… ‘‘He allows us to be ourselves, on and off the field,’’ says Lorenzo Cain, the center fielder. ‘‘And we have a blast doing it. We laugh together, have a great time. The chemistry on this team is amazing. That reflects on a manager. And it matters.’’
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That chemistry appears to have offset the construction of curious batting orders. Alcides Escobar, who has hit leadoff for much of the season, historically reaches base less often than the league average. The potent Alex Gordon was hitting sixth before he strained a groin muscle in early July. This in particular rankles the analysts. ‘‘Batting order is something a manager very clearly has control of,’’ says Dave Cameron, the managing editor of the widely read website FanGraphs. ‘‘It’s something Yost has done particularly poorly.’’
Yost dismisses such criticism, but others in the organization feel compelled to respond. ‘‘We have information that the fans and analysts don’t,’’ says Yost’s bench coach, Don Wakamatsu, who previously managed the Seattle Mariners. There, Wakamatsu says, he occasionally put the slugger Russell Branyan at No. 4, the cleanup spot. ‘‘When I did, he’d break out in hives. But I’d put him at 2 or 5 or 6, and he was a worldbeater. Can the numbers account for that?’’
Now, this is going to seem terribly nit-picky to some of you. But when someone makes a claim that seems counter-factual — in this case, that a player’s spot in the order should often be chosen because of psychology rather than numbers — it’s perfectly reasonable to check the facts.
Now, we don’t know if Russell Branyan literally got hives when batting cleanup; maybe Wakamatsu’s being metaphorical. Here’s something we do know, though: In his career, Branyan actually hit better in the No. 4 slot than in the No. 2 slot.
We also know he started only 66 games in his career as cleanup hitter, making any numbers there highly susceptible to SSS (small sample size) questions. He did hit better in the No. 5 and 6 slots … but not so well in the No. 7 and 8 slots.
Should we really attribute some meaning to all that? You can look at the numbers and decide for yourself. Probably you can guess my suspicions.
Now, about Escobar … It seems to me that if you’re going to make the psychology-based explanation for him as leadoff man, or in the No. 2 slot, you must also HAVE SOMETHING TO EXPLAIN, in the form of better performance.
In fact, Escobar’s career OPS’s in the top two slots are 633 and 614, while in the bottom two slots they’re 687 and 648. In fact, Escobar has performed significantly worse at (or near) the top of the order than at (or near) the bottom.
So Wakamatsu has "information that the fans and the analysts don’t." I don’t doubt that for a second! But what sort of information, pray tell, might justify using a terrible hitter in slots in which he’s struggled the most during his career?
That is not a rhetorical question. If you can imagine information that might exist, information that we’re not privy to, that would back up Yost (and Wakamatsu), I really would like to hear from you.
The good news is that lineups don’t really matter all that much. I believe it’s on the order of 30 runs in a season, if you use your WORST possible lineup. Which even Ned Yost doesn’t come close to doing. Batting Escobar first rather than eighth — because Omar Infante’s the worst hitter in the majors — does cost the Royals a few runs over the course of the season, but those runs are lost among all the other hundreds of runs they actually do score. Lost, at least for the last 14 months, among all the things that Yost does well.
All I’m saying is, please don’t hold up something so obviously silly as an example of Ned Yost’s managerial brilliance. That’s all I’m saying.