Minutes before the first pitch, public address announcer Chris Andree gets on the microphone and touts the Senators’ starting lineup for the game. What seems like a mere formality to many was really the product of hard work and preparation by Senators’ manager Matt LeCroy and his staff. But how tough can it really be jotting down the best nine players each and every night? LeCroy tries to shed some light on the process, “People don’t understand how much goes into making a lineup out.”
In actuality, creating a successful lineup is very much like solving a complex jigsaw puzzle. Place one piece, or player, in the wrong spot and you’re doomed from the start. Despite all of the pieces looking like they fit a certain way, finding the right solution requires the perfect marriage of logic and creativity. Many times the success or failure of the lineup also depends on the players that are left out of the original answer, because the game isn’t decided when the managers exchange lineup cards at home plate.
Solving the Puzzle
As any first-grader will tell you, the first step in solving a jigsaw puzzle is finding all of the border pieces. In this case that means slotting in all of the players that LeCroy has orders to start on a daily basis in usually the same spot in the batting order. LeCroy points at a player like Eury Perez, “We’re training him to be a leadoff hitter, so he’s going to stay in that 1-hole even if he hasn’t been on base in his last 200 at-bats.”
From that point, LeCroy has to just fill in the empty spaces to finalize his lineup and complete the puzzle. He has to take into account who’s hot and who’s not, routine days off, and the best matchups against the opposing pitcher. LeCroy used Tim Pahuta as an example to illustrate the last point, “If I see a lefthanded pitcher against us who has a lot of strikeouts, he obviously has a pitch that goes away from a hitter. I may give Timmy a day off in that instance.”
Surprisingly though, LeCroy and everyone else in the minor leagues doesn’t have access to the binders of detailed statistics like we’re used to seeing Major League managers consult for every decision. “In the big leagues, you get a stat pack of what each guy has done off each pitcher for their whole career. Here, you don’t get that. That would help knowing if a guy has had really good success against a certain pitcher.”
The Senators’ skipper also likes to cater towards his players’ strengths and keep them in their comfort zone, “I try to slot people into where their role is. You try to stay within their element because you don’t want to surprise them.” Traditionally, managers like speed at the top of the order and LeCroy is no different. He loves writing Perez and Jeff Kobernus in the first two spots of his lineup night after night because he knows the problems they can cause on the basepaths. “You put pressure on people like crazy and it affects what pitchers do. It makes people uneasy and you can take advantage of it.”
From a Jigsaw Puzzle to a Chess Match
Watch a Major League game and you’ll see the managers in the friendly confines of their dugout consult their bench coach before they make a move that could win or lose the ball game. But in the minor leagues, managers don’t have that luxury. Usually they are out in the third base coach’s box when every move needs to be made and it can be a challenge to get the right players into the game as pinch-hitters or pinch-runners. “It’s hard coaching third if something comes up. You are over there trying to do hand signals to the bench.” But LeCroy praised the coaches on his staff, Eric Fox and Paul Menhart, for the preparation they do before the game making his life easier, “We’ll talk about who I like in certain situations and we’ll go over gameplans.”
Substitutions and game theory gets even more complex if the Senators are playing another team affiliated with the National League because there is no designated hitter and pitchers have to bat for themselves. It’s a situation that changes series to series and ultimately provides a whole new set of challenges within the chess match between opposing managers during the game.
LeCroy points out an obvious but often overlooked fact, “If you got pitchers that can handle a bat, they’ve got a better chance of staying in the ballgame. The biggest thing is trust that they can put a bunt down and trust their ability to take a pitch if the guy throwing is struggling. That makes a big difference, because I’m not concerned that I have to use a pinch-hitter. I feel comfortable having that strong mix of bench players for the end of the ballgame.”
Perhaps the biggest factor though when playing by National League rules is the flexibility and makeup of the bench players. Guys that can play multiple positions increase their value in National League games. On this roster, it’s clear who benefits the most, “That’s where a guy like Jose Lozada is so valuable because he can go anywhere you need him to go.”
But besides Lozada’s willingness and ability to play every position, it’s the flexibility of others to switch positions and save LeCroy from making moves that will leave his options limited late in the game that make a huge difference. Having guys like Manny Mayorson, Sean Nicol, and Jimmy Van Ostrand, who in their careers have played significant time at multiple positions, lets LeCroy adapt and adjust much easier. “It puts you in a good situation where there are guys you can trust to put out there on the field that won’t hurt you on defense and will help you win.”
Ultimately, the outcome of the game is dependent on the performance of the players and not the batting order or where someone is playing defensively. But the manager has to put his players in the best situation for them to excel and the first step in that is a lineup that incorporates all of these factors. It’s a delicate balance but when done properly the art of the lineup can be a beautiful thing.
This article was originally found in issue #12 of the Senators’ program and was reprinted with the permission of the Harrisburg Senators