Big Question Remains: Will Twins Lineup Score Runs?
Based on what has been seen this spring, if Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire still had hair on top of his head he would likely have scratched himself bald trying to figure out how to score runs with his lineup.
For an entire week leading up to the season, it has felt like a broken record (or skipping iPod, or whatever): How is this lineup going to score runs? There has been little demonstration of power before Saturday’s three home run binge. Timely hitting has been off-the-clock. They haven’t even accidentally manufactured runs.
The front office members fielding the questions urged patience and downplayed any importance of spring training numbers but the concern is there. “What we’ve done this spring, we’ve seen in the regular season,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said in reference to the team’s continuation of the offense’s 2013 scary-bad (in)ability to hit with runners in scoring position that has carried over to this spring.
In the final handful of Grapefruit League games, Gardenhire has produced several variations of lineup cards, hoping to generate runs and trying different things he suggested came from the computers “upstairs”.
By “upstairs”, the manager was referring to his baseball operations team that has been slowly building influence with and trust from the field general.
Jack Goin, the organization’s manager of major league administration and baseball research, says that he and his group have had dialogues with Gardenhire, educating a traditionalist on the modern offensive theories -- such as the importance of having a two-hole hitter with on-base abilities rather than one who is adept at hitting behind the runner, squaring up for bunts or skilled at hit-and-run contact. If implemented, some of these theories could help squeeze a valuable run or two more than the traditional lineups.
When asked what in his experience changed that made him more receptive to the game theories, Gardenhire balked at the idea that he did not manage by the numbers.
“Believe me, I love to look at numbers,” he said in his Hammond Stadium office. “I’ve always been into numbers, I go with match-ups and all these things, I also believe in a starting lineup trying to put a consistent lineup down. But I use match-ups all the time. I’ve been a little more old school as far as the lineup, one-two-three, that type of thing, they way I grew up playing ball and these things. I see a lot of different lineups nowadays and I’ve been reading into it a little bit more, talking to our people -- it can come up interesting sometimes.”
A little over a year ago, his tune was a bit different when it came to generating his lineup.
"I've always had the thought a No. 2 guy has to be able to take pitches a little bit," Gardenhire told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last March. "He has to be able to protect the guy on base and be an on-base-percentage guy also so your 3-4-5 guys are getting opportunities."
Nevertheless, when last season started Gardenhire came around to the novel concept that getting extra at-bats for his offensive star would be beneficial to his club. Last year, prior to his concussion, Joe Mauer was batting second for 87 games. There, he got on base at a 38.5% clip and scored 52 runs (however, no one behind him was able to drive him in). There are some who believe a player like Mauer, with his robust on-base percentage, is not hitting high enough in the order at two. With his career .405 OBP, he profiles as a dangerous and incessant table-setter.
“Joe Mauer leading off?” Gardenhire asked himself the question that he undoubtedly has heard numerous times. “Sure, for a perfect team that’s great. A good team with a solid lineup, Joe Mauer would be a wonderful leadoff hitter but you have to have a lot more hitters in your lineup to let him do something like that. We need him in different roles that just leading off. We need him to drive the ball and all those things. Some lineups it works, some lineups it doesn’t work. Ours? It’s kind of hit and miss.”
His concern is merited as the unknowns surrounding what the core of the lineup -- the Josh Willinghams, the Jason Kubels, the Trevor Plouffes -- will be able to contribute are numerous. Likewise for further down the order with Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks.
This spring, as was the case in the final warm-up game of the year on Saturday, Gardenhire presented the umpire with a lineup card which had Brian Dozier at the top. The right-handed infielder in his third year of major league ball has been criticized as lacking the requisite OBP of the high caliber leadoff hitters. In 231 games with the Twins, Dozier has posted an OBP of .297, though that figure has grown some as his experience has increased. That notion does not faze Gardenhire.
“I’ve had guys in the one-hole before that aren’t on-base guys,” he said. “When I first started managing it was Jacque Jones and, believe me, he wasn’t a leadoff hitter. But he was also a guy who could make it one-to-nothing really quick; Dozier can do that too.”
There may be a psychological benefit for getting that early lead but those can be home runs that have not been leveraged to their full potential. Jones hit 20 first inning leadoff home runs in 320 games in his career. Those dingers would probably have been better served if someone was on base ahead of him, say someone who has an over-.400 on-base percentage, right?
“You know what? Sometime you go with what you got. Prototype, I don’t have a [Denard] Span-type who takes a lot of pitches, so we took Dozier and I feel comfortable with him. I think he’s going to hit .300 and he can drive the ball too. Stick him in there with Mauer right behind him, that’s two guys who I think will do good together and kind of bunch our hitters together.”
While catcher Kurt Suzuki has played a prominent role in the second spot in the order this spring, perhaps feeding Gardenhire’s lingering need to stick to the traditional lineup roles, Mauer figures to see plenty of starts in the two-hole depending on the match-ups. Gardenhire said that the lineup construction is fluid and will be highly dependent on who is hitting well.
“It’s wide open, you just move them around,” he said. “As lineups go, if they’re hitting, they’re hitting. I don’t care where you put them when they are hitting. Everybody says stack your best lineups and all of your best hitters but it is good to have balance all the way through your lineups, if you can do that. Yeah we’ve tried a lot of different lineups but ultimately, it gets down to having a bunch of guys together all hitting. When they are doing that, then you are going to say ‘wow, that worked.’”
And hitting would certainly silence the critics.
“If we get on a hot roll here, which I hope we do right out of the chute, you guys won’t even talk about who is hitting first or second.”