Braves, Red Sox are committing errors in their lineup construction
It's easy to fall into a trap in the season's first week, writing off the Red Sox and beatifying the Orioles; backing Carlos Quentin's MVP case while wondering if Derek Jeter has fallen off a cliff; treating six days of games as gospel because they're the only six days we have.
Let's not do that today. We'll leave the performance analysis for a week and focus on something that is a bit more real than 20 at-bats or 12 innings pitched: the choices that managers make with their lineups. In the first week of the season, we've seen interesting choices in an area where managers have complete control, and where their decisions have a significant effect on their team's ability to win.
Arguably the biggest lineup error being made is by the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez, who is crippling his team's offense -- 22 runs in six games, half of that total in one contest -- by batting his best hitter sixth. Jason Heyward, who posted a .393 OBP as a rookie while spending much of his time batting second, finds himself relegated to the lower half of the batting order in '11. Heyward has batted sixth in five of the Braves' first six games, moving up to fifth in the one game in which Brian McCann was rested. It's a waste of Heyward's substantial talents to be batting in front of rookie Freddie Freeman, mediocre Alex Gonzalez and the pitcher's spot. Heyward has reached base other than via home run nine times, but has been driven in by a teammate just once.
Heyward, who has a .478 OBP so far on the strength of a .294 average and a tremendous 2/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio (Heyward has drawn a free pass in every game), makes an ideal No. 2 hitter. He gets on base for the middle of the lineup; he has power that helps him push along the leadoff man. As a left-handed hitter with some speed, he's not a major double-play threat, despite being something of a groundball hitter. He's far and away a better hitter than is Nate McLouth, whose performance since his peak 2008 season has been a mere .234/.333/.396 line. This isn't a minor point; batting McLouth second and Heyward fifth shifts 50-60 plate appearances from the better player to the worse one while also taking runners off the basepaths for Chipper Jones, McCann and Dan Uggla. The combination is worth as many as 20 runs over the course of the season.
Gonzalez's Braves have at least scuffled to a .500 record. Terry Francona is dealing with his Red Sox' wretched 0-5 start, which in part explains his lineup shuffling in the early going. His Opening Day order lasted two games; in the third, he dropped Carl Crawford the No. 7 spot, ostensibly to take pressure off him. (It seems to me that highlighting the poor two games of your high-priced free agent by dropping him to the netherlands of your lineup would
Francona may have reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. Crawford is not a No. 3 hitter, and certainly not in this lineup. Your No. 3 slot is for your best hitter (or second-best, per the strict sabermetric lineup code, which bats the best hitter second), and by any definition, Crawford is no better than Boston's third-best hitter behind Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis. He hits for average and has some pop, but has neither the on-base skills nor the power you expect from a No. 3 man. Moreover, his skill at stealing bases is of less use hitting in front of high-slugging batters capable of driving in runners from first with doubles and homers. Batting Crawford second isn't a bad idea -- his speed and lefty bat play well there -- but it does put two lefties atop the lineup, and with a third, Gonzalez, batting fourth, Francona gives away some tactical advantage at the top of the order.
What may be the best spot for Crawford is one we have yet to see him in: fifth. The No. 5 spot leads off innings more frequently than any save the leadoff spot itself, playing to Crawford's leadoff skills. His basestealing ability has more value in front of the bottom of the lineup, where he can get into scoring position for singles by Drew, Marco Scutaro and the catching platoon. He's a good enough hitter, with more than enough power, to bat behind the high OBPs in the top four slots. Batting Crawford fifth would give the top five spots an L/R/L/R/L shape, while exposing the Red Sox a bit at the back end, where Crawford may be followed by David Ortiz and Drew. With five left-handed batters among their best seven players, though, the Sox are going to have to take a tactical hit somewhere. (The de facto swap of Adrians on the infield corners and the loss of Victor Martinez unbalanced the lineup a bit.)
Amidst all this criticism, let's take a moment to acknowledge Jim Riggleman's smarts in batting Jayson Werth second. Werth is the team's best hitter, due to his OBP edge over Ryan Zimmerman. While you would have expected the high-profile, high-dollar free agent to take up a spot in the middle of the lineup, the No. 2 spot is a great fit for Werth, who gets on base, doesn't hit many ground balls -- so he stays out of double plays -- and has good speed for running the bases on hits. Riggleman's move helps alleviate a problem for the Nats, as with Ian Desmond atop the lineup and few other high-OBP guys available, there was a chance that the middle of the lineup would have been starved for runners on base. Riggleman may not be anyone's idea of a stathead, but in batting his best hitter second he has made the sabermetrically correct move, one that should make the Nats just a little bit better this year.