Making out a lineup in baseball should be a work of art, not just a mathematical equation.
You want your table-setters, you want your contact hitters, you want your sluggers, you want balance and you want your RBI guys. When done right, it is a wonderful baseball buffet of talent.
At least it used to be. Until the Nerds re-invented the lineup going with the Little League thinking of putting your two best hitters on top of the lineup because this way they get more at bats.
Sure, it works in Little League, which is where today’s front office geniuses often had their most baseball success, but in the major leagues I still prefer the traditional lineup where different hitters have different roles and it is so good to have speed at the top of the lineup or somewhere in the lineup.
A lineup that can manufacture runs is vital, especially when it comes to the postseason when runs are extra hard to come by in October.
Which brings Baseball or Bust to the Yankees, who should be able to get back in the wild card race because other teams in contention have their flaws.
This week the Yankees got a burst of life from speedy switch-hitter Greg Allen after being called up from the minor leagues. All it took for Allen to get the chance to play for the Yankees was about five different outfielders being put on the injured list. He became the outfielder of last resort.
“Desperation can be your friend and it has become the Yankees friend.”
The Yankees came into the season determined to prove that Clint Frazier would be their left fielder come hell or high water. The right-handed hitting Frazier was gifted 218 plate appearances and hit .186 over that span. His legendary bat speed did not play and at some point, Frazier is going to have to make some serious changes to get it right.
I know batting average doesn’t matter anymore, but it does matter, no matter what the Nerds tell you. The Yankees thought right-handed hitting Miguel Andujar could make the switch to the outfield because anybody can play anywhere these days, at least that’s their plan. It doesn’t always work out. Aaron Judge is on the Covid-19 injured list. Tim Locastro added some speed to the lineup and that was a welcome sight but blew out his knee after nine games. Aaron Hicks is perennially injured.
Allen, who played for Tony Gwynn at San Diego State, finally got an opportunity and brought some life to the party.
We all know the Yankees lineup is slugger heavy and right-handed heavy and that is a problem no matter how much the Yankees tell you differently. A lineup needs to have balance to make it more difficult on opposing pitchers. Against that right-handed lineup the first seven games they played Boston, manager Alex Cora ran circles around Aaron Boone because he could bring in his right-handed relievers like ex-Yankees Garrett Whitlock (taken by the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft) and Adam Ottavino to shut the Yankees down.
This generation of front office people are fascinated with the home run and don’t have the patience, desire or knowledge to have their players learn how to manufacture a run and even though Yankee Stadium is paradise to left-handed hitters, none of that mattered, just hit the juiced Manfred Ball which no longer has sticky stuff on it the other way and get your cheap home runs that way.
Essentially that was the plan.
Greg Allen #22 of the New York Yankees in action against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on July 17, 2021 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Red Sox 3-1. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
That plan got the Yankees in a lot of trouble and now they have to figure out how to dig their way out of fourth place. We will see where the Yankees go from here. In no way am I saying Greg Allen is a star or anything like that, but his style of play is a difference maker. He is a switch-hitter who has speed, but also has daring. He knows what to do with his speed. Essentially the Yankees painted themselves into a corner and may luck out now with Allen.
That’s baseball, Suzyn.
A lot of modern-day lineups have no successful pattern and as one top talent evaluator told me of lineups he is seeing across the game in his travels, “There is no real structure to the lineup. Nothing makes any sense.’’
I have maintained for a while the Yankees need to move Aaron Judge into the third spot of the order so his hits can drive in more runs. He needs to hit third so he can get that mentality going and if the Yankees had a speedy leadoff hitter, followed by DJ LeMahieu and then Judge over the long haul they would be better suited for success. Over his career Judge has hit second in 303 games and has a .283 average. He has hit third 104 games and is batting .251 but that is the proverbial small sample size. Judge has to acquire that mentality and going forward that would be the best spot in the lineup for him. It’s something that just doesn’t happen overnight.
Bringing speed to the game is a way of manufacturing runs. Every true baseball fan loves to see that kind of action. Suddenly a stolen base by Allen or run and hit or hit and run or even a bunt makes a lot more sense. In two straight games, Rougned Odor put down perfect bunt singles. After one of those bunts in his next at-bat he homered so that tells you something about the value of a good bunt for the mental makeup of a hitter as well. Bunting should be a part of the game. Instead of everybody swinging for the fences, some of the Yankees were thinking small ball and it paid off.
Think of it this way, too. Every time Odor bunts is a time he will not strike out.
Rougned Odor has been doing a little bit of everything lately.
Bunting is a good thing, it gets the dugout and the team going. It opens up a new world to these Launch Angle wizards. It’s a great weapon when used properly.
Desperation can be your friend and it has become the Yankees friend. The team has a bit of a different feel this week because of the addition of baseball truths like a switch-hitter, bunts, stolen bases and the running game.
A scout noted of Allen, “He can run, he’ll take a walk, he’s athletic, he’s a good defender and when he hits a ground ball he runs hard.’’
Little things done right.
Suddenly, the lineup has some form. It’s not just one so-called right-handed slugger after another. There is a purpose to the lineup.
Suddenly, Gary Sanchez is not trying to do too much and is back to a more relaxed swing, getting his foot down early and is hitting home runs and doubles as a result.
Allen even hit a triple the other day, only the Yankees sixth triple of the season. The Yankees are dead last in doubles, triples and stolen bases in Major League Baseball. And we all know their troubles running the bases. They are a one-trick pony. A fourth-place team with the third-best odds to win the East. Home run or nothing but that has changed a bit the last week and that is an encouraging sign, as long as Cashman’s Nerds can admit they were wrong.
Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was one of my favorite players to watch play the game and was the perfect No. 2 hitter who could do it all. During his career he batted second in 1,136 games. He batted leadoff in 469 games and batted third 817 games.
He understood the value of a stolen base, not only because a runner moves up 90 feet but a runner gets the pitcher off his game a bit and does the same for the defenders. It’s called gaining an advantage.
There is pressure to make a play. I mentioned in an earlier Baseball or Bust that Giancarlo Stanton, for all his strength, for the most part, opposing infielders are relaxed against him because they know if they simply catch the ball, no matter the exit velocity, they have all day to throw Stanton out at first or all the time in the world to complete the double play because unfortunately Stanton has come to that point in his career where he can pull a muscle walking into Starbucks. He slows down when he runs to first base as a form of self-preservation. He never accelerates. Fielders relax. They can take their time to throw him out.
Fast runners force the action. That’s why it is important to have some speed in the lineup. Having a little speed in the lineup does the exact opposite to the opposition than what I call the Stanton Effect.
“A good base stealer should make the whole infield jumpy,’’ Joe Morgan once said. “Whether you steal or not, you’re changing the rhythm of the game. If the pitcher is concerned about you, he isn’t concentrating enough on the batter.’’
To me, the key word there is rhythm. Baseball is a game of rhythm. If you are in a rhythm you can have success. If you are not in rhythm, bad things can happen. That goes for pitchers, hitters and fielders.
Sanchez was not in rhythm when he was helpless at the plate. Now he is in rhythm. Getting his front foot down early and lightly and in the same place has made a difference.
Tony Gwynn used to tell me after a hitting session one of his keys was to look in the dirt in the front of the batter’s box to see if his front foot landed in the same spot every time. It should not be a messy landing but clean. Now Gwynn pioneered video, but he also had some simple old school methods like that to measure his swing. It was a perfect marriage.
Rhythm is forever baseball’s secret sauce. A team in rhythm is a team that will not panic. And when a baserunner disturbs that rhythm, it gives his team an advantage. It is such a simple equation but was discarded for years because the Nerds only thought of the negative consequence. Caught stealing is giving away an out. Also, the art of stealing has been lost. Baserunners can do so much more today if they made stealing bases a part of their game. Secondary leads too have been lost. Check out some of these players who are thrown out at home and their secondary leads at second base.
The nuance of stealing a base has escaped the Nerds. Most nuances do. Like the difference between a hitter who has a knack of driving in runs and one who doesn’t. RBIs are not arbitrary. It’s a skill. Someone go ask Tony Perez, one of Morgan’s Big Red Machine teammates.
I fully expect the Yankees to make a big trade before the July 30 trade deadline, I expect there to be a lot of action throughout baseball, teams in contention cannot sit back and do nothing. They need to improve their lineups. They need to add pitching. All that will be a good thing for the Yankees because this team could use a little shakeup. I still think a player like Colorado’s Trevor Story can be acquired and that would be a boost because even though the shortstop is not having his best season, his skill set is extremely good for a team and he would make the Yankees lineup more effective, give them a little different look and would put Gleyber Torres back at second base where he belongs.
The danger for the Yankees would be seeing Story wind up on another contender, pushing them ahead of Aaron Boone’s crew, who will need to play their best baseball the rest of the way.
The Yankees lineup issues this year really show in run differential.
In the AL East the first place Red Sox are plus-60, the second place Rays are plus-81, the third place Blue Jays are plus-86 and the Yankees are plus-9. The AL Central leading White Sox are plus-129 while the AL West leading Astros are plus-136. The Rays would be the first wild card while the A’s, who would be the second wild card, are at plus-39. It helps the White Sox and their senior citizen manager Tony La Russa, who is old school as they come, that Tim Anderson is their leadoff hitter and Jose Abreu, a classic slugger is batting third. It is also worth noting that the other senior citizen manager of a division-leading AL team Dusty Baker has Yankee killer Jose Altuve batting first, lefty contact hitter Michael Brantley batting second, followed by Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa. Altuve offers the best of both worlds at leadoff with a .356 on base percentage and 22 home runs.
Since the Yankees have had some success with Allen, I would also suggest giving young Hoy Jun Park some at-bats but he was just sent back to the minors. He bats lefty, has eight home runs and eight doubles at AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre over 44 games and 206 plate appearances after being promoted from AA and, get this – put up a .475 on base percentage at AAA.
Now that’s an interesting number.