Struggling Hitter Atop the Lineup? Drop Him Down

What to do with a struggling hitter? This among the many tough decisions a manager must make. Dropping him in the order, or removing him from it completely, might put a band-aid on the issue, but it doesn’t get at the root. It also opens up confidence issues, which are completely subjective and run on a case-by-case basis. So why while we, the fans and interested observers, might call for a player’s demotion, it’s not always that easy. Yet in other cases it’s just what the player needs. Good managers have a feeling for what the appropriate course of action is in each case. While it is far from being universally accepted that Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez are good managers, they both made smart moves, at least in terms of results, when they dropped top of the order guys down to the bottom.

To start the season, Girardi has a novel idea. Last year his normal leadoff hitter, Derek Jeter, struggled throughout the season. Those struggles were even worse against righties, against whom he hit .246/.316/.317. Yet against lefties he hit .321/.391/.481. At the same time, Brett Gardner hit .287/.387/.391 against righties and .252/.373/.353 against lefties. The solution: Jeter leads off against lefties, while Gardner has the honors against righties.

To say the experiment blew up is an understatement. Gardner hit just .150/.227/.225 through the team’s first 11 games, including .135/.200/.216 out of the leadoff spot. After he went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts in a game on April 14, Girardi dropped him down to the bottom of the lineup, where he has been ever since.

Gonzalez caught a good deal of flak early in the season when he opted to put Nate McLouth, rather than Jason Heyward, in the No. 2 spot. This not only put an inferior hitter in a more valuable lineup spot, but it also knocked Heyward down to the sixth spot, a one for which he is clearly overqualified. As with the Gardner experiment, this one flopped. McLouth hit .216/.286/.275 through his first 58 PA, including a 1 for 6 performance in a doubleheader on April 16. After that Gonzalez had seen enough. He dropped McLouth into the eight spot.

At first Gardner’s struggles continued, even in the lower lineup spot. He did sit out a bit, starting just two games between April 15th and 22nd (though there were two off-days and a rainout in there). In his start on April 23rd he went 2 for 5 with a homer, and things snowballed from there. Since that game, hitting mostly in the eight or nine spots, he has gone 10 for 28 with two doubles, three homers, and 10 walks to just nine strikeouts (.357/.526/.750). He again looks like the Gardner that on-based .383 last year.

For McLouth, the demotion provided instant returns. He only pinch-hit the day after the doubleheader, but he was back in the lineup the following day against the Dodgers. A 2 for 4, two-double performance got things kickstarted. Since then he has gone 20 for 56 with five doubles, two homers, and 12 walks to 11 strikeouts (.357/.471/.554). Last night he played in another doubleheader, and it was like he was a different player. This time he went 5 for 5 with a double, a homer, and two walks to no strikeouts. As with Gardner, McLouth is starting to look like the player we previously knew.

While these moves have worked out for both managers, the connection is not necessarily causal. True, there might be less pressure in those bottom lineup spots, and pitchers might not put as much emphasis on them. After all, Christy Mathewson said that he expended his greatest effort on the middle of the lineup, while turning it down a notch for the bottom hitters. Maybe that’s what’s at play here with McLouth and Gardner, but there’s not much evidence to suggest that’s the case. Gardner has had some success in the leadoff spot, with a .338 career OBP in 264 PA up there. McClouth, too, has produced solid career numbers hitting in the Nos. 1 and 2 spots.

The demotion might not have caused their turnarounds, but both Gardner and McLouth have found success since they moved from the top to the bottom of the order. We’re dealing with such small datasets that it’s entirely possible that both simply slumped early and eventually found their rhythms. But it could also be that their managers knew that moving them down would help, at least temporarily. Either way, the move has worked, and both teams are better for it. The only question, really, is of whether to keep them there, or move them back up where their production can go to better use.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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Would be interested in a more quantitative approach. Look at struggling hitters after 30 games into the season and their most frequent place in the order for those games.
Then look at how they perform based on order position afterwards. Include not changing to see if confidence in them does indeed pay off better than lessening pressure, so to speak.