career .331/.361/.438 hitter with the bases empty and a .331/.359/.431 hitter with a man on first base. The theory is nice, but the evidence is not there. We have no actual reason to believe that Ichiro would be able to uniquely take advantage of the hole on the right side, even though it might make intuitive sense. Nine years into his major league career, if he had the ability to do that, I think we’d probably have seen it by now.
Now, for the first point. Yes, a walk and then a single is the preferable order to those two events, but the benefit doesn’t come without a cost. Ichiro has 40 or more infield hits in each of the last four years, with a lot of those being ground balls to the hole between shortstop and third base where they simply can’t get the throw across the diamond in time to get him at first base. However, if you put Figgins on first base when that ball is hit, there’s a pretty good chance for a force play at second, and that infield hit becomes a fielders choice. If Ichiro moved to the two hole and was hitting behind a high on base guy, I’d expect his batting average to take a beating, even if he did everything exactly the same. The chance to get an extra base on the times when he gets a hit to the outfield isn’t worth taking away some of his infield hits.
Okay, now, the #3 spot. It’s going to be a Kotchman/Gutierrez platoon, and let’s be honest, no one is expecting those guys to combine for 40 home runs from that spot in the order. The M’s are likely going to have near league-worst offensive production from that particular line-up spot, even though Gutierrez hits lefties well. Most teams put a burly slugger third, but the M’s don’t have that guy, so they’re making do. Is it a good idea to hit Kotchman third against righties and push Bradley back to the full time cleanup spot?
Maybe. As Tom Tango showed in The Book (and is explained in this primer), a Markov Chain analysis (don’t ask – it even makes my head hurt) shows that the most important spots in the line-up are actually #1, #2, and #4. The #3 hitter frequently comes up with two men out and no one on base, so despite the common wisdom that its a vital run producing spot, it’s actually not, at least not relative to the 1, 2, and 4 spots in the order. So, there’s some logic to what they’re doing by pushing Bradley back to the clean-up spot, since he’s the third best hitter on the team.
But here’s the one problem with this setup – Casey Kotchman is a slow footed ground ball machine. For his career, 52.7 percent of his balls in play have been hit on the ground. As the #3 hitter behind Ichiro and Figgins, he’s going to hit into a lot of frustrating double plays. Count on at least 15, maybe 20. He could lead the league in GIDP, just because of his skillset and line-up spot. If the team is struggling to score runs, he’s going to be a very easy target for the frustrated fans, who simply will see an underpowered first baseman creating two outs at a time. They’re trying to setup Kotchman for a breakout year by playing him everyday, but I hope he can respond well to being a lightning rod for criticism, because I’d guess that we’re going to hear a lot of complaints about his double play proclivities if he stays in the #3 hole all year.
The rest of the line-ups aren’t very controversial. I guess I could talk about Griffey or Sweeney again, but I don’t want to, so I won’t. Gutierrez and Kotchman both struggle against same-handed pitchers, so hitting them seventh against those guys makes sense. Wilson will hit ninth because he’s the worst hitter on the team. That leaves the 8th spot for the catcher of the day, which will probably depend much more on who is starting for the M’s than who is starting for the opponents.
Overall, I’d say that the line-up the M’s are going with is pretty well maximized in terms of efficiency. There aren’t many gains to be had by shuffling things around, as the proposed line-ups have the teams best three hitters in the three most important spots, and give the team ways to move guys around the rest of the order to take advantage of platoons. If the offense isn’t working, there will be calls to change the way the line-up is built, but I don’t think you can really improve on this very much. The only way to make this offense better is to get better hitters in the line-up, not re-arrange the ones already here.