Its Time To Move Elvis In The Lineup
Question 1: What kind of player should hit in the #2 spot in the lineup?
I won’t linger on this one long. There have been a lot of really smart people who have analyzed how to optimize a lineup (namely, in The Book). To over-simplify, their findings would suggest that the #2 hitter should be the best or 2nd-best hitter on the team.
If you think about it, that makes sense, in an optimized world. The leadoff batter would be the guy who gets on base the most, so the #2 hitter would have the most opportunities to bat with a runner on base. You want that guy to be able to give you the hits that would score that leadoff man as often as possible.
On the Rangers, this is how things have happened this season. Ian Kinsler, the leadoff, has the 2nd-highest on-base percentage on the team (behind Lance Berkman). Elvis Andrus, who has the most plate appearances in the #2 spot in the lineup has the most plate appearances on the team with runners in scoring position, and the second-most plate appearances with runners on any base.
Question 2: What kind of player is Elvis Andrus?
Andrus signed an eight-year, $120 million extension this year. Obviously, the Rangers believe in Andrus the player in a big way. I do, too.
If you look at it by WAR, the stats back up that contract for Andrus. According to Fangraphs, over the first four years of his career, Andrus’s WAR was worth an average of $14.5 million per year. Considering his young age, and expected improvement as he reaches his prime years, the contract extension makes a ton of sense.
However, the Rangers did not sign Andrus to a contract extension because he is one of the team’s best hitters, or ever will be. Using those same Fangraphs WAR calculations, Elvis has yet to register a season as a positive WAR season for his batting. His cumulative WAR that has made him worth $14.5 million per season comes from his fielding, baserunning, and the fact that he plays shortstop. At the press conference to announce the contract extension, Jon Daniels mentioned these same things as the motivating factors behind the signing.
Elvis Andrus’s game will always be valuable, but the most valuable component of it will never be what he does at the plate.
Question 3: Are there better options than Andrus for the #2-hole?
Hopefully, the answer to this question is obvious.
Ideally, Kinsler would make an excellent #2 hitter. However, the club is pre-disposed to have Kinsler set the table, be “the straw”, etc. at the leadoff spot. Additionally, Ron Washington is obviously an old school manager, and his approach to the #2 spot in the lineup most likely does not mirror the one I am taking here. The “old school” or conventional thought of the #2 hole is a bat control guy with speed. I’m assuming a bat control guy means a guy who hits for a high batting average, as opposed to a guy who hits into really productive outs (if you want your #2 hitter making “good” outs, I can’t reason with you).
The compromise, then, is to put Leonys Martin in as the #2 hitter. His skill set suits both approaches to the #2 spot in the lineup. He is a better hitter for average than Andrus (not only this year, but in their minor league careers as well), his speed is equivalent (lately, Leonys has been stealing more bases than anyone in the league), and best of all he is among the best 5 pure hitters on the Rangers right now. From the two-hole, that’s a force.
If you don’t buy that Martin can keep hitting like he is right now (.305/.350/.485 since April 12th), Mitch Moreland would also be an acceptable option as the #2 hitter.
Question 4: Why is Elvis Andrus hitting second?
This is the most frustrating question, isn’t it? It’s frustrating because the answer to this question has nothing to do with Elvis’s numbers (.243/.300/.287 this year; .271/.337/.345 in his career), or the numbers of any other hitter in the lineup.
The answer to this question lies back in 2011, when Andrus was slotted as the Rangers’ #2 hitter, and he hasn’t been moved since.
Now, after two and a half years as the #2 hitter, to move Andrus becomes an ordeal, a storyline, a slap in the face, a bruised ego, a vote of no confidence. We don’t know if it is all of those things in the Rangers clubhouse, but it certainly would be in the media, and so at the very least it would be a distraction.
It’s almost impossible to make a fully formed counter-argument to leave Elvis where he is in the batting order for on-the-field, between-the-lines reasons. Even if he bounces back from his current slump (and he will), the absolute ceiling that Andrus can give the team at the plate still wouldn’t be enough to make him a good #2 hitter. His ceiling is to be a good leadoff, one who gets on base a lot and runs the bases really well and sees a lot of pitches.
So the answer to why Andrus is hitting second lies within the chemistry of the Rangers clubhouse and the delicate balance Washington has to maintain to satisfy egos while generating a winning team.
In Utopia, a baseball player’s self-esteem is not crushed simply because the number to the left of his name on the lineup card is changed, but that seems to be the world we live in.
Question 5: So what should happen?
There has to be a way to move Andrus from the #2 hole. Overall, lineup construction isn’t worth anywhere close to the amount of breath or print that is wasted on it, but it can make the difference of about one win over the course of the season. In 2012, one win would have been worth it for Texas. The way 2013 is going, it wouldn’t be surprising if one win would make a difference yet again.
Perhaps the approach is to keep Elvis as the #2 hitter against left-handed pitchers, but drop him in the order against righties. The platoon argument may be understandable to the player.
Or moving Leonys to #2 could be made on a trial basis. Tell Elvis to get himself right at the plate and win his spot back and that the team is going to ride the hot hand for a short amount of time.
If possible, the band-aid approach should be taken. Make the change, don’t look back. Drop Elvis to be the #9 hitter, move Leonys to #2, let the 24-hour news cycle pass, and life will go on. The things that Leonys does well from the #9 hole currently are also what Elvis can do. And right now, what Elvis doesn’t do at #2, Leonys is doing on a consistent basis.
Wrap it up
The way the #2 spot in the lineup is treated is changing around the league. Teams are starting to put their best hitters in that spot (Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Mike Trout, etc.). The traditional line-ups where the #2 hitter is a designated sacrifice bunter are becoming more rare. Fading away are the days of a leadoff man continuing a rally, only to have the #2 hitter make a third out before the team’s best hitters come up.
Right now, the Texas lineup is still built in the past.
Elvis Andrus is the shortstop for the Texas Rangers, and I hope he is for another ten years. This is not an indication that I think Andrus is not a good player, or has gotten worse just this year. He is who he’s always been, which has never been enough to warrant hitting in the second spot in the order.
And finally, a segment of a quote from Any Given Sunday that keeps rattling in my head as I waste my breath and my words on lineup construction:
The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying! I’ll tell you this, in any fight it’s the guy whose willing to die whose gonna win that inch. And I know, if I’m gonna have any life anymore it’s because I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch, because that’s what living is, the six inches in front of your face.