The Yankees, at one point in the season last year after about 120 games, had used 104 different lineups. This might suggest a number of things about the team the Yankees had last season, but in the end, it doesn’t matter at all because lineups are overrated and “set lineups” are a thing of the past.
Yankees manager, Joe Girardi, caused a bit of a stir on Friday when he posted a lineup for a game against the Detroit Tigers that had Gary Sanchez batting second in the order and followed by Greg Bird. Girardi later said it was something he had been thinking of doing for some time. But he also cautioned not to read too much into it because he was just experimenting with the idea.
But you could make the argument that it was the tandem of Sanchez and Bird hitting together in the order that resulted in a lopsided victory over the Tigers that day and not the fact that they batted second and third in the order. In other words, they could have hit sixth and seventh, and the result would have been the same.
These days, Managers Are Tinkerers
All managers tinker with their lineups and, in many cases, they do it because they are forced to. For instance, day games after night games might call for a lineup that withholds aging veterans that need a blow. On another day, a particular pitcher is starting, and this guy is hitting .100 against him while that guy is hitting a ton. And then, the bugaboo for all managers – injuries all force difference lineups on different days.
The key factor, though, in all lineups is the batting order. Who follows who?
Perhaps with tongue in cheek, but certainly with a little chagrin, at one point last season Girardi challenged the media to make up his lineup. Telling ESPN, Girardi asked:
"“Who do you want me to lead off? Tell me,” Girardi asked, according to ESPN. “You guys have these questions, but you want me to lead Tex (Mark Teixeira) off? You want me to lead Alex (Rodriguez) off? Want me to lead Carlos (Beltran) off?”"
At the time, of course, the entire lineup was flailing, and Girardi fell just short of boiling over as he added:
"“I mean, (Jacoby) Ellsbury’s done a pretty good job, hasn’t he? I have shaken up the lineup, haven’t I?” Girardi asked. “Carlos has hit second or third, or third or fourth, most of the year. It’s one thing if you have one or two guys struggling and you shake the lineup up, but when you have five or six, there’s not a whole lot of shaking you can do because our No. 1 hitter’s doing really well when he’s hitting first, our No. 3 hitter’s been doing really well and he’s hitting third.”"
Yankees Lineup: It’s About Who Follows Who
The key factor, though, in all lineups is the batting order. Who follows who? The other day, for example, Greg Bird was swinging a hot bat entering the game, and that allowed Girardi to use him as “protection” for Gary Sanchez. It worked as Sanchez responded with a home run driving in three and the Yankees were off and running. The fact that they hit second and third in the order was coincidental to the fact that they formed a mini-team together.
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Leadoff batters are a misnomer too. Except for the first inning, how many times does your leadoff hitter actually lead off an inning? It’s only a matter of mathematical chance that he will do it more than once. But at the same time, what does matter is who’s hitting around him? And maybe that’s why Girardi is also tinkering with the idea of separating Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup by dropping one of them down to the eight spot.
Sometimes, much like the shift started out small and then commanded extensive usage, lineups undergo the same kinds of subtle changes throughout baseball. For a long time, the prevailing thought was that your best hitter should be in the three hole. But now, the sabermetric gods are putting stuff out there showing that your best hitter should bat second. And maybe that’s why the Yankees hit machine, Derek Jeter, hit second for most of his career.
Another question that begs to be asked is whether or not you want your power guys batting together in the order. Prevailing wisdom has always been yes, you do. But now, with the ever rising number of strikeouts we see from home run or nothing batters, that’s being reconsidered too. Because in many situations, it doesn’t matter who’s hitting and all you need is for your guy to put his bat on the ball to produce a run.
Yes, it’s good to have back to back power hitters coming up in your order with runners on first and third and no one out if one of them hits a home run. But these days, it’s more likely that both will strike and, just like that, the inning is over.
The days of a team having a “set lineup” are over. Managers now go day to day, not only because they are forced to, but because it makes more sense to do it that way.