Braves manager Gonzalez planning to experiment with lineups more in 2015
ATLANTA — Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez filled out 101 unique starting lineup cards during the 2014 season, excluding pitchers. His most common lineup was used on 10 separate occasions over the course of 162 games. That’s plenty of day-to-day alterations, and yet Gonzalez was among the most conservative managers in baseball when it came to lineup changes.
Of the 30 MLB teams, only division rival Washington made fewer adjustments to the starting batting order than Atlanta. Nationals manager Matt Williams used 100 different starting lineups (not including pitchers) last season.
Things might change, partially out of necessity, in 2015. With three of the top four hitters from the 29th-lowest scoring offense traded away and just four position players returning from last season’s Opening Day 25-man roster, Gonzalez says he’s open to more lineup experimentation this upcoming season.
"The biggest challenge is (figuring out which lineup will work best), which lineup is going to be out there," said Gonzalez, whose team missed the playoffs with a 79-83 record last season. "And I know last year a lot of people were giving me (a hard time about) a different lineup every day. Well, there may be two different lineups a day, you know? Not one. Two different ones a day."
There are a couple ways Gonzalez can experiment with an offense that, according to FanGraphs estimates, projects as the second-lowest scoring offense in baseball once again.
The first is to avoid setting permanent positions in the batting order. This shouldn’t be too difficult: Outside of first baseman Freddie Freeman in the No. 3 hole, the current 25-man roster is a toss-up without any sure-fire answers. The leadoff spot could be manned by Nick Markakis, B.J. Upton, Andrelton Simmons or any number of young players. Same goes for the Nos. 2 and 4 positions. And the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth spots. The ninth spot would seem relatively secure for the pitcher of the day … unless Gonzalez toys with the pitcher in the 8-hole, a strategy he’s employed before. In this scenario, players could move up and down the order based on the pitching matchup, ballpark and other various external and statistical factors.
The second part of Gonzalez’s potential experimentation could come through platoons. Outside of first base (Freeman), shortstop (Simmons) and, likely, right field (Markakis, who signed a four-year, $48 million deal this offseason), there are possible platoon situations all over the lineup, although catcher Christian Bethancourt, third baseman Chris Johnson and struggling but expensive center fielder B.J. Upton are practically guaranteed to be afforded a longer leash in the early going. Through player platoons — a tactic notably employed by the Oakland A’s last season en route to 88 wins and one Gonzalez left the door open for — Gonzalez could dip into his bench to alter his lineup on a daily basis.
"We can mix and match, you can start with a whole left-handed lineup and then sixth inning they bring a reliever in and you could go to an all-right-handed lineup," Gonzalez said. "It’s gonna be, for us, as coaches, it’s going to be fun: watching those guys play in different positions, different lineups, different spots in the lineups and try to create runs.
"Put a pencil to the pad, and if you really want to on a night against (Nationals right-hander Max) Scherzer, if the matchup is right and you feel it, you put eight left-handed hitters out there if you want — or seven, with the only one being Simmons at shortstop. … It’s who’s playing well and what the matchup brings us that day. Shoot, somebody asked me, ‘Who’s gonna hit fourth now that Gattis is gone and Justin’s gone?’ It could be anybody any day, depends on that matchup that day.
"It’s going to be a different type of baseball game that we’re gonna play. We were 29th in runs scored last year. Go out and do something different."
Left field and second base appear to be the obvious platoon scenarios.
The second-base position has been a mess within the organization for years, and there’s no shortage of candidates to log plate appearances there this upcoming season. In the positional equivalent of the Braves’ upcoming fifth starter battle, the team features six players — Phil Gosselin, Alberto Callaspo, Jace Peterson, Kelly Johnson, Elmer Reyes and Jose Peraza — on the active roster (or recently signed) who could see time at second in 2015. Maybe more.
It’s a cluster, and until Peraza, named the top second-base prospect in the majors, is handed the full-time gig it’s likely to remain an open-ended depth chart. Gonzalez could juggle his starter there from game to game.
In left, the addition of Jonny Gomes brings the Braves a de facto "starter", but Gomes’s career numbers are much better against southpaws (131 weighted runs created plus). Perhaps left-handed hitter Dian Toscano or switch-hitters like Zoilo Almonte, Joey Terdoslavich or Todd Cunningham — although Terdoslavich and Cunningham boast better numbers versus left-handed pitching as well in limited MLB experience — provide some balance against right-handers.
If Kelly Johnson, who boasts near-identical career splits against righties and lefties, makes the active roster, it’s not too much of a stretch to see him playing multiple positions based on matchups, including the aforementioned platoon scenarios or even some third base, where starter Chris Johnson hits significantly better against lefties. Speedy outfielder Eury Perez could factor into the equation, while veteran catchers A.J. Pierzynski or John Buck could provide some balance against right-handed pitching behind Christian Bethancourt, the right-handed defensive specialist with extreme splits. This is all brainstorm material. Gonzalez will consider all sorts of these questions over the next two months.
Until spring training carves down the roster, everything is on the table.
"Some of these guys have a chance to come up to the big leagues and contribute. If you’re paying attention, if Terdoslavich and Cunningham and Constanza are paying attention they’re saying, ‘Wait a second. I’ve got a chance to make this club and make an impact,’" Gonzalez said. "I think spring training is going to be a fun time, first time in a while the Braves have come to spring training with some openings."
And if this roster composition doesn’t sound inspiring, it isn’t exactly meant to. The Braves are not built to be a 2015 juggernaut, and if they do score more runs than last season it will not be due to an infusion of talent. Make no mistake, this lineup lost most of its top talent. It will allegedly look to replace at least some of it through creativity and a reliance on statistics.
This may seem like a familiar experience for a few members of the revamped Braves coaching staff, leaving it oddly well-equipped for the task at hand.
New third-base coach Bo Porter is coming off a managerial stint with the then-rebuilding Astros, an inexperienced group that finished dead-last in runs scored in 2012. First-year hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has been down this road with an unimpressive Royals lineup — one that included Callaspo and Buck — back in 2009.
"My first year in Kansas City there were a lot of young guys, unproven guys. There were a few veterans that had had a rough way to go, that hadn’t really got on track again," Seitzer said. "Coming into an offense that needed some direction and some guidance and leadership, for lack of a better word, just to kind of help them through the process. I kinda see this as being along those same lines."
For what it’s worth, Seitzer’s manager in Kansas City, Trey Hillman, trotted out 141 unique lineups during that ’09 season. Porter averaged 140.5 unique batting orders in his two seasons in Houston. Judging by his recent comments, Gonzalez seems like he’s leaning in that direction.