Lineuping is one of my favorite end-of-spring-training things to do. The roster is set and now the serious part of the discussion turns from who should be on the team to where in the lineup the player should bat. I guess the idea in lineuping is to come up with a way to maximize the strengths of players, minimize weaknesses, and when there is a choice between two competing schemes that would each maximize two different players, to ask which one gives you a larger net gain in offense. It is an inexact science and all, which is part of the fun.
When it comes to the Mets, all offseason and spring training the question has been where to bat Reyes – and really the rest of the lineup falls into place when that question is answered. Most threads have argued for or against Reyes batting leadoff or Jerry Manuel’s idea of batting him third. And yet, surprisingly, hardly anyone has suggested batting Luis Castillo leadoff and Jose Reyes second. So after a winter and early spring of hearing a million lineup schemes – and I spent a lot of time on these threads – I say batting Reyes second is the way to go, but let’s look at all the arguments anyway.
The case for Reyes leadoff: A lot of people feel that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And leaving Reyes in the leadoff spot definitely follows that philosophy. Over the last few years there hasn’t been a more dynamic and exciting leadoff hitter in baseball. You could argue that Reyes in the leadoff spot is the factor most responsible for the Mets’ success in 2006. It seemed every first inning was the same thing: Reyes getting on base, stealing second, moving to third on a Lo Duca hit to the right side and scoring on a sacrifice fly or base hit from the middle of the order. Much of that season, after grabbing the lead early on, they just held on for the rest of the game with Feliciano, Sanchez and Wagner. That was the formula.
The case against Reyes leadoff: In a word…hammy. The Mets have been handling Reyes with kid gloves this offseason and spring training both before and after the thyroid issue. They recognize how important he is to the team and the brand. (And after the Flushing Plague of 2009, I guess you can’t blame them.) The Mets have not wanted to let Reyes show his “explosiveness” as it is called for fear of going too fast too early. I’m not a doctor, but I suspect there is some merit to this line of thought. Bat him leadoff and he feels the pressure of going back to his 60 steal days only to pull up lame.
The case for batting Reyes third: The idea here piggybacks off the idea that leadoff no es bueno for Reyes’ long term good health. I also think Jerry thinks Reyes could pull a Hanley (not hammy) and himself adapt nicely from leadoff to run producer. Lastly, I think Manuel recognizes that while batting Reyes third does not maximize Reyes’ skills, it lets Luis Castillo bat at the top of the lineup where he is more valuable. On this last point I agree with Jerry’s instincts. Putting Castillo at the bottom of the lineup was a waste of the very few things he does well… or is it the few things he does very well?
And what are those things that Castillo does well offensively? Well get on base and…and…and…OBP is the same thing right? As Michael Salfino wrote for SNY.tv last month, in making a completely different point, said,
Let's use perhaps the most extreme example of a high on-base, low slugging guy: the Mets' Luis Castillo. Last year, his OPS was .732 (.387 on-base plus .346 slugging). But he was more valuable than this suggests because, relative to an average leadoff man, Castillo would be expected to score 19 more runs over 162 games. Castillo probably won't bat leadoff (though Jose Reyes is reportedly being considered again for the No. 3 spot) and definitely won't play 162 games, but you get the idea. For the record, that 19-run advantage has an expected value of about two wins.
So last year, Castillo (.387) had an OBP exactly 50 points higher than Reyes’ career average (.337). That means Castillo would project to get on base one more time than Reyes over 20 at-bats. If the top of the lineup averages 4 or 5 at-bats per game that’s one more baserunner every 4 or 5 games. Okay so that’s not the best argument in the world. One baserunner every four or five games, big deal.
Maybe it is not on its own. But let’s take a look at some other problems addressed by the swap at the top of the order. First, there is what was already discussed in keeping Reyes out of the leadoff spot. Hammy explosion. Next, there is the problem that not even Reyes can score on a Luis Castillo single. As Michael Salfino said, Luis Castillo is the most extreme example of high OBP and low SLG. If all he hits are shallow singles, even if Reyes has stolen second, he may not score. And if he has not stolen second, there are no gap shots coming off Lui’s bat that will score him from first. Lo Duca at least had some pop and the outfield had to respect that fact or get burned. If Castillo is batting from the left side, which is most of the time, the left fielder is standing 30 feet behind the edge of the infield and if a ball gets through, not even the Roadrunner could score from second.
But flip them around and all of a sudden you have Reyes chasing Castillo. We all know the kind of pop and penchant Reyes has for extra base hits. Castillo (who had 20 stolen bases in his own right last year) has enough speed to score on a gapper, particularly at CitiField. And at the rate of two or three more baserunners a week, some of that pop can be put to good use in producing runs.
Third…I forget what third is. I always want to have three reasons, but really that is all there is to it. You maximize Castillo’s skill. You utilize more of Reyes’ pop than speed than in previous years thereby protecting the hamstring and saving his legs for September. You keep Wright, the best average hitter (who also has speed) in the 3 hole and extend the lineup. Castillo, Reyes, Wright, Bay, Beltran, Francoeur, 1B/C, C/1B. That to me is a formidable and balanced lineup. So what about before Beltran’s return? I hear you. I say bat Pagan or Gary Matthews, Jr. at the bottom. To me, these are the temp guys with the least skill so get them the least amount of at-bats out of everyone. They both have some pop and speed, and if they contribute from the bottom of the order, then great, but the team should emphasize they are defensive replacements because filling Beltran’s shoes offensively is impossible. We’ve already seen what kind of dumb plays Pagan makes when he’s trying too hard.
All in all, it’s not 2006 and Paul Lo Duca is long gone and he’s taken his 2-hole skills (and probably some unfortunate Long Island girls) with him. Batting Reyes second takes the most mental pressure off to produce, keeps him, his enthusiasm, and dynamism in front of the big boppers, protects his hammy and utilizes his gap power. It lets Castillo focus on the only thing he does well – get on base, and creates the largest net gain in offense. There’s another superspeedster on the East Coast who hits for good average and decent power from the second spot in the lineup… Carl something or other.