August 17, 2017
Lineups Are Just a Social Construct
The Rays’ offense is in crisis. Tampa Bay lost 3-2 in Toronto on Wednesday night, continuing a pattern of ineptitude at bat that has persisted for nearly two full weeks. They’ve scored 20 runs in their last 12 games, just as some of their rivals in the Game of Porcelain Thrones that is the AL Wild Card race have gotten hot. If they can’t find their way out of this funk soon, or if they aren’t able to start pulling out some close games despite a faltering offense, they’re going to squander what looked (as recently as the trade deadline) like a great opportunity to reach the postseason.
There’s an ace up their sleeve, one they seem reticent to play. Willy Adames is hitting well at Triple-A, and he’s more than acquitted himself as a defensive shortstop. Given the dreadful production Adeiny Hechavarria has delivered recently, it’s possible that the gap between the two is wide enough to make starting Adames’ service-time clock worthwhile even for the Rays. Barring that, however, the best hope for the team might be for manager Kevin Cash to keep doing what he did on Wednesday night: using the whole roster.
In basketball, the minimized minutes revolution has been in full swing for some time. A number of teams have determined that keeping their best players fresh is worth the tradeoffs that come with playing them less and using their bench more liberally. In the NFL, the workhorse running back has gone the way of the actual workhorse, and defensive linemen are rotated in and out more often, the better to keep the pass rush at full strength. In MLB, of course, the commonly drawn parallel (and the one already embraced by much of the league) has been to pitchers: more relievers, shorter starts, and on and on.
However, there’s an unexplored path through games (especially for AL managers, who needn’t worry about the pitcher’s spot in the batting order) that involves heavier use of substitutions on the positional side. The rules of baseball don’t allow players who are removed to return, of course, but that’s scared too many skippers away from letting two players split one spot in the batting order or the defensive work at a given position within a game. In the seventh inning on Wednesday night, Cash pinch-ran for catcher Jesus Sucre with Hechavarria (Daniel Robertson had started at shortstop), and pinch-hit Steven Souza for designated hitter Lucas Duda at the same time. Souza walked, bringing the Rays within a run. The next half-inning, Wilson Ramos took over behind the plate, and Hechavarria stayed in to replace Robertson at shortstop.
The only guy left on Cash’s bench for the rest of the game was Trevor Plouffe, but that’s really not the worst thing in the world. Brad Miller is theoretically capable of playing either outfield corner, shortstop, and even catcher, and he was still in the game at second base. If any injury had forced Cash to get creative, he still had the most important piece of that puzzle on his chess board. In the meantime, he gave his team a marginally better chance to push across the few runs they needed to beat the Blue Jays. It didn’t work, but it’s the kind of thing managers (especially those with a fairly flat roster, in terms of positional talent distribution, which is certainly the case for the Rays right now) should try more often. They could even do it earlier, in some cases.
Playing the first half of an MLB game in 2017 is almost an entirely different exercise than playing the second half of one. A hitter who’s particularly platoon sensitive should start any time he has a good matchup with the opposing starting pitcher, but he’s going to be vulnerable in the middle and later innings. A guy whose value lies mostly in his defense should probably start whenever the opposing starter presents a non-catastrophic offensive matchup, because if your bullpen is worth its salt, you’re going to need your fielders more often in the early going than later.
Some players have real talent for coming into an at-bat cold, without a previous look at a given pitcher, and hitting them well, while others profit greatly from getting second and third looks. The former might be guys who can be shuffled into the bottom of the lineup around the fourth or fifth inning without having missed their best chance to help the team, while the latter type should start (and bat near the top of the order), then be nudged aside when the opponent’s parade of relievers begins.
There’s an enormous number of different angles through which one can slice this issue, and each reveals a different way a certain player might be better used (and kept marginally fresher and healthier, too) if they were to share their place within a game more evenly with another player. The guy who’s currently playing eight or nine innings would lose playing time in this scenario, but he might gain effectiveness, and the team would come out ahead, which is what ought to drive in-game tactical decisions for contending clubs.
The roster crunch every team faces makes this kind of thinking difficult to put into action, of course. Earl Weaver used to do things like this, but he had 15 position players on his roster even during the lean times, and in September (when he really dug into the bag of tricks) that number rose even more. That relatively few players can be deployed this way makes it more important than ever that an aspiring playoff team have at least a couple of true stars on the positional side. (The Rays fail that crude test, by the way, now that Corey Dickerson has come back to earth, Kevin Kiermaier is hurt, and Evan Longoria’s made it so clear he never intends to play like he’s 26 again. It might be what ultimately keeps them on the fringes of this race.)
Still, there are two or three spots in every defensive lineup and every batting order where (if a manager could see it less as belonging to whomever he penciled in there to start the game, and more as a place available to any of his bench players if the right circumstances arise) teams could gain small advantages through good maneuvering. In what feels like a true six- or seven-team race for the Coin Flip round on the junior circuit, those small edges could make or break someone’s season.
Speaking of those six or seven teams, here’s a quick rundown of the extent to which I think they each have a chance to leverage open-minded substitution strategies.
We probably ought to see more substitutions than we actually see in today’s game. The pinch-hit penalty is real, but I think numbers tend to overstate it or distort it. I also think the evolution of the game since the last comprehensive study on the topic has probably muted the inherent penalty. More importantly, though, we should definitely see more creative substituting. There’s a sense of loss aversion that surrounds every managerial move, it seems. He’s trying not to lose players within a game, to take them off the field any sooner than absolutely necessary, because he knows he can’t bring them back. I think most managers should focus less on that fear, and more on the possible benefits of more aggressively changing up the look of their lineup midstream.