Welcome to the first edition of a new feature here at Getting Blanked that we’ve dubbed “This Week in Mismanagement”. The title should be fairly self-explanatory, but in case it isn’t, what we’re going to do is take one instance every week in which a major-league team or organization has mismanaged its assets in some way. This can happen in a variety of ways of course, ranging from bullpen mismanagement, to faulty lineup construction, to upper mismanagement such as poor trade decisions or signings by a GM. There should be no shortage of fodder for such a feature considering there are still several teams who are run by a set of baseball truisms that are either outdated or have no semblance of reality attached to them. So without further adieu, let’s start with the Detroit Tigers and Jim Leyland’s lineup construction.
I went to the Tigers game last Monday when they surrendered two home runs to Jim Thome, numbers 599 and 600 in his storied career. Quite a moment to say the least. But what shocked me more about that game was that Tigers’ Manager Jim Leyland trotted out a lineup that was as close upside-down as any I’ve seen in quite a while.
This was also the day that the Tigers acquired advanced metrics poster boy Delmon Young* from the Twins for two non-factor prospects. Leyland decided he would hit his newly acquired outfielder third. Hitting him in the three spot was obviously ill-advised, but maybe Mr. Leyland was simply playing with his new toy and would move him down to a more appropriate spot in the lineup after he’d waved his shiny new outfielder around for the whole world to see. Wrong. Young has hit third in every game in which he’s played for Detroit. Of course, some will point to his .323/.333/.581 slash line and two homers in seven games as a reason to keep him in there, but we know better. Small sample size and total randomness are far larger factors than skill and true to himself, Young has not walked in his 33 plate appearances since the trade.
The two players hitting in front of Young in that game, Austin Jackson and Ryan Raburn had a combined on-base percentage of .291 heading into play that day. That means that their worst hitter was hitting second, while three of the worst four (in terms of OBP) were hitting in the top three spots ahead of one of baseball’s best hitters, Miguel Cabrera. This, of course, ensures that Cabrera will never hit anything more than a 450-foot solo-home run.
Perhaps even more egregious was that the team’s second-best hitter, All-Star catcher Alex Avila, was hitting eighth! In only his second full year in the Majors, Avila has become one of the best offensive catchers in baseball posting a .302/.397/.521 slash line with 15 home runs. He’s superbly patient, as evidenced by his 13.8% walk-rate and is second on the team behind Cabrera in win probability added. According to fWAR, Avila has been by far the best catcher in all of baseball this season with a 4.6 mark, almost an entire win better than Atlanta’s Brian McCann and even higher than Cabrera(!). And Jim Leyland had him hitting eighth.
I thought at the time that perhaps Leyland was hitting Avila so low in the order because there was a left-hander on the mound and Avila hits left-handed, but a quick look at his splits reveals that he’s nearly as good against southpaws as he is against righties. It simply didn’t make any sense.
Hell, even the ninth hitter that night, Wilson Betemit, would have been better near the top of the order than Jackson-Raburn-Young.
Since that game, Leyland has smartened up a little. He’s moved Avila into the six-spot in the order and last night, he hit fifth; right behind Cabrera. The problem is that Leyland still refuses to change Jackson out of the leadoff spot and even more offensively, refuses to move Young out of the three spot. Even when Avila hits higher, he does so at the expense of moving Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta down even though both are more deserving of hitting higher in the lineup than Young, Raburn or Jackson.
Raburn, thankfully, has not seen another start in the two-spot, but Brennan Boesch and Magglio Ordonez have. Boesch is certainly less offensive, what with his line of .285/.343/.461, but why wouldn’t Leyland have Avila batting second every day? He’s clearly not worried about having speed in the two-hole with Ordonez and Boesch seeing time there, so why not put your second best hitter in a spot where he can get on base ahead of Cabrera, Martinez, and Peralta?
Now, I understand that even the most ineffective lineup construction doesn’t affect winning too much in the end, but isn’t it the manager’s job to squeeze every ounce of advantage out of his roster? Isn’t that the one thing he’s being paid to do? I mean, Leyland doesn’t strike me as a particularly bad on-field manager; at least he hasn’t until now, but someone apparently needs to tell him the importance of getting on base. Someone also needs to tell him how good his catcher is.
So what would be the optimal lineup for the Tigers? How about this?
Now, is it ideal to have Avila hitting leadoff? Perhaps not, but he’s literally the best option considering how much he gets on base. The Tigers don’t have your prototypical leadoff hitter since Jackson strikes out way too much and has simply not been very good this year, and speed at the top of the lineup could be the most overrated “necessity” in all of baseball mythdom. This lineup construction allows the Tigers best on-base threats to get on base ahead of Cabrera meaning the four players that get the most at-bats are the ones most capable of doing the most damage. This seems like common sense, but it is rarely executed at the major-league level. The manager who’s willing to buck the trend consistently will be the one who reaps the most benefits, unfortunately second-guessing and tradition seem to trump efficiency more often than not.
Perhaps the worst thing about all of this is that someone has to win that division, and right now, it looks like it’ll be Detroit.
*Young is a peculiar player who seems to historically perform well in terms of traditional stats like batting average, home runs, and RBI, but in terms of just about every advanced metric is a well-below-average player. Seriously, go look at his FanGraphs page and look at things like OBP, WAR, wOBA, and wRC; you’ll find a remarkably replacement-level player.