Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lineup Shuffles Provide New Thinking

The Minnesota Twins recently got their second win of the Major League Baseball season, and while it wasn't on the back of an offensive outburst, the run support was enough to get the job done. A stagnant start to the season had Paul Molitor searching for creative ways to get things going. After making a few lineup tweaks, the Twins got back in the win column. The question is, what should we expect going forward.

In changing around the lineup, the key differences were in swapping spots between Torii Hunter and Brian Dozier. After batting leadoff once, Dozier went from his traditional two hole, back into the cleanup spot. Hunter then moved out of the cleanup role, and into the two spot in the lineup, one he hit out of often during his days in Detroit. It's hard to extrapolate much from early returns (Dozier went 0-2 with a sac fly, while Hunter was 1-3 on Wednesday), but at least half of the change makes sense.

Hitting from the second spot in the lineup relatively often for the Tigers, Torii posted a .295/.327/.456 slash line across his two years in Detroit. He smashed 34 home runs while driving in 167 runs. His 49 walks in comparison to 202 strikeouts leave a bit to be desired, but are serviceable nonetheless. The bigger question mark of the equation is no doubt how Dozier projects as a cleanup hitter.

Last season, the Twins second basemen hit 23 home runs (a career high). With extreme pull tendencies, there has been plenty made of Dozier potentially exerting extra effort to get around on, and drive the baseball. Now hitting from the cleanup role, a traditional power spot, that effort could be multiplied even further leaving Dozier susceptible to problems covering the outer half of the plate.

On the flip side, Dozier has tended upwards when it comes to power potential (18 HR in 2013 followed by 23 in 2014). Spending most of that time batting second in Ron Gardenhire lineups, Dozier's longballs were generally wasted and produced seasons of only 66 and 71 RBI respectively. Working out of the fourth spot in the Twins lineup, Dozier will likely lose out on extra at bats, but could provide benefit to the Twins in that he should be hitting with more runners on base. Until things play out further, it's probably best to leave Dozier's status as cleanup hitter to be determined.

Looking at traditional options for the cleanup role, the Twins find themselves doing more wishful thinking than anything. At the major league level, Kennys Vargas is probably the ideal candidate in theory. However, batting just .208/.269/.250 on the season, after hitting .228/.291/.446 in September last year, there's plenty of reason he isn't in the role. Oswaldo Arcia has been overmatched more often than not in 2015, and Josmil Pinto is still down in Triple-A. While Miguel Sano could see time in the cleanup role for the Twins in 2015, he's currently in the midst of a 3-21 slump batting just .143/.333/.286.

If and when Molitor decides to shake things up again, it probably should start at the top. There was no reason to believe that Danny Santana was going to be a .300 hitter this season, his .405 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) last season was simply not sustainable. The decline probably could have also been somewhat expected. A guy that doesn't walk often (just 19 in 405 AB in 2014) and strikes out far too much (98 in 405 AB in 2014) is recipe for disaster at the top of the lineup. Santana has yet to walk in 2015 and has struck out 28.6% of the time this season (a career high). Also, for a guy that utilizes speed to such a high extent, Santana's 40% fly ball rate in 2015 is not a great start either.

Conventional wisdom, and comments previously provided by Molitor, suggest that the Twins are against the idea of Joe Mauer batting leadoff. While he may be their best option (.382 OBP since 2013), he lacks the speed Molitor seems to crave at the top of the lineup. Of course Santana can't steal first base, and a shake up may need to take place there should things continue.

Regardless of how the lineup evolves over the course of the season, it's somewhat comforting to see Molitor open to new ideas. Rather than quickly abandoning them, figuring out how to stretch results from this lineup through different tactics is going to be a key process for the Twins new skipper. Doing more with less in something that Minnesota will have to count on if they want 2015 to look differently than the past four seasons.

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