Tuesday, April 03, 2007

You are Mike Scioscia, and I am my father's son

(Note: The majority of this post was written on Tuesday, which should explain why it sounds like it was either written on Tuesday, or that I've gone on another one of my infamous hash binges. Because you know I can't resist the sticky tarry.)

I'm not going to lie: I got roughly 1.5 hours worth of work done yesterday, which is nothing short of a miracle. Have you seen the MLB.tv Mosiac program? It might be a compelling enough setup for me to bypass Extra Innings completely, especially since I can hook up the computer to the TV at home. But at the office is where it really shines; with my two computer setup, I've got one showing games fullscreen, while I'm "working" on the other. Plus, it gave me the all-too-rare opportunity to listen to/swear at Joe Morgan during the day, which is truly the kind of experience one can't put a price tag on. Or, one can put a $120/year price tag on.

Anyway, I finished off the night with the DVRed Ranger/Angels game, and was happy to see that nothing's changed in the offseason for my favorite good manager who still consistently does stupid things, Mike Scioscia.

This was the Angels' opening-day lineup, with each player's career triple slash numbers:

1. Gary Matthews .263/.337/.419
2. Orlando Cabrera .269/.317/.403
3. Vladamir Guerrero .325/.390/.583
4. Garrett Anderson .297/.327/.470
5. Shea Hillenbrand .287/.324/.448
6. Casey Kotchman .231/.303/.355 (.325/.406/.493 in the minors)
7. Howie Kendrick .280/.310/.410 (.361/.401/.570 in the minors)
8. Mike Napoli .229/.360/.454 (can't seem to find minor league stats)
9. Macier Izturis .265/.335/.377

Two things are engrossing about this lineup:

1) No one in the top-half of the lineup, save for Guerrerro, is even modestly competent at getting on base. Matthews is coming off an allegedly HGH-fueled .313/.371/.495 year that has made his career OBP number around league average, but the rest of the hitters are simply terrible when it comes to not making outs. Most tellingly, the player who promises to do the least with his opportunities, Cabrera, is on track to get the second-most at-bats on the team this season. This is inexplicable.

2) Scioscia has one of the craziest, most segregated batting orders I've ever seen here; the entire top half is composed of (mostly bad) veterans, and the entire bottom half is promising young guys, with the possible exception of Kotchman, who's well into his post-prospect days. But he's still way fucking better than Garrett Anderson. And Howie Kendrick is probably the third-best offensive second baseman in the majors already, and he's essentially a rookie. His career minor-league average is three-sixty-fucking-one, Mike Scioscia ... you really think he can't handle the "pressure" of hitting higher in the order? And even if he couldn't, you don't think he'd be better than Cabrera anyway?

I did mean it when I said Scioscia is a good manager -- I especially love the way he handles pitching staffs, and I expect the Angels to lead the AL in every meaningful pitching category this season, and they're definitely the favorite out of the AL West -- but he is pretty fucking retarded sometimes when it comes to handling the offense. Beyond the fact that he's utterly addicted to the hit-and-run (he did it three times Monday night, without it once doing anything useful and twice ruining potentially great run-scoring situations. One strikeout/throwout DP, one FC, and one groundout with the runner advancing to 2nd. Neither commentator editorialized about the relative merit of running in those situations, but did totally go nuts when Mike Napoli's stolen base attempt resulted in a throwing error by the catcher [advancing him to third], which then turned into a run [it goes without saying that Napoli would have been out by 7-12 steps if Laird hadn't squeezed the throw]) he also does crazy things like insist on batting Darrin Erstad second (until this season, obvs) and Garrett Anderson 5th and Orlando Cabrera anywhere but ninth. In essence, when saddled with a roster of aging hitters who would rather club a pup seal on home plate than take a walk and really promising young guys who have at least shown some willingness to not flail at anything within seven inches of the plate, he gives the most at-bats to the out-makers. Yet, for some reason, I like him. He's got great intangibles.

Anyway, neither announced mentioned that it was only mildly crazy that out-machine Orlando Cabrera was batting second, but I'm not sure why. Is it because they've read the thought-provoking essay by James Click in Baseball Between the Numbers on how, statistically speaking, batting order is essentially meaningless in terms of run expectancy? Or is it because they, like Scioscia (presumably), think that the No. 2 spot in the order is the domain of slappy, fast middle infielders, regardless of whether or not the middle infielder in question is actually any good at being a major league baseball hitter? Or is it because they would never consider questioning the wisdom of a manager on-air? I suppose this is a rhetorical question, which means I can't touch it with Justin around.

What made the Cabrera situation all the more interesting is that yesterday was somewhat of a banner day for managers pulling their heads out of their asses w/r/t to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. As noted by Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan, a handful of managers used "non-traditional" guys in the No. 2 hole, including Lyle Overbay, Adam Dunn, Trot Nixon and Russell Martin. What all those guys have in common is that they're high-OBP hitters with some pop. While the number isn't large enough to suggest that managers are becoming more aware of the need to get one's best hitters the most possible at-bats, as opposed to worrying most about speed and avoiding strikeouts, it's heartening.

As mentioned earlier, however, it's not exactly as if the sabermetric community is lying awake at night trying to figure out how to spread the lineup gospel. The conclusion of Click's essay in BBTN is that, the most sub-optimal batting order is probably only 18 runs worse than an optimal one over the course of the season, and that there's no statistical evidence that "protection" in a lineup is really all that important. It's a shame the two were presented in concert, because while one has merit -- "protection" is a myth, as there's no discernible difference in how batters perform based on who's hitting in front of or behind them -- the other is fundamentally flawed.

Take the decision made by Charlie Manuel to switch Utley and Howard in the lineup last night (and perhaps for a while), going Howard-Utley-Burrell in the heart of the order. He was doing it, presumably, to better "protect" Howard. Ultimately, I don't have a massive problem with Manuel's decision in a vacuum, since Howard is a better hitter than Utley (who's also awesome), and I do believe that one's best hitters should be in line to hit most often. But it's not the switch Manuel should have made; he should have swapped Burrell with either Utley or Howard, setting up a L/R/L heart of the order, which would be a huge boon to Burrell. Why? Platoon splits, friends.

Burrell vs. RH: .256/.362/.475
Burrell vs. LH: .296/.432/.526

Those are some draw-dropping spreads right there, which fits right in with Justin's Eureka! observation that he can't remember the last time Pat Burrell hit a slider away. So, if you know that you have a valuable hitter who becomes immensely more valuable when there's a southpaw on the mound, wouldn't you do whatever you could to put him in a situation where he'll actually get to hit off lefties? 3 out of 5 non-lobotomized humans agree this would be a preferable strategy; guess which camp Manuel falls into.

I realize this is getting long (and probably impossible to follow) but the point is that lineup construction is actually very important, provided you understand that everything's a matter of context. If the Phillies are facing a team that's starting a right-hander, and doesn't have any lefties in the pen, then it's probably costing the Phillies in the long-run to sandwich Burrell between Howard and Utley (or Utley and Howard ... it should be 2-3-4 with those guys anyway, but we all know that Victorino would have to hit like Mario Mendoza to lose the No. 2 hole, because he's fast). But those teams really don't exist anymore; in the age of LOOGYs and 13-man pitching staffs (The Orioles broke camp with thirteen fucking pitchers this season!), an added emphasis has been placed on removing potential gambits from the toolbox of other managers. This is particularly the case with the Phillies, who feature two young left-handed sluggers that actually fare fairly well against lefties; if Manuel sandwiched Burrell in there, the decision to bring in a LOOGY to face the heart of the order goes from mildly profitable to suicidal. Furthermore, Manuel would be setting up Burrell to actually have some eye-catching success, instead of ensuring that Burrell won't see a left-handed reliever for pretty much the rest of the season.

(Props to Sheehan, again, who touched on the Phillies' situation at BP, and started me thinking about the ramifications of Manuel's decision with his quick take on the matter)

I know what you're thinking: Diesel needs a broad, because he just wrote close to 3,000 words on batting orders. All I can say in return is that broad or no broad, it's this kind of trenchant analysis you should be demanding from me this season. Where else are you going to get this kind of shit? Not on Four Weeks with the fucking Commies, that's for goddamn sure.

There's a Steve Phillips chat taking place as I write. I am overjoyed.


St said...

You stole that Burrell analysis from me. We all know you are incapable of analysis. And I would like some credit for turning you on to the band you ripped off for your title.


Howard/Utley/Burrell again tonight. Goddamn it.

Diesel said...

Yes, the most cherished moments of our friendship, IMHO, are when you sat there and broke down Pat Burrell's platoon splits for me.