There was something not quite right with the Cleveland Indians’ lineup when they took the field against the Chicago White Sox Monday night. Tribe manager Manny Acta had given four of his regulars—Michael Brantley, Travis Hafner, Casey Kotchman, and Jack Hannahan—a well-deserved day off, with players like Jason Donald, Aaron Cunningham, and Lou Marson getting their first starts of the season in their places. The lineup just isn’t as impressive without Hafner and Brantley in it, and the Tribe’s defense looks a lot more porous without Kotchman and Hannahan.
But there was one name in particular that stuck out on the lineup card: Jose Lopez. It wasn’t that Lopez was getting the chance to start at first base that was striking—it was that he was pencilled into the No. 5 spot in the Indians’ lineup. It was just one game and it wasn’t the Tribe’s usual lineup, but even so hitting Lopez in the middle of the order was a questionable move at best.
As a quick way to assess the efficiency of the Indians’ batting order, let’s look at how each of the players performed last year in terms of wRC+ (average hitter = 100)—obviously not every spot in the order is created equal and there are more specific aspects of players’ games to consider when filling out the lineup card, but in general I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that better players should hit higher in the order.
Imagine for a moment that Marson were promoted to the middle of the order. Surely you would react with confusion—Marson is a terrific defensive catcher and he’s a tremendously valuable asset to the Indians’ bench, but clearly hitting is not his forte. He has never started a game hitting higher than seventh in the order and he’s hit eighth or ninth in 167 of his 176 career starts, and there’s a reason for that.
Keep that in mind as you consider that the man who batted fifth for the Indians Monday night was a worse hitter than Lou Marson in 2011.
The other big takeaway from this chart is that keeping Jason Kipnis in the bottom third of the order doesn’t seem like the most effective way to harness his offensive prowess—but that’s a story for another time. (He hit eighth in each of the Tribe’s first three games this year, so this was actually progress.)
But perhaps Acta wasn’t putting much stock in last year’s numbers as he mulled over his lineup card Monday night. What if instead he were basing his batting order on players’ career numbers?
The case for Lopez looks a lot better in this light, but hitting him so high up in the order still looks like an odd move. It’s clear now that he deserves to hit ahead of Marson, and while I wouldn’t have done it differently I can see the case for putting him ahead of Cunningham. But Shelley Duncan and Kipnis?
Okay, but that’s all in the past. What matters now is how the players in question are expected to hit in 2012. So I inputted the mean projected OPS+ numbers from each player (as calculated in our 2012 Player Preview series with the help of our Simple WAR Calculator). Here are the results:
These are the most optimistic numbers for Lopez. The mean projection has him enjoying a huge bounceback, outpacing his career stats, and having his best season in three years. Yet he still looks like a significantly worse hitter than Kipnis, Duncan, and even Cunningham.
Yes, Lopez hit a home run in the ninth inning, but decisions like this should assessed based on the information available at the time, not how they worked out—doubling down with a hand of 20 in a game of blackjack is never a good idea, even if you end up getting an ace. You can’t the move a success because Lopez ended up going yard unless you think Manny Acta knew that was coming…in which case perhaps it would be wise not to question any moves he makes.
There’s no single right way to fill out a batting order, but giving Lopez a premium spot in the lineup is almost definitely wrong. The Indians have really been struggling to score this year, and Acta should be looking to maximize his team’s run production as best he can’ giving more plate appearances to worse hitters isn’t going to help.