I’m interested in lineup construction. I want to know why a manager hits certain guys in certain spots and what exactly goes into the thought process as he mixes and matches a lineup to counteract an opposing team’s arms.
Most of the time, a manager’s lineup decisions are self-evident, while sometimes the tinkering might be a slight deviation from conventional wisdom. Occasionally, those deviations are more extreme. When this happens, such decisions typically elicit a skeptical “what the hell is this?” from observers.
As the Phillies continue their ongoing efforts to spark an inconsistent lineup that has underperformed for much of the season, that question has been asked more frequently of manager Gabe Kapler’s lineups.
Kapler certainly raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he put the struggling Rhys Hoskins, a hitter who has spent the bulk of his career in the middle of the order, atop his lineup prior to Wednesday night’s game.
Rhys Hoskins is batting leadoff? Why the hell is Rhys Hoskins batting leadoff?
If you think I’m making up a false reaction for the sake of providing a framework for this piece, well, I’m not.
Do a Twitter search for the terms “Kapler” and “lineup” together and see what comes up. There’s a critic or two – or 500.
“Does Gabe Kapler just throw darts at a board to pick his lineup?”
As it turns out, he doesn’t.
Hoskins, who entered Wednesday night’s game in the midst of a hideous 2 for 32 stretch over a nine-game span in which he failed to knock in a run, singled in his first at-bat and later recorded his first RBI since August 3 with a sacrifice fly.
He hasn’t exactly heated up since being put in the leadoff spot – going only 1 for 6 – but he has reached base three times in addition to that sacrifice fly in nine total plate appearances.
I asked Kapler prior to Thursday’s wild walk-off win that completed a rejuvenating three-game sweep of the Cubs about lineup construction, what factors go into the changes he makes, and about Hoskins’ move to the leadoff spot.
I found his answers to be insightful. I’ll interject with some thoughts along the way.
Crossing Broad: How do you weigh out your lineup? Say Rhys gets hot in the leadoff spot, right? Because he’s back in there tonight, and he’s starts to gain some traction, do you look at that and say, “Okay, now he’s getting going, so we’re going to leave him there?” Or do you say, “His natural positioning should be in the middle of the order, so now let’s transition him back.”
Kapler: It’s such a good question, and it’s something that we think about every day.
Thanks, Gabe. Continue.
Kapler: Every day is looked at as it’s own unique entity. Because you’re facing a different pitcher everyday. Players are dealing with different emotions and adjustments they need to make everyday, and you’re trying to account for what the opposing manager and club is going to do. So by way of example, you saw us have Harper at the top of the lineup on several occasions. We also at that point had Haseley down at the bottom of the lineup, or you’ve seen some other guys who haven’t performed historically as well against left (left-handed pitching) down at the bottom of the lineup. And what we saw is that opposing managers are going to try to take advantage of that, so they will have their best left-handed reliever available for the bottom of the lineup, take him all the way through the top and try to get Harper, too.
So, for example, this is just an exercise in lineup construction, game strategy, etc. If Harper is our leadoff hitter today, and Haseley is our eight-hole hitter, and our best options off the bench are left-handed, you can envision a scenario where they’re going to bring their best left-handed reliever in to force us to use maybe a lesser right-handed option, or if we use Logan Morrison by way of example, they’ve got left-left-left to go through with Harper at the top.
Right, so the first thing to consider is the matchup with the opposing starting pitcher. Taking a player’s psyche into consideration is part of the equation as well as how an opponent’s bullpen is best suited to attack the lineup in the later innings. Pretty standard stuff. Matchups and make sure the the player can mentally handle it.
Obviously, the Phillies don’t view Harper as a prototypical leadoff hitter given he hasn’t hit there most nights, but with the offense tanking, they thought his on-base skills could provide a spark. Of National League hitters with at least 300 plate appearances this season, Harper’s 15.6% walk-rate is third. He’s also been productive in eight games out of the leadoff spot with a .972 OPS, but that positioning became problematic when opponents countered in late innings against their left-handed heavy offense. More Gabe: