Tipping Pitches: June 2010


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Macha Making Lineups for Dummies


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The batting order ultimately doesn't mean a whole lot, but that doesn't mean a manager needs to be devoid of any strategy.

On one hand, I appreciate Ken Macha for pushing the envelope. He spits in the face of tradition by occasionally batting the pitcher eighth and hitting Ryan Braun second. Yet, the next day he'll put a horrible on base guy like Carlos Gomez second.

It makes no sense.

Many like to criticize Macha for his daily lineup changes, but I understand there needs to be variety. George Kottaras can't start everyday at catcher, and that significantly impacts the lineup (as a high OBP guy, he should hit high while the rookie Jonathan Lucroy should not).

However, Macha seems to have little consistency. It's almost as if he knows a certain strategy is more successful, but he doesn't want to stick with it on a day-to-day basis in fear of excessive criticism.

And when you think about it, it's easy to criticize. Even when he's right, his lineups are often contrarian. And no lineup will work every time. But the dumbed down public can easily criticize when the "right" lineup failed to score in one game. In reality, you need many games to determine success or failure.

Let me cut to the chase. Let me make Macha's life easy. I realize the Brewers have various options and rotations. Here are the lineups he should stick with. I'll provide my reasoning below.

Option #1:

1. Rickie Weeks, 2B
2. George Kottaras, C
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Prince Fielder, 1B
5. Casey McGehee, 3B
6. Corey Hart, RF
7. Alcides Escobar, SS
8. Jim Edmonds, CF
9. Starting Pitcher

Why: You're putting your top OBP guys at the top. I'd put Braun and Fielder higher, but with the pitcher hitting ninth here, I want to have guys on base in front of them, and the pitcher would often be a detriment. Kottaras has a batting average just north of .200, but an OBP around .400, so he makes sense near the top. Ultimately, you want runners on base in front of your power hitters. While Edmonds may not be a prototypical eighth hitter, he is patient. Escobar is not. The eighth hitter needs to be selective in front of the pitcher. Additionally, it's nice to have a selective hitter after Escobar so that he can steal a base. You put Escobar in front of the pitcher, and the automatic bunt takes the steal away. Finally, I don't want both Lucroy and Edmonds in the same lineup.

Option #2:

1. Rickie Weeks, 2B
2. Ryan Braun, LF
3. Prince Fielder, 1B
4. Casey McGehee, 3B
5. Corey Hart, RF
6. Carlos Gomez, CF
7. Jonathan Lucroy, C
8. Starting Pitcher
9. Alcides Escobar, SS

Why: Many hate this, but I've grown to appreciate hitting the pitcher eight, particularly when you have a good hitting pitcher (the Brewers have several). This gives Braun and Fielder more opportunities, and Escboar essentially acts as the second leadoff hitter. He doesn't hit in front of the pitcher, giving him opportunity to use his spead. Likewise, Gomez isn't a prototypical sixth hitter, but this isn't a prototypical lineup. I want the top of the lineup to produce with guys on base and extra base hits. The bottom of the lineup with bunts and stolen bases. If Gomez gets on, he gets an opportunity to steal with Lucroy up. And his lack of patience would not be a detriment.

Option #3/4 vs. LHP: swap Braun and Fielder

Why: I've warmed to the swap. Macha drives me crazy because he can make so much sense at times while at others making none. Swapping Fielder and Braun against a left handed pitcher makes complete sense. Braun is having the bigger year. Braun also rakes left handed pitchers. But Fielder is the only real force from the left handed side of the plate, so a pitcher will often pitch around him (even with McGehee hitting behind him). But if you put Braun behind Fielder, pitchers will pay. So they are forced to pitch to Fielder.

I still think there should be variations, and not just these three options. But there is NO REASON a guy like Carlos Gomez should ever hit second in the lineup. He is one of the worst hitters on the team when it comes to getting on base. And if he does get on base, Macha will eliminate the steal in front of Braun and Fielder. So why in the world would you put a guy like Gomez in that spot? Put him where he can be successful.

I can't stress this enough. With a lineup like the Brewers', you need two halves: 1) the top half should be the half that gets on base and gets extra base hits; 2) the bottom half should rely on manufacturing runs with steals and bunts.

Brewer fans often complain about the Brewers' refusal to play small ball, but the complaint is often misplaced. The small ball strategy often doesn't make sense, partly because of the way the Brewers' lineup is designed. You should rarely play small ball in front of Braun and Fielder. Running into outs when an extra base hit is especially possible makes little sense.

But you can do both. You can play for bases and the long ball while also playing small ball later on. You just have to align your lineup appropriately.

The ultimate problem is multi-layered:

1) Fear of short-term failure. Ken Macha won't admit it, but he hates it when he bats the pitcher eighth or Braun second, or some other unconventional format and it doesn't succeed. He needs to ignore the criticism. No lineup is guaranteed success for one game. Fans will light him up, but let them. They aren't bright, and they'll learn. Over the course of the entire season (or at least dozens of games), if you use the right lineup strategy you can maximize runs. That still doesn't guarantee success if your pitching is terrible (or your offense isn't good enough), but it gives you a better chance to win.

2) Mainstream statistical ignorance. I'm sure Joe Morgan would hate such a lineup, as would most announcers on ESPN. They'd scoff, particularly when it would fail (whether reflected in an out or a loss). Let them. The acceptance is growing as is the opposition to shallow thinking.

3) It just doesn't seem right. Look, I've been there. When Ned Yost hit the pitcher eighth, I thought he was a fool. And he probably did it for the wrong reasons. Because he is a fool. But we need to overcome conventional wisdom. Start questioning tradition. Get passed the smell test. Stop saying, "If X manager didn't do it, then...". Tradition is often wrong.

Even as a stat head, I've had some traditional beliefs nailed into my skull when it comes to baseball strategy. I'd always thought there was a place for small ball. And I always assumed a "proper" lineup.

You know what I mean. The fastest guy hits first. The slap hitter hits second. Your best hitter third. Your big power hitter cleanup. Your next biggest power hitter fifth. Your next biggest power hitter sixth. Your non-descript guy seventh. Your other slap hitter eighth. And your pitcher ninth.

We accepted that as how it should be. But when you use logic, it doesn't make much sense. To score runs, you need runners on base. And to score the most runs, you need your best hitters up as much as possible. Finally, the leadoff hitter is only guaranteed to hit leadoff once.

Words to live by.

So help me. Join the revolution. Maybe you aren't a Brewers fan, but do me a favor. Rethink your team's lineup strategy, and challenge conventional wisdom. It's for the good of the game.