Insider: Maddon’s Opening Day Lineup

The Tampa Bay Rays have not taken the field in 2012, yet some are already shaking their heads and rolling their eyes at manager Joe Maddon. In sign of the times, the skipper announced his opening day lineup via twitter. Almost immediately after the tweet button was pushed, the second-guessing began.

Before diving into Maddon’s lineup, let’s consider the opponent. The Rays will face New York Yankees’ ace CC Sabathia on opening day. The 32-year-old is one of the best pitchers in baseball, meaning runs should be at a premium. The lefty carves up batters on both sides of the plate, but right-handed hitters hold a slight edge (.623 OPS) over their left-handed counterparts (. 583). In an effort to exploit that tiny advantage, Maddon will trot out seven right-handed batters and just two lefties versus Sabathia. B.J. Upton would have made it eight rigthies, but he begins the season on the disabled list.

Here is the full lineup:

Desmond Jennings, CF
Ben Zobrist, RF
Evan Longoria, 3B
Jeff Keppinger, DH
Sean Rodriguez, SS
Elliot Johnson, 2B
Carlos Pena, 1B
Jose Molina, C
Matt Joyce, LF

Jeff Keppinger? Designated Hitter? Batting clean-up Opening Day? Surely you jest!

No, that is not a typo. The contact-hitting infielder, who is nearly as old (31) as his career home run total (32), will bat fourth for the Rays on Friday. In fact, the lineup’s 4-5-6 hitters have combined to hit just 58 home runs in more 3,100 career at-bats. Meanwhile, the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs, Carlos Pena will bat seventh and 2011 All-Star, Matt Joyce ninth.

Maddon-ess! Not really.

Although it always a topic of conversation, generally speaking, batting order does not matter much. As long as your best hitters are getting the most at-bats, the order in which they receive those ABs is not a big deal; especially over the course of a full season. With in mind, here is the Rays’ opening day lineup by the numbers…

Instead of names, you see the hitter’s three-year (2009-2011) slash lines against southpaws. Note in some cases career numbers were used because of sample size. Those are marked with an asterisk.

As you can see, Maddon stacked the top of the lineup with hitters who excel against left-handed pitching. The bottom of the lineup is rather poor; however, the batters on the bench are either left-handed or have limited major-league experience. Based on the data, it is hard to argue with Maddon’s decision making.

With three high on-base percentages at the top of the lineup, Keppinger – and his 93% contact rate – could be an unusual run producer from cleanup spot, generally reserved for power hitters. Though it is unlikely he slugs one into the stands against Sabathia, a single up the middle with a runner on second or a groundball to the right side with a runner on third could prove useful in what is expected to be a low-scoring environment.

The only issue I take with the lineup is Elliot Johnson starting over Luke Scott. Despite being a left-handed batter, Scott’s production versus lefties since 2009 (.811 OPS) has been greater than the career number of the switch-hitting Johnson (.606 OPS in a small sample of 87 at-bats). The optimal lineup would feature Scott at DH with Jeff Keppinger at second base. That said, Scott’s surgically repaired left shoulder could have factored in the decision to sit him versus one of the league’s premier left-handed starters.

On the surface, the order of Maddon’s lineup may cause a shock to the system. Instead of Pena-Scott-Joyce hitting behind Longoria, we will see Keppinger-Rodriguez-Johnson. Though the names may not be as expected, the construction of the lineup is rooted in good process.

A large part of a Maddon’s job is get the most out of the players he is given. Despite the seemingly unconventional lineup, he is attempting to do just that. We will know if it worked in just a few hours. Play ball!