McLaren mixing, matching lineups
Manager seeking out best combination of power, speed
PHOENIX -- Some of the lineups that manager John McLaren comes up with this spring might look a little strange. But there's a method to his madness."We're trying to mix the lineup around just to see what combinations there are, then bring it together and see what's best for us," he said. "We'd like to go with a consistent lineup so guys know what to expect, but if it's not working, we'll try different combinations." The top of the batting order almost always will start with Ichiro Suzuki, who played in 161 games last season and batted leadoff every time. The remainder of the lineup was fluid and designated hitter Jose Vidro batted everywhere except leadoff and cleanup. "One thing about Vidro," McLaren said, "is that he has the ability to hit in a lot of different positions to make the lineup work. We used him in several places, just to break up the lineup." It helps that Vidro is a switch-hitter. That gives McLaren an opportunity to alternate right- and left-handed batters, making it more difficult on the opposing manager to make pitching changes late in the game. If the regular season started today, and the Rangers started right-hander Kevin Millwood, McLaren could use a military lineup, going left-right from top to bottom. In no particular order, he could play left-handed batters Ichiro, Raul Ibanez, Brad Wilkerson and Vidro, and right-handed hitters Adrian Beltre, Yuniesky Betancourt, Richie Sexson, Kenji Johjima, and Jose Lopez. "A lot of times, you have variations in lineups because of injuries or off-days," McLaren said. "Sometimes it's a matchup. I noticed a couple of managers used 144 different lineups last season." He used a few, himself. Among the regulars: Beltre batted second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. Betancourt batted leadoff, sixth, seventh, eight and ninth. Ibanez batted third, fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth. Lopez batted second, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth. Sexson batted fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. Wilkerson batted leadoff, second, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth for the Rangers. Versatility can be a good thing, but Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland says hitters generally are creatures of habit and prefer consistency.
"Most of the time, hitters like a certain place in the lineup to hit, just like they have a certain number they like to wear," Pentland said. "They don't always get their wish. Over the years, I've had some battles with guys that thought they should be hitting in different positions than they were."The manager has to move guys around to put them in position to drive in runs, get on base, or do whatever they do best. It can be a balancing act to put them where they want to be and where they need to be." Thanks to the current information age, printouts and charts of head-to-head matchups for every pitcher and hitter in professional baseball are available on a daily basis. Other factors, such as who's hot and who's not, also enter the equation. So does speed vs. on-base percentage. "We put that on the chalkboard and said, 'If we do this combination, it's this, if we do that combination, it's that.'" Who bats behind Ichiro this season figures to be an ongoing subplot throughout the spring. McLaren took a look at Betancourt in the No. 2 spot on Wednesday, and the shortstop went 3-for-4 against the Angels. But he doesn't walk much -- 15 walks in 536 at-bats last season -- and had a .308 on-base percentage. But Betancourt has some speed and McLaren believes 20 stolen bases are possible. Vidro is the incumbent No. 2 hitter. He had a .313 batting average (105-for-336) with a .380 on-base percentage as the No. 2 hitter last season, while Beltre (.265) and Lopez (.266) contributed 83 hits in 313 at-bats between them. Wilkerson went 13-for-36 as the No. 2 hitter with the Rangers last season. Whatever lineup McLaren and his coaching staff come up with is, of course, subject to change, which could be a good thing. "I've seen guys move from one position in the lineup to another and all of a sudden go on a tear," Pentland said. "I can remember moving Devon White from first to fifth and he had 70 RBIs the second half of the season. "Sometimes it ticks them off so much that it lights a fire under them," Pentland said, adding that there probably will be plenty of lineup movement again in 2008. "Nothing is really locked in stone, although Ichiro is the closest," he said. "He could hit anywhere in the lineup, but he's the best leadoff hitter in the game."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.