The Looming Lineup Problem
Lance Berkman and The Case Of The Mysterious, Never-Healing Leg Cramp could be cleared for baseball action as soon as tomorrow against Arizona. That’s good news, of course, given that the Cardinals just lost their second series of the season with two frustrating offensive performances against lowly Houston.
But Berkman returning to the lineup presents certain problems for Mike Matheny. How he deals with those problems will tell us much about his thinking, as well as how much he’s already learned as a big league manager.
Here was the lineup Matheny employed on opening day against the Marlins:
- Rafael Furcal SS
- Carlos Beltran RF
- Matt Holliday LF
- Lance Berkman 1B
- David Freese 3B
- Yadier Molina C
- Jon Jay CF
- Daniel Descalso 2B
- Kyle Lohse P
With this lineup, Matheny clearly aligns with the Tony La Russa school of thought – put big boppers in the second and third spots, theoretically allowing them to get another at bat and increasing the potential for quick runs. In the five games that Berkman played before his injury, he hit in the cleanup spot and the Cardinals went 4-1 and outscored their opponents 25-14.
Which might sound pretty good, until you look at who drove in the runs during that stretch. It certainly wasn’t Berkman (1 RBI) or Matt Holliday (3 RBI). Fifth-place hitter David Freese drove in 9 RBI in those first six games, followed by Molina (4) Beltran (4) and Sugar Shane Robinson (4). It’s obvious that this lineup configuration wasn’t producing runs with its big bats at the top.
What is missing? Tablesetters. Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday are currently among the league leaders in strikeouts, creating a potential hole at the top of the lineup. Like most good power hitters, Holliday, Beltran, and Berkman have moderate strikeout ratios (between 0.183-0.199 strikeouts per at bat), although both Holliday and Beltran are striking out at a higher rate this year than their career average. They’re almost in Adam Dunn territory this year, which is frightening.
Once Berkman went down with his Leg Muscle That Never Heals, Matheny moved Jon Jay into the second spot, and something interesting happened. The Cardinals went just 8-7 with Jay batting second (he missed a week in late April after crashing into the wall at Busch Stadium), but they averaged over 6 runs a game. During the week he wasn’t in the lineup batting second, the team averaged just 3 runs a game. Quite a difference, wouldn’t you agree?
The Jay Experiment proves that it makes a difference to have high OBP hitters in the first two lineup spots. For example, think about the run-generation of the 1985 Cardinals: two hitters with high on-base percentages leading the lineup, followed by high-contact hitters and power. Jay and Rafael Furcal are currently among the league leaders in both average and OBP. They both have good speed. They have complemented each other nicely, particularly with Matheny’s love of the double steal.
But what happens when Berkman returns? Should Matheny re-employ his original configuration? Or is there another configuration that makes more sense?
Here is my ideal lineup after Berkman returns. Afterwards, I’ll explain my reasoning:
- Furcal SS
- Jay CF
- Beltran RF
- Berkman 1B
- Freese 3B
- Holliday LF
- Molina C
- Schumaker 2B
I would put Beltran in the coveted “Pujols Spot” in the order because (a) Beltran has power and good RBI production, (b) Beltran has enough speed to avoid some double plays, and (c) Beltran has a shorter, less-volatile swing than Holliday.
Berkman is batting fourth in my lineup because Berkman makes good contact in RBI situations while still retaining surprising power (admittedly, you could probably switch Berkman and Holliday and not see a huge difference). Freese remains fifth because he’s probably the best two-out hitter in baseball and possesses a machine-like ability to drive in big runs.
That puts Holliday in the sixth position, protected by Molina and Schumaker. Of course, this will probably never happen given that being lowered in a lineup constitutes an insult in baseball. Holliday is the team’s highest-paid player, and it might cause problems in the clubhouse if he suddenly found himself hitting closer to the bottom of the lineup rather than the top.
However, the main problem here is that the Cardinals have such a deep lineup; some terrific hitter must accept the sixth position in the order. But does it really make sense to simply move the team’s hottest hitter (Jay) down in the lineup so that Beltran can hit second and the other celebrated stars can keep their vaunted lineup spots? Absolutely not. I’d rather some feelings be hurt and the team score six runs a game.
It’s a looming problem for Matheny, but a welcome one. In the end, who can really complain about a problem that involves how to fit in all of the great hitters in a powerful and stacked Cardinal lineup? I’m sure it’s a problem most managers in baseball would love to have.