Friday, June 11, 2010

Shifting Mauer up would strengthen Twins lineup

Prior to Orlando Hudson’s injury on May 30th, the Twins were experiencing one of their best seasons from their two-hitter in over a decade. As a catalyst for the offensive, Hudson was rocking a fatty .377 on-base percentage while scoring a team-leading 39 runs and driving in 16 more. Because of this output and consistent ability to reach base, the Twins averaged nearly five runs per game.

Since being relegated to watching his teammates from the bench the past ten games, the lineup has been a void of emptiness at the two-spot. First shortstop J.J. Hardy was moved into the vacancy followed by a dose of Matt Tolbert after Hardy excused himself with a wrist injury of his own. In 40 plate appearances, the duo combined to go 4-for-36 (.111), scored three runs (all by Tolbert) and have made an out in 85% of the time.  The Twins scoring decreased to almost four runs per game in that duration.

Up to this point Hudson has been the textbook two-hitter – getting on base, adding some speed while occasionally tapping into his power supply (.421 slugging, 15 extra base hits). Needless to say, with this readily available, it did not take much forethought when filling out a lineup card. Now the two-spot has slowed the offense down and begs the question: why is the two-spot so important and how do we fix it?

Back in March,’s Brian McTaggert wrote a piece highlighting the shift in what managers around baseball desired in a number two hitter: Power and speed. Writes McTaggert:

For years, the kind of player that managers wanted to put in the No. 2 spot in a batting order was someone who could hit behind runners, drop down a bunt and set the table for the big bats in the lineup. They didn't get much of the glory, but they were as vital to the offense as the streak-of-lightning leadoff hitter or barrel-chested sluggers.

This was the accepted baseball wisdom, one in which legendary manager Earl Weaver detailed in his 1988 book,Weaver on Strategy. At that time, the long-time Baltimoreskipper proclaimed that his ideal two-hitter “is a good bunter. The thinking is that the number-two hitter will bunt or hit-and-run the leadoff man into scoring position.” Essentially, a hitter with a high contact rate and bat control, reaching base safely was not necessarily a prerequisite.  

Several years prior to Weaver’s book, researcher Bill James, now a member of the Boston Red Sox front office, found this practice to be detrimental to overall offensive production. He urged managers to find a hitter that can avoid outs to fill the space between leadoff and the middle of the order. Of course, with baseball, theories are rarely put into practice overnight. Nevertheless, over time both research and results showed that getting more from your number-two spot is vital for offensive production:

[T]he game has changed, and the role of the No. 2 hitter morphed as well in recent years. Instead of slap hitters who put down bunts and work counts, many teams are opting to have a hitter capable of hitting 20-plus homers batting in the second spot in the order. Brawn over finesse, though having a combination of the two is even better.

Now this philosophy is more readily accepted. For instance, the new Cleveland Indians manager, Manny Acta, is one of several field generals that understand the logic behind this. Said Acta back in March:

"It has changed. You don't need a guy who can just bunt and move the guy over. You need to get him on base a lot because you have the No. 3 and 4 hitters coming up behind him. It's a very key part of the lineup."

To practice what he preached, Acta began this season with center fielder Grady Sizemore, who held a career .367 on-base percentage going into the season, as his two-hitter. Sizemore’s lack of productivity and eventual need for season-ending surgery created another opening. Not to be easily deterred, Acta moved outfielder Shin Soo Choo, possibly the hottest hitter in baseball the month of April and had previously been batting third, into the two-spot. The Indians lineup went from scoring 3.8 runs per game to scoring 4.6 since May 21st.

Likewise, Joe Maddon, manager of the high-octane Tampa Bay Rays lineup, also concurs with this sentiment:

"I don't think it's as it used to be, when the No. 2 guy was primarily a bunt guy or a hit-and-run guy. For me, a No. 2 hitter has to be kind of a complete hitter ... a combination of speed and the ability to drive in a run."

Unsurprisingly, when you are blessed with a player like Carl Crawford who has a blend of both power and speed like Maddon is, it is easy to look like a genius at constructing lineups. What’s more is that even the players in the lineup grasp the common sense behind having a high on-base guy man the two-spot. Houston Astros first base Lance Berkman understands the importance of the skill set of the hitter in front of him:

"You need a guy that can give you a tough at-bat, even against a great pitcher. I don't think your No. 2 guy has to hit with a lot of power, but I do think he has to have a knack for coming up with big hits because I do think you're going to be in a big situation a lot. The most important thing for me is that a No. 2 hitter makes as few outs as possible, which translates into a high on-base percentage."

This brings us back to the Twins current situation. WithoutHudson, the lineup lacks the fluidity it did when he was healthy. Without a decent substitute, the two-spot has become a blighted area of the lineup. With the above reasoning, it would make complete sense to move Joe Mauer up one slot in the lineup. His ability to make contact, drive the ball to the gaps and get on base in nearly 40% of his plate appearances would provide the meat of the order ample opportunity to drive in runs  in Hudson’s hopefully temporary absence.

This isn’t new territory for the well-paid catcher either. In late May 2009, the Twins faced similar circumstances which forced Gardenhire to move Mauer into the two-spot. From May 21st until June 20th, Mauer batted second and hit a robust .415 as the team averaged 5 runs per game in that duration. It was this surge of production that kept the Twins from having the American League’s worst productivity from the two-spot last year.

Gardenhire’s hesitation to move Mauer forward isn’t without its merits. The first of which is that the top of the order becomes left-handed heavily with Span, Mauer and Morneau in the first through third positions in the order. This however is easily dismissed when you consider the splits the trio has when facing left-handed pitching. The second, and perhaps more relevant issue to the manager, is that it leaves the bottom of the order clogged with a variation of Tolbert, Punto, Harris, Valencia or Plouffe in the final three spots. When presented with the same situation last year when Alexi Casilla was struggling, the Twins manager said:

“[Y]ou can stick everyone who's swinging bad at the bottom, but that doesn't stretch out your lineup.”

Clearly this opinion is shared by several other managers in the league who wish to avoid bogging down the lineup at the backend with too many out-makers. According to McTaggert’s article, Astros manager Brad Mills expressed concerns over thinning his lineup as well:

"It would be great to have a No. 2 hitter to be able to drive the ball, but you don't want to sacrifice the rest of your lineup. You want to be able to spread those hitters out to give yourself a chance to drive in some runs."

Yet the problem with that line of thinking is that, in the end, you are giving more at bats to an inferior hitter as the two-hitter will receive more plate appearances per game than the eight or nine hitters. So with the probability of Hudsonreturning to the Twins as early as Tuesday to face the Rockies, adjusting the lineup to include Mauer batting second is a temporary - but necessary - solution to a short-term problem.