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Out of Order in Detroit

During last night’s 2-1, extra innings classic between Detroit and Kansas City, something surprising jumped out at me. Well, it jumped out at me after I recovered from Doug Fister somehow putting up four wins above replacement this season, being perfect through six, and having a thrilling duel with the Royals’ Jeff Francis. (By the way, a belated HAPPY FRANCIS DAY to my fellow Royals fans. Or is it MERRY JEFFMAS?). Delmon Young was hitting third. And it wasn’t just a one game thing, or even a platoon strategy with the Tigers facing a lefty. Nope, it’s been happening every game since the Tigers acquired Young from the Twins earlier this month. Seriously, has Jim Leyland become the real Motor City Madman?

Yes, I know: batting order doesn’t matter that much. But it does matter. I should give Leyland some credit, for he at least seems to have some sensible platoons going, e.g., with Brandon Inge and Wilson Betemit at third base. That is better than many managers do.

Nonetheless, hitting Delmon Young third is still just… wrong. One doesn’t even have to hold to the lineup optimization principles of The Book to see how wrong-headed this is. Where a player should hit is relative to the other players in the lineup, of course. At first I thought the Tigers were having Young hit third for the lack of better options, but a moment’s reflection corrects that misconception. I’m fine with Miguel Cabrera hitting cleanup, let’s leave him there. But you don’t even have to look at projections to see that the Tigers have a number of better options among the players in the lineup last night for hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera: Alex Avila and Victor Martinez spring to mind, and those aren’t the only two options.

As for Delmon Young himself, he’s particularly ill-suited for the third spot. The third spot of the batting order is a good place for a home run, since usually he’ll get the most plate appearances with two outs and none on. Young has a .097 ISO this season. (Again, I only use present-season stats because I assume that’s what most managers use, we’d prefer to use projections, and even then, Young doesn’t project for many homers.) Moreover, the third spot usually sees the most double play opportunities, and Young has a tendency to hit into a lot of those.

One might argue that Delmon is a good choice hit third versus lefties. As I mentioned above, however, he’s been hitting third every game since coming to Detroit. Moreover, his platoon split isn’t all that big for a right-handed hitter. If you’re going to pick a platoon #3 hitter on that basis, you’d be better off going with Ryan Raburn. The Tigers might want to use the (bad) excuse of Young hitting well since he’s come to Detroit. I suppose his current .296 wOBA is superior to his .291 wOBA prior to joining the Tigers.

Look, I could go into a long discourse about the proper way to put together a batting order, using simulations, looking at projections, and properly estimating platoon skill. However, having Young hit third doesn’t even pass an initial smell test when you look at the hitters that are getting fewer chances for plate appearances every game than Delmon Young. Victor Martinez and Alex Avila being the two most obvious examples.

I’m sure Jim Leyland has his reasons. After all, it’s not like he’s putting on-base machines at the top of the lineup in front of Young every night, anyway (Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez were the featured top two last night). Maybe he figures that Delmon won’t have too many double play opportunities with those guys up top. Leyland’s crazy like a fox! I guess that sequence “works” for those purposes, but at least put it further down in the order.

The Tigers are winning the American League Central by five games as a type this, so I guess whatever Leyland has been doing is “working.” So maybe I’m the one who is out of order. As I finish this post, Demon Young is hitting third yet again against a right-handed pitcher with a legendarily popular name. The Tigers are winning 2-1, and Delmon Young had a sacrifice fly in the first inning. In my face.