Yesterday, the Cleveland Indians humiliated the Kansas City Royals 8-3 in what really looked like a showdown between two bad teams. Neither team played especially well, but the Indians were less bad. And in any given game, less bad is all it takes to win.
The Royals fielded poorly in the first inning and that made the difference, but the makeshift lineup the Royals fielded made it difficult for them to catch up. And catching up wasn’t out of the question. The Indians didn’t have Cy Young or Walter Johnson out there; it was the aging Derek Lowe.
Jarrod Dyson hit leadoff. Jarrod Dyson is an incredibly fast and incredibly good baserunner, so he looks like a leadoff hitter. On April 29, 2011, he pinch-ran in the 8th inning, stole second, advanced to third on a throwing error, and then tagged up and scored on a popup to shortstop. If he played for a big-market team, they’d still be showing replays of it.
The problem is that Jarrod Dyson hits like a pitcher. A year ago, Sam Mellinger wrote that since you can’t steal first base, the best thing to do is let Jarrod Dyson borrow it.
Normally, Alex Gordon leads off for the Royals. He’s not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he has a reasonably good on-base percentage and he’s a reasonably good baserunner. On a balanced team, Alex Gordon would probably hit fifth or sixth. Since the Royals aren’t a balanced team right now, Gordon is the best option.
Yesterday, Jeff Francouer hit second, for lack of anyone else to do it. Francouer’s main qualification for hitting second is that his slowness on the basepaths isn’t the stuff of legends. Hitting him second is better than hitting the catcher second, but that’s about it.
Given that this is a team that doesn’t have a lot of options, Alex Gordon should hit first, Eric Hosmer should hit second, Billy Butler should hit third, and either Jeff Francouer or Mike Moustakas should hit fourth. Whoever isn’t hitting fourth should hit fifth. The remaining four guys in the lineup should just hit in descending order of their on-base percentage.
Gordon is slumping, which is probably why Ned Yost didn’t want to hit him first. He’ll eventually get out of it.
If Hosmer hits second, he’ll get a few more at-bats than he would hitting third. Ideally, you want a couple of fast-running on-base machines hitting ahead of Hosmer, so Hosmer can drive them in. But since the Royals don’t have Rickey Henderson and Rod Carew to hit in front of him, Hosmer might as well be getting as many at-bats as possible.
That sets up a cascading effect. Billy Butler gets a few more at-bats hitting third than he would hitting fourth, and so do Moustakas and Francouer. More importantly, the Royals second basemen, shortstops, catchers, and backup center fielders (regular CF Lorenzo Cain is hurt) get fewer at-bats this way.
By conventional baseball wisdom, you let two scrappy, fast guys hit first and second. That works great when you have two scrappy, fast guys who get on base more than 35 percent of the time. But the reason that works is because it increases your chances of having one or two guys on base when your good hitters come up.
Being fast is nice when your good hitter hits the ball into the gap between the opposing outfielders. But being fast does no good when you’re watching the good hitters from the bench.
Giving extra at-bats to Jarrod Dyson and Jeff Francouer is just giving away outs. You only get 27 of those per game, so the more likely you are to make outs rather than get on base, the fewer times you should hit. The more baserunners you can string together, the more runs you’re likely to score, and the more runs you score, the more games you win.
That’s the basic premise of Moneyball. It works better for a big-market team like the Red Sox, but it’s what keeps the Oakland Athletics out of the basement.
And as for Dyson, the best thing to do with him is let someone else play center field, then let him borrow first base. If Billy Butler or the catcher reach base late in a close game, let Dyson pinch run. If the opportunity arises, he can steal second and third, then score on pretty much anything but a line drive right at somebody. If the opportunity isn’t there, his presence on base puts the other team on edge and makes them more likely to make a mistake. With Dyson’s speed, there is no room for error.