Batting Order Shake-Up On The Way
Eric Wedge hinted at this towards the end of last season, but tonight he made his most declarative statement on the issue, telling Mike Salk on ESPN 710 that he was “leaning in (the) direction” of moving Ichiro out of the leadoff spot. People have been talking about shifting Ichiro to the third spot in the order for years, and it seems like his poor performance in 2011 has given Wedge a reason to try something new.
This is going to be a big story among the mainstream fan base, and will get plenty of coverage in Spring Training, but the reality is that every study ever done on the issue comes to the same conclusion – batting order just doesn’t really matter all that much. You want your best guys at the top of the line-up and the worst guys at the bottom in order to allocate the maximum amount of at-bats to your most productive players, but in terms of producing runs, the exact order isn’t a big deal. Hit the pitcher cleanup? Yeah, that’s bad. Stick your 50 homer guy in the leadoff spot? Not smart. Beyond that, most alignments are going to produce similar results. You can get small advantages by splitting up lefties and righties to reduce late game match-up advantages and the like, but as long as you get the good guys up top and the bad guys down at the bottom, you’ve done most of the hard work.
But, just for fun, let’s work with the current roster and try to predict how the line-up arrangements might go, given the options Wedge presently has to work with. And, since the whole point of this post is that Ichiro is probably not hitting first, we’ll only deal with scenarios where that’s the case. Let’s go position by position:
#1 vs RHP
This is a pretty easy call – Dustin Ackley. Wedge mentioned specifically that he wanted fewer “quick outs” at the top of the order, and Ackley’s by far the most patient hitter on the team. He also looks like a prototypical leadoff guy, runs well, makes contact, and doesn’t have so much power that he’d be wasted batting with the bases empty on a frequent basis. The only other guy I could see even in contention for this would be Chone Figgins, if he somehow wrestled the starting third base job back from Kyle Seager. I’d call that unlikely, though, so we can probably pencil Ackley in here.
#1 vs LHP
This might very well be Figgins. He’s probably going to play a decent amount against lefties, and this way Wedge could give him most of his starts in the leadoff spot, hoping that putting him back there would somehow help him find his offensive groove. They could stay with Ackley if they wanted daily continuity at the top of the order, but if Figgins is on the roster, I’d bet on him getting this spot against southpaws.
#2 vs RHP
The traditional line-up arrangement says you want a high contact guy in this spot, which enables the manager to hit and run or lay down bunts in order to get the guy into scoring position for the big guns. The traditions are wrong, though, and giving the second spot in the order to a bad hitter with bat control is a waste of the spot where the data suggests you want your best hitter. If the M’s were throwing tradition away and going with a data-based approach to line-up construction, this spot should go to Justin Smoak, who would provide another patient bat at the top of the order and the versatility of a switch-hitter behind Ackley. Since they’re probably not ready to do that, though, bet on Ichiro landing here – he is the classic #2 hitter, and dropping him just one spot won’t cause too much of a ruckus.
#2 vs LHP
Again, throwing away traditions means you probably leave Smoak here, but that’s still not likely. Ichiro is the continuity pick, but if Franklin Gutierrez is healthy and gets his power stroke back, he could also be an option here. He’s hit lefties well and takes a decent amount of pitches, but I don’t think the team can really push him this high up in the order until they see evidence that he’s definitively over his physical issues. So, pencil Ichiro in here for now.
#3 vs RHP
Of the top four spots in the batting order, this is actually the least important, despite what a normal line-up arrangement looks like. The reason? No one hits with the bases empty and two outs more often than the #3 hitter, so a decent amount of his hits and walks end up simply delaying the end of an inning rather than resulting in a rally. That doesn’t mean you want Brendan Ryan hitting here, but it’s not as important a position as is usually assumed. If the team was willing to go Ackley-Smoak in the top two spots, then this wouldn’t be a bad spot for Ichiro. Those two out/bases empty situations could result in single + SB attempt, giving him more opportunities to run while lowering the cost of getting thrown out. And, let’s be honest, there’s no way Wedge is moving Ichiro any lower than this without causing an international incident. If Smoak was #2, Ichiro would fit in nicely at #3, but they’ll probably go the more traditional route, so this spot could go to any of Smoak, Montero, or Carp. Carp probably makes the least sense behind Ackley-Ichiro, since that would line you up with three LHBs in a row. And #3 for a rookie seems like something Wedge might not want to do, so Smoak’s probably the favorite.
#3 vs LHP
This starts to get a little interesting. If I’m right and it’s Figgins-Ichiro in the top two spots, then you’ve got Ackley, Smoak, Montero, and one of Carp/Wells/Olivo, depending on who is playing where on a particular day. Wedge showed that he had no problems hitting Olivo high in the order last year, and he’s traditionally hit lefties okay, so he’d be the choice if they wanted to ease the pressure on the young kids. But he’s also the worst hitter of the bunch and probably belongs lower in the order, so we’ll rule him out for now. If Smoak’s hitting third against righties, just leaving him there against lefties has some appeal so he can know where he’s hitting everyday, so he’s probably the favorite here. But Montero’s probably the right-handed bat with the most thunder, and Ackley’s the best hitter on the team, so either one could also fit in here. If Smoak is hitting well in April, he probably gets this spot to himself. If he doesn’t, expect a rotation.
#4 vs RHP
Personally, I think this is one of the easiest spots to predict Wedge’s decision in the entire line-up – Mike Carp will hit here when he plays. Montero and Smoak are the only other options, but Wedge has talked about how he thought Smoak struggled adjusting to the pressures of that role last year, and he won’t want to do that to Montero at such a young age either. Carp’s a little older and has a little more experience, so he’ll get this job.
#4 vs LHP
This is basically the same discussion as the #3 spot, just minus Ackley, who no manager would be willing to hit clean-up for fear of mockery. If it’s Figgins-Ichiro-Smoak at the top of the order, then you’re probably looking at Carp/Wells, Olivo, or possibly Montero. Carp’s the continuity pick if they decide not to platoon him, Olivo’s the veteran pick, and Montero’s the best-right-handed-bat-on-the-team pick. I’d go with Montero, but I’d bet on Wedge going with either Carp or Olivo. Carp hit lefties well enough that they might not sit him against southpaws this year, but it’d be a bit of a shame to sit Wells in favor of a bad defensive LH hitter against LHPs, so let’s hope that reason wins out. Of course, I just argued that reason would lead to Olivo hitting cleanup for us again. Have I mentioned that I think this team could use a right-handed hitting third baseman with power?
#5 vs RHP
It’s Montero, with the alignment ahead of him having little to no bearing on this spot. It’s high enough that he can still provide the promised boost to the offense, but low enough so that they can say they’re not putting too much pressure on him right away. Besides, if Carp’s hitting clean-up, it gives you the L/R breakup, which managers always look for. This one’s easy.
#5 vs LHP
Still easy, still Montero. If they decided to hit him third or fourth against southpaws, then this spot probably goes to Olivo. But bet on Montero.
#6 vs RHP
The top five hitters on this team versus right-handed pitchers are pretty easy to pick out, and will almost certainly hit 1-5 in some order. Here, it becomes a little more tossing of the darts. Kyle Seager and John Jaso both provide left-handed bats, which keeps the L/R/L thing going, but neither have the power a manager generally looks for in this spot. Gutierrez has shown more power than either before, but again, health is a question and he’s never hit righties all that well. On days when Casper Wells is playing center field, I’d bet on him here, but the M’s don’t want that to be a regular occurrence. So, by default, it’s Seager – more power than Jaso, more left-handed than Guti.
#6 vs LHP
If Wells is playing, pencil him in here. If he’s not, that means Carp is in the line-up and potentially hitting fourth, so this would be a potential spot for Olivo. And, of course, the current guesses have the top five going Figgins-Ichiro-Smoak-Carp/Olivo-Montero, so Ackley’s still got to fit in somewhere, and you probably don’t want the team’s best hitter batting much lower than this, even against a same-handed pitcher. Still, I’d think this spot will go to the second of the Carp/Wells/Olivo trio that is in the line-up that day. One of them will hit clean-up, one will hit here.
#7 vs RHP
The logical landing spot for Gutierrez. Putting him between Seager and Jaso breaks up the left-handed bats at the bottom of the order, and there’s enough hope that his power might return to think that he could be a decent option here.
#7 vs LHP
Ackley can’t hit lower than this. That he’s even being considered to hit this low is a problem. But, then again, Guti has historically hit lefties well, and would be the team’s regular #7 hitter, so continuity would argue for him here. I can’t believe I’m going to project Ackley as the #8 hitter against lefties, but slight nod to Guti here. Ugh.
#8 vs RHP
Jaso if he’s catching. If he’s not, Olivo might get moved up to #7 and Guti could hit here. But Jaso probably gets the most at-bats here.
#8 vs LHP
I’m sorry, Dustin. I can’t explain it either. It just shook out this way.
#9 vs RHP
Brendan Ryan, come on down. You’re the worst hitter on the team, so you hit last. I’m sure you’re used to it by now.
#9 vs LHP
Yup, still the worst hitter on the team. The only chance for him to rise from purgatory is if they decided to leave Ackley as the full-time leadoff guy, and then put Figgins in this spot in order to have the “back to back leadoff hitters” thing that managers like to talk about. In reality, it’s just a fancy way of saying that your worst hitter is also fast.
So, that leaves us with the following projections:
1. Ackley, 2B
2. Ichiro, RF
3. Smoak, 1B
4. Carp, LF
5. Montero, DH
6. Seager, 3B
7. Gutierrez, CF
8. Jaso, C
9. Ryan, SS
1. Figgins, 3B
2. Ichiro, RF
3. Smoak, 1B
4. Olivo, C or Carp, LF
5. Montero, DH
6. Wells, LF or Olivo, C
7. Gutierrez, CF
8. Ackley, 2B
9. Ryan, SS
I would say I have a decent amount of confidence that the current roster would produce an opening day line-up that looked something like that. I don’t see Wedge throwing out tradition to put Smoak in the #2 spot, and while they could try something like Seager at #2 and Ichiro at #3, with Smoak and Montero sliding back in the order slightly, I don’t think the M’s will want to try and show off their revamped offense by going 1-2-3 with hitters who are all limited power threats.
Against lefties, it’s a bit more up in the air. There’s a good chance Figgins isn’t even on this team when the season starts, which would allow Ackley to move back to the leadoff spot, but if he’s here, I think the team may try to give him at-bats at the top of the order to try and re-energize him. But, as you can see, that decision would have some repercussions. My guess is that this is an issue Wedge won’t ever have to manage around, but for now, it’d be a bit of a sticky situation. They could just tell Figgins to get over his desire to hit leadoff and put him at the bottom of the order, of course, but with Ichiro being displaced, Figgins would likely feel like he should be next in line for the job, given his track record. I know that how he feels doesn’t matter to most of us, but it will likely matter to Eric Wedge, especially if the whole point of keeping him is to try and get him to play well so he might re-gain some trade value and make dumping him easier. It’s a lot easier to sell Figgins as an interesting piece to another team if he’s hitting .300 and you can argue that he just needed to be back in the leadoff spot this whole time.
Ideally, I’d still rather see the team dump Figgins and get a better right-handed third baseman to take those at-bats, but as we’ve talked about, there aren’t a lot of options out there with that skillset. I’d imagine Jack is working the phones trying to find a guy who could be an option, but if he can’t, this might be the line-up versus lefties we’d say in 2012.