Drawing up a lineup card is one of the most visible aspects of a manager’s job, which makes it one of the most scrutinized by fans and media.
Although odd choices are certainly made at times – like Yangervis Solarte ever occupying the Toronto Blue Jays’ cleanup spot – it’s usually not difficult to see the rationale. Pencil in the guys that need to be there, and add guys around the fringes depending on who needs a day off or the opposing starter. Whether your starting nine are fully optimized or not, it’s difficult to make a fatal mistake guided by those principles.
Prior to Monday’s game against the Chicago White Sox, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons hinted at another factor: the starter on the mound for his team. Here’s what he said in reference to Yangervis Solarte’s role:
He’s always going to be the guy playing second base when [Travis] isn’t in. We’ve talked about it too that it’s important to get [Donaldson] some DH days, so he’ll be over there at third base. You can put him in the outfield if you have to. You can put him anywhere. You might see him playing shortstop on days when Estrada is pitching.
It’s not a revolutionary idea to cater your lineup to your own starter, but the Blue Jays are particularly well-positioned to do so because three of their starters are extreme groundballers (Marcus Stroman, Jaime Garcia and Aaron Sanchez), and one is an extreme flyball pitcher (Marco Estrada).
As a result, they have some strong tendencies that could be worth shuffling a few guys defensively to accommodate. With that in mind, I concocted a scheme for how the Blue Jays could best make their position players mesh with their starting five.
In order to keep it plausible I complied with the following – relatively arbitrary and self-authored – rules:
- Only one day of Luke Maile – Due to the difference between his offensive performance and Russell Martin’s it doesn’t seem reasonable to play him 40 percent of the time or more.
- Only two days of Gift Ngoepe – Devon Travis needs to sit frequently to stay healthy, but even so, Ngoepe can’t start 60 percent of the games – even though Stroman, Sanchez and Garcia would all love to have him.
- No Maile and Ngoepe in the same lineup – Two defensive specialists together every five days hurts the offence too much.
- Everybody gets a rest except for Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak – Obviously these two would rest occasionally as well, but they are too integral to the lineup to be swapped out on a regular basis. They’re also the clear-cut best options at their positions defensively.
- Kendrys Morales is the DH and that’s it – Morales is paid handsomely to DH and he’s not someone you want in the field unless there’s an emergency. There’s no reason to take Smoak out of the lineup anyway.
Relevant tendencies: Extreme groundball pitcher (59.6 percent). No significant platoon splits likely to change opposing lineup construction. Hitters from both sides of the plate tend to go opposite-field on fly balls.
C Russell Martin
1B Justin Smoak
2B Aledmys Diaz
SS Gift Ngoepe
3B Josh Donaldson
LF Yangervis Solarte
CF Randal Grichuk
RF Curtis Granderson
DH Kendrys Morales
Possible modifications: Because Kevin Pillar is so good against southpaws, he’d probably slot back into the Stroman lineup with lefties on the mound, with Grichuk heading to right and Steve Pearce playing left. Otherwise, Stroman pairs well with Pillar’s day off because he gives up the fewest total fly balls.
Diaz gets a slight nod over Devon Travis defensively at second, but the the difference isn’t enormous, and the latter could play here from time to time.
Relevant tendencies: Extreme groundball pitcher (56.2 percent). Huge platoon splits (4.90 FIP vs. LHB and 3.20 FIP vs. RHB) that will cause opponents to stack lineups with lefties. Left-handed hitters hit fly balls to the opposite field a huge percentage of the time (51.8 percent).
Possible modifications: If there’s any need to give Travis or Diaz a rest, Ngoepe can slide in and help on the infield. Because of the crucial importance of left field with Sanchez on the mound, it’s difficult to get Pearce into the lineup – even if the other team throws out a southpaw – as he’s a questionable fit in right.
Relevant tendencies: Traditionally a flyball pitcher, but had a groundball rate around the league average last season. Medium platoon splits (3.59 FIP vs. LHB and 4.28 FIP vs. RHB) that shouldn’t affect opposing lineups too much. Fly balls tend to go opposite field regardless of batter handedness.
Possible modifications: Basically, you’ve got a garden-variety Blue Jays lineup here. Happ is the most balanced of all the Blue Jays starters and so you don’t need to make any adjustments for him. Because he’s traditionally leaned slightly toward flyballs, Happ days could be some of the better chances to rest key infielders like Donaldson and Smoak.
Relevant tendencies: Extreme flyball pitcher (league-low 30.3 percent groundball rate in 2017). Relatively insignificant platoon splits. Allows the highest percentage of successful base stealers of any Blue Jays pitcher (75 percent).
Possible modifications: Things get fun with Estrada. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, they don’t have a defensively-inclined bench outfielder to make use of here. On the other hand, they’re able to get Solarte in at shortstop which would be inadvisable with someone else on the mound.
If Martin was hot at the plate you could get a little wacky and throw him in at third, Donaldson at short, then start whoever’s hitting better between Travis and Solarte at second. Maile gets the call because he’s probably a better running-game deterrent than Martin at this point.
Relevant tendencies: Extreme groundball pitcher (56.3 percent). Significantly better against left-handers than right-handers leading to righty-heavy lineups. Hitters from both sides pull a huge percentage of the time on the ground.
Possible modifications: Lineups against Garcia will be righty-heavy and they tend to go opposite-field on flyballs against him, meaning left fielders will see a small share of relatively few flyballs. That means it’s a good spot for Solarte or Pearce or possibly even a red-hot Travis if the Blue Jays felt particularly experimental.
Grichuk sits here because he has to sit somewhere and Garcia’s groundball rate is second only to Stroman’s. He would fit nicely in right against tough lefties, though.
Realistically speaking, Pillar isn’t going to get any starts this year in left field, two starts every five games is probably a bit of a heavy workload for Ngoepe, and Diaz is getting a lot of run here at second for a guy who’s played four innings there in the majors.
However, some of the smaller suggestions – like matching Maile with Estrada and giving Solarte some outfield time with the groundballers on the mound – could help the Blue Jays squeeze a little extra production out of their roster.