There are plenty of managerial decisions that I routinely do not understand. Most of them relate to the bullpen and how the manager selects a reliever for certain situations. The rest relate to lineup construction. We know that in the macro lineup order doesn’t matter that much, but that doesn’t exactly justify the decision to use a well below-average hitter in that position. Why place a poor hitter among your best? Why not move him to the bottom, so the good hitters have a better chance to get on base and knock each other in?
This leads to another managerial tactic that I never understood: placing a replacement in the starter’s batting order spot. When this happens with a bottom of the order hitter it’s usually no big deal. It’s when the manager replaces one of his top hitters with a replacement that baffles me. There has to be some reason behind it, since so many managers routinely do it. But that doesn’t make it any less perplexing.
Ron Gardenhire not only does this, but he’s doing it while one of his starters is on the DL. Orlando Hudson should be back from his wrist injury by week’s end, but until then Matt Tolbert acts as his stand-in. If this were just a defensive move it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, few teams can absorb an injury to their starting second baseman and replace him with someone who can produce similarly. The problem is that Gardenhire has not just penciled Tolbert’s name into Hudson’s spot in the field, but also in the batting order. In 45 PA this year Tolbert has gotten on base 10 times. Last year, in 231 PA, he had a .303 OBP. He belongs nowhere near the No. 2 spot, and yet Gardenhire has used him there for most games during Hudson’s absence.
Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson is currently day-to-day with back spasms. He left Sunday’s game and hasn’t played since. That shouldn’t be a big problem for the Tigers, since they have Johnny Damon, who for most of his career was a leadoff hitter, in the No. 2 spot. But instead of moving Damon up one spot and putting a hitter like, say, Brennan Boesch or Carlos Guillen in the second spot, Leyland has chosen to use Jackson’s replacements, Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly, in the leadoff spot. Raburn, maybe, makes a degree of sense. He had a .359 OBP and .378 wOBA last season, though he’s playing horribly this season. Kelly, however, is a plain bad hitter. He’s actually brought down his .290 career OBP this year, reaching safely just 13 times in 77 chances. There is no reason to hit him first and give him more PA than hitters like Guillen and Boesch.
These are just two examples I noticed last night. Many other managers do this, too. Jerry Manuel, for instance, used to bat Alex Cora second when giving Luis Castillo a day off. Hitting Castillo second is questionable in the first place, but at least he had a .347 OBP to help justify the move. But to replace him in the field and in the batting order with Cora just seems reckless. In only three seasons of his career has Cora’s wOBA broken .300, the last time in 2008 with the Red Sox. He has a .306 OBP this season. There are plenty of hitters on the Mets, including David Wright, who would fit better in that spot when Castillo sat. With Castillo on the DL Manuel has shown a shred of sanity, hitting Angel Pagan second.
The question still remains of why these managers employ this tactic. It can’t be because the other players are comfortable in their batting order spots. Manuel has messed with his lineup numerous times this season, moving Wright from third to fifth, to fourth for a game, and now back to third. Jason Bay has hit in the Nos. 3, 4, and 5 spots. Neither has hit second even one time. Alex Cora has 16 times. Similarly, Damon has hit leadoff three times and has hit third four times. Why in the world, then, play Kelly there for even one game? Gardenhire routinely hits Justin Morneau third when Joe Mauer takes a day off. Why, then, can’t he put a hitter better than Matt Tolbert in the second spot?
Again, on a macro level, lineup order doesn’t matter a great deal. But on a game-to-game basis, when anything can happen at any moment, why wouldn’t you want to put your best hitters near the top of the order, where they can get on base and knock each other in? Why put a player who makes out more frequently than other players in the lineup near the top? Why let them take one more turn at bat than clearly superior hitters? It just doesn’t make sense. That hasn’t stopped managers from doing anything, though, so I fully expect this trend to continue. But that doesn’t make it any less of a shame.