Through the first 23 games of the season, the Royals, under manager Mike Matheny, have deployed 22 different batting orders.
This is a simple statement of fact. Lineups tend to elicit a visceral response. “Why is that bum hitting there?” “Why isn’t this guy in the lineup?” “Has the manager lost his damn mind?” But if we’ve learned anything from the sabermetric movement, it’s that the order the names are posted on the lineup card is largely irrelevant. But there has to be some sort of method to the madness. We know through eight years of observation that Ned Yost went for a left-right balance whenever possible. Under the new rules of number of batters a reliever is required to face and with an expanded roster, that’s less of a worry.
So the lead isn’t a criticism of Matheny, rather an observation. Clearly, he's a different manager than the one we saw from afar in St. Louis. In the early days of his tenure, it is interesting to see how he manages his (expanded) roster of players. It’s led me to think about the reasons we’ve seen so many lineups.
Some of that movement is by design. The Royals have a versatile roster with a number of players who can play different positions. That defensive flexibility allows Matheny to be likewise flexible with his lineup card. Take Whit Merrifield for example. He’s the lone constant in the Royals’ batting order, leading off in every single contest thus far. Yet he has started in four different positions. When Merrifield moves around, Matheny has to fill that spot.
There’s also that “soft” platoon of Ryans O’Hearn and McBroom. While they generally occupy the middle of the order, they do move around quite a bit, with only O’Hearn in the fifth spot having been in the same position in the batting order for at least five games. It can also be noted that they have both appeared in the same starting lineup four times.
Some of the movement is performance-based. Adalberto Mondesi opened the season as the Royals’ number two hitter. He slumped early and slid down the lineup before the first week of the season was even complete. He’s since dropped to the bottom of the order. That tells you something about how the club is viewing their shortstop.
When Mondesi dropped, someone had to move up. And for the longest time, that meant Jorge Soler. Soler performed well there for a couple of weeks, hitting .315/.377/.574 in 14 games. And then, the Royals went on a road trip to Cincinnati and Minnesota. In the first four games of the trip, Soler was a miserable 1-15 with one walk and 10 strikeouts, including a stretch where he whiffed in eight at bats in a row. It looked like Soler was just guessing at the spin he was seeing (if he was reading the spin at all) and was just absolutely adrift at the plate. Even if you like him at the number two spot in the longterm (and I do kind of like it), he needed a bit of a break.
This is now Nicky Lopez’s time to move up. Lopez, after something of a slow start where he couldn’t even break into the starting nine on the regular, has come alive of late, hitting .300/.400/.467 over his last 10 games.
Maybe you like to “assign” a player a spot in the order and leave him there to work through the highs and lows of the season. That can work over 162, but slice the season by almost two-thirds and there’s a little more urgency to get things going. Which leads us to...
Some of the movement is based on circumstance. We are, as you know, in an era of what I like to call Covid-ball. Hunter Dozier missed the first 16 games of the season with the virus. Just when it seemed as if Matheny was running out of lineup machinations, Dozier’s return presented a whole new set of possibilities. While he’s hit mostly third in the order, he, like Merrifield, has bounced around defensive positions, starting at left, right and first base. His return could bring even more variety.
Consider Dozier’s return, along with a prolonged slump from Alex Gordon who has a 54 OPS+ through the team’s first 23 games of the season. If there is, in fact, urgency to get more production from the lineup, the Royals should move him in and out of the batting order in the weeks ahead, meaning we could see even more combinations of the starting nine.
So, while the amount of change may recall the heady days of Jeffery Flanagan’s “Boone-O-Meter” in the Kansas City Star, this feels different. The lineups and the moves within make sense. Matheny isn’t some sort of diabolical manager, messing around with a calligraphy pen (although the Royals don’t do that anymore with the departure of Don Wakamatsu, you hate to lose that imagery) on a whim. He’s working with what he has at his disposal. While it doesn’t always work, and the Royals are averaging 4 runs per game, well below the league rate of 4.7 R/G, that’s not because of the lineups. If anything, lineups are an overrated aspect of the game. Get your best hitters the most plate appearances and let the runs score. That’s generally what Matheny is doing.
Fun fact: The only time the Royals used the same lineup was in season’s first and second game. Since then, every one has been different. With that in mind, here’s a lineup card about the lineup card.
The Lineup Card - nine facts
1. Whit Merrifield is the only Royal who has hit leadoff this year. This is, obviously, the most stable spot in the batting order.
2. This is the second most stable spot in the order. Nicky Lopez became the third different player to hit second in the lineup last weekend. (Soler has hit there for 17 games and Mondesi for four games)
3. Salvador Perez is the most likely hitter in the third spot for the Royals, making 14 starts here. He’s also the most likely hitter at cleanup (eight starts).
4. With the return of Dozier, he’s started as the cleanup hitter in five of the seven games he’s been in the lineup.
5. This is the spot in the lineup that is providing the least amount of production, collectively hitting .198/.274/.302. (All of those numbers elevated when Dozier hit there for the first time left the yard in the ninth inning on Monday.) Still, with a 50 sOPS+ (the OPS+ relative to the league split) it’s an anchor weighing down the middle of the offense.
6. If you’re looking for Makiel Franco, you’re most likely to find him here (eight starts), although he has hit anywhere from fourth to eighth in the Royals’ lineup. It’s also, with a .920 OPS, the most productive spot in the order.
7. We’ve seen just 14 strikeouts from this spot in the order in 2020, making this the position the least likely to whiff.
8. Nine different hitters have occupied this spot, more than any other position in the Royals’ lineups, the most common being Lopez (six times) and Mondesi (five).
9. After being penciled in here on Sunday and moving up when Perez was scratched, Mondesi made his debut at number nine on Monday. That’s the second-most common spot for Mondesi in the Royals’ lineup over his career. He’s made 77 starts in the ninth spot, hitting .198/.230/.302 in 281 plate appearances.
Finally, and just for fun, I entered nine names into David Pinto’s Lineup Analysis tool. Going off the players listed at Baseball-Reference at their positions, yet searching for the potential of the best offense, I swapped Brett Phillips for Alex Gordon and Ryan McBroom for Ryan O’Hearn. (Of course this tool is imperfect. As I said, let’s have some fun.) According to the site, this starting nine would average five runs per game, with the best lineup looking like this:
It’s doubtful we’ll see that particular lineup from Matheny, but now that it’s out there, maybe, just maybe, it’s something for him to consider.