How will Brad Ausmus construct the Tigers’ lineup for 2014?

Where should Austin Jackson hit in the lineup?

Where should Austin Jackson hit in the lineup?

As spring training gets under way in Lakeland, the Detroit Tigers appear to be set around the diamond. Barring unexpected developments, the regulars at each position are: Victor Martinez at DH, Alex Avila the #1 catcher, Miguel Cabrera at first, Ian Kinsler at second, Jose Iglesias at shortstop, rookie Nick Castellanos at third, Torii Hunter in right, Austin Jackson in center, and left field a platoon with Andy Dirks and Rajai Davis.

What isn’t clear, however, is the batting order. How will new Tiger manager Brad Ausmus line ‘em up?

The middle and bottom parts of the order are fairly obvious: Miggy and VMart go in the big RBI spots, with the left fielders, Avila, Castellanos, and Iglesias bringing up the rear. The biggest question is who will bat leadoff. With the acquisition of Kinsler, there is now the possibility of replacing Jackson at the top of the order.

Jackson is a lot like Curtis Granderson, the center fielder he was traded for, in that although he is a speedy base runner, he is not otherwise ideally suited to bat first. In his four seasons as Detroit’s leadoff man, his batting average has bounced between .249 and .300 and his on-base percentage between .317 and .377. Jackson hasn’t shown an increasing aptitude to get on via walks, and he actually declined in bases on balls last year, to fifty-two. Worse yet, his stolen bases totals have dropped every year, from twenty-seven to twenty-two to twelve to a mere eight. Over the past two seasons, he was caught thirteen times while stealing only twenty bases total.

His 2013 batting line was very close to his career average of .278/.344/.416, which indicates that this is the kind of performance you can reasonably expect from him going forward. Though he’s still only twenty-six, it doesn’t look like he’s going to learn how to get on base and steal bases.

Kinsler’s career line isn’t a whole lot different: .273/.349/.454. He’s a better base stealer, with 172 swipes against forty-two caught stealing in his eight MLB seasons, though last year he was a dismal 15-for-26. Five years older than Jackson, he’s slowing down.
Both these players are really better RBI men than table-setters.

During the playoffs last year, manager Jim Leyland tried to snap Jackson out of a bad slump by moving him down to eighth in the batting order, and it seemed to work temporarily. Is this experiment worth trying again? Would Jackson be better if the pressure to get on base were relaxed and he were in an RBI spot in the lineup? It’s a question worth trying to answer. But the solution for the Tigers’ leadoff spot is not crystal clear.

Beyond Kinsler, there are some other, even less palatable leadoff candidates. The aging Hunter was a leadoff hitter at times earlier in his career, but his .279/.335/.466 career line describes a skill set very similar to Kinsler’s. Iglesias is the best base stealer in the everyday lineup, but his career on-base percentage of .325 is even worse than Jackson’s, and he doesn’t project to improve as a hitter; he is an ideal #9 hitter because he can bunt and steal bases ahead of the leadoff man. Martinez has the on-base chops (.355 last year, .369 career) and Miggy’s OBP is a stellar .399—but most people would consider those as insane leadoff choices because they are the slowest base runners on the team and the biggest RBI producers and so should bat in the 3-4 slots (although some analysts contend you’re better off putting your best hitters at the top of the order so they can get an extra number of plate appearances during the season).

The so-called experts—the few weighing in so far—are split about Detroit’s lineup dilemma. The RotoWorld website projects the Detroit lineup as having Kinsler first and Jackson fifth. Beyond the Boxscore has a lengthy analysis of lineup efficiency and concludes the Tigers lineup should start with Jackson, Kinsler, Hunter, Cabrera, and Martinez.

I wonder whether Ausmus might be innovative enough to consider juggling the lineup depending on the pitching matchup that day. Start with a simple platoon approach to this analysis. Although Rajai Davis is also a free swinger, look at his split stats vs. left-handed pitching last year: .319/.383/.474—and that’s not a fluke: his previous four years’ OBP vs. LHP were .345, .367, .349, .376—better than Jackson’s. And Davis is a huge base-stealing threat: he has 268 in his career vs. sixty-eight caught stealing.

His platoon partner, Andy Dirks, has batted leadoff on occasion during his career (mostly during times Jackson was injured), but not because he belongs there: his OBP vs RHP over his three-year career is only .333, with just thirteen career steals. And there’s this: since the start of the 2011 season, Alex Avila has a .375 OBP and VMart a .380 OBP vs. RHP.

Would Ausmus consider batting Davis leadoff vs. LHP and then using other batter-versus-pitcher data to determine who might bat first against a particular righty starter? If the opposing hurler doesn’t do well against lefties, for example, he could try something like Jackson, Martinez, Cabrera, Avila, Hunter, Kinsler.

The idea that a team must have a set everyday lineup was taken to an extreme by Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ lineup is a great opportunity for an innovative skipper to leave his mark and shape a new, more progressive strategy for the club. How Ausmus resolves the lineup will say a lot about his approach. He’s already signaled a willingness to innovate by promoting the idea of VMart as a catcher in interleague games when there’s no DH. That’s a start. How far will he go?

4 replies on “How will Brad Ausmus construct the Tigers’ lineup for 2014?

  • Ken

    Yes, the number one spot in the batting order is a big question mark for the team this year. Run production from Martinez and Cabrera’s hitting prowess won’t be fully utilized unless the leadoff man is on base. As indicated, Davis can hit in the top spot some of the time and create chaos for opposing pitchers. When on base, his type of speed is best in hit-and-run scenarios. However, his offensive production seems to fall later in the season. Hunter will be adequate batting second.

    Jackson’s hitting is best suited for the bottom of the lineup. Ausmus’s options are limited and he will manage the leadoff spot as best he can. I suspect that Leyland’s set lineup approach will end up making more sense when the manager has few choices.

  • bill craig

    I see problems. No Prince means Miggy can be pitched around. And we’re assuming he and V-Mart will be healthy – a huge assumption. My grandmother wearing ice skates ran faster than those 2 last year. Jackson, Eglesias and Kinsler will have to have great years for this to work. I don’t care how good your starters are. Too many unknowns and question marks to bet on this squad.

  • Russ Tillman

    Hi Michael…good article and much food for thought. As we know, when Jackson leads off and gets on base, he scores runs (and the Tigers usually win). The question may be will that hold true for any Tiger leadoff hitter? If not, will dropping Jackson to 8th still provide the 2-6 hitters with ammo for scoring in runs? So will Jackson hit better in 8th or leadoff?

  • Cliff

    I strongly feel that AJ should bat 1st in the lineup, because in the past, AJ batting first in the lineup gave a boost in the Tigers victories since he came to Detroit in 2010; however, it was the collaps in the pitching in the past that had the Tigers loose crucial games including games in the playoffs. I feel that the Tigers batting order should have AJ batting first then Ian bats 2nd, Iggy bats 3rd, Miggy bats 4th, V-Mart bats 5th (as the DH), Torii bats 6th, Andy or Rajai bats 7th, Avila bats 8th, and have someone like Castellanos, Kelly, or Worth bat 9th. This should be a good season with a powerful, fast, and speedy lineup that should get the Tigers to October.

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