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October 13, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Four: Lineup Mismanagement

by Derek Carty

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In last night’s ALCS Game Four against the Rangers, Tigers manager Jim Leyland trotted out his eighth different lineup in eight playoff games. I’ve never quite understood why some managers change their lineups so frequently, and while you could give Leyland a pass for the postseason based on the injuries his team has been dealt—Magglio Ordonez and Delmon Young—Leyland was one of the game’s greatest offenders during the regular season too, filling out his lineup card 127 different ways through 162 regular-season games.

Leyland’s lineup in Game Three of the ALCS was particularly perplexing (as anyone who read BP’s live roundtable discussion surely noticed):

  1. Austin Jackson
  2. Ramon Santiago
  3. Miguel Cabrera
  4. Victor Martinez
  5. Don Kelly
  6. Johnny Peralta
  7. Alex Avila
  8. Ryan Raburn
  9. Andy Dirks

It’s not as if I’m nitpicking about Leyland merely failing to put out a 100 percent optimized lineup—few lineups are constructed absolutely perfectly—but this one doesn’t pass even the most lenient of eye tests. Don Kelly batting in one of the lineup’s most important slots—fifth, which is actually more important than the three-hole—is the most egregious, in my eyes. Kelly’s .247 TAv this year pales in comparison to Peralta’s .290. And even if Avila is hurting, as most suspect, whatever you’d dock his .320 TAv this season has to be better than what Kelly brings to the table. You could point to his lefty bat, but Avila is a lefty too, and I’d hardly think the platoon effect bridges the overall talent gap between him and Peralta.

Individual lineup decisions aside, on a macro level, Leyland’s lineup shuffling looks like a manager trying to play as large a part as possible in his team’s fate. It is human nature to want to feel as if you have control over a situation you logically don’t have much control over, and we see this concept embodied time and again by baseball managers, often to their own detriment. Micromanaging a lineup or a ballgame doesn’t necessarily make you better—it just makes you more active.

As I said before, I’ve never understood a manager who shuffles his lineup so frequently. In knowing each player’s talents, we can tell where each would best fit into a lineup—your best power hitter bats fourth, your best on-base hitter without much power bats first, etc. Sure, it’s important to take into account batter and pitcher platoon splits, park, advance scouting-based matchups (not career 4-for-7 versus the pitcher matchup analysis), and to deal with injury and off-day substitutions, but these kinds of things shouldn’t result in the drastic differences some of Leyland’s lineups exhibit. Generally speaking, the top half of the order should be reserved for the best players, and the bottom half should be filled in with the lesser players. Yes, small matchup-based changes are to be expected, and giving starters an occasional day off is encouraged, but playing the replacement players ahead of the other, superior everyday players is foolish more often than not. Flip-flopping players for the mere sake of flip-flopping them doesn’t accomplish anything; it’s counterproductive.

Leyland’s philosophy regarding playing time has been described as “use your bench liberally all season, because there's no telling when you'll have to depend on those players.” He certainly stuck to that philosophy this season, giving 16 players at least 100 plate appearances, and it’s a good thing too, since he is now being forced to depend on several role players.

Some people have the tendency to think that when you play your regulars every day, you win every game. It doesn't work that way… But this is why you play your entire roster. It doesn't mean they're going to do good necessarily, but at least they have had some action. I think it pays dividends.

There’s absolutely merit to giving your bench players at-bats, especially if you’re playoff bound anyway, and while no one is going to question Leyland on using guys like Kelly, Santiago, Dirks over the past few games—what choice did he have?—there’s a difference between playing guys and playing guys in key lineup spots, which Leyland did pretty frequently during the season as well (Kelly batted second 25 times, for example). You see, there’s a difference between having to depend on these guys to play and forcing yourself to depend on them in key lineup spots, in key games, and subsequently, in key situations. When Kelly came up in the fifth inning of Wednesday night’s game with the bases loaded and the Tigers up just 2-1, his weak ground out to third didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. I think we’d have heard a lot more about this play if his better teammates didn’t pick up the slack and Fister wasn’t so dominate.  If the Tigers end up losing, this could have been a key reason why and one that should have never happened in the first place.

 While Leyland certainly has his strengths as a manager (Jay Jaffe lays out Leyland’s Hall of Case today, in fact), and while he’s certainly not the lone manager guilty of excessive lineup juggling, it does seem unnecessary, overreaching, and detrimental in high-pressure playoff games.  

Related Content:  Don Kelly,  Lineup

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