Thursday, April 17, 2008

Willie's New Look Lineup

I bash him often, but fair play to Willie Randolph for moving Ryan Church up to the #2 spot in the lineup during the Washington series this week. Church has been bashing the ball so far this season and better fits the concept of what an ideal #2 hitter should be – a good hitter who also gets on base well.

I know that Luis Castillo – who has been moved down to the #8 spot – is considered a more prototypical #2 hitter, but I have serious problems with that model. Conventional wisdom places so much emphasis placed on the #2 hitter’s ability to take a pitch, or to make contact with two strikes, or to hit the ball to the right side to advance the lead runner. These are all good qualities to possess, but they are all dwarfed by the ability to smack a double into the gap, whether or not a man is on first.

Each spot in the lineup is worth roughly 20 more plate appearances over the course of the season. The Mets expected to start 2008 with Castillo batting second and Church batting seventh, which over the course of the season would give the second baseman as many as 80 more opportunities to bat. But with Church batting second and Castillo batting eighth, the right fielder could suddenly see as many as 100 more plate appearances this year, just by virtue of being moved up in the lineup.

Since Church is three years younger and not coming off a Spring Training shortened by knee surgery, he’s more likely to improve upon his 2007 performance. Castillo is slightly more likely to regress, given that he's 32 and has always generated hits with his legs. Still, if you ask both players to simply replicate their 2007 numbers, it would mean nearly 100 more plate appearances for a player with a line of .270/.350/.465 and 60 extra-base hits. He would be replacing a player with a line of .300/.360/.360 and 25 extra base hits. The on-base percentage slightly favors Castillo, but the slugging percentage makes Church the far better hitter. General rule of thumb: the better the hitter, the more often he should be given the chance to hit.

Yes, Church strikes out more frequently that Castillo, but that may be the only area where he’s less suited to the #2 spot. Church features “doubles power” as opposed to home run power, another valuable trait for a player in his spot in the lineup. Of course, there’s nothing better than a guy who hits the ball out of the park, but your first two spots are good places for high average, high on-base hitters who lack the ability to routinely swat long balls.

In comparison, Castillo has absolutely no power – he’s never had a slugging percentage over .400 in his career. I find it very ironic that people who decry station-to-station baseball always have an affinity for players who couldn’t hit a double if their life depended on it. I think that Castillo is actually an ideal #8 hitter in the sense that he gets on base well and can sometimes steal a base when he gets there, but possesses absolutely no other offensive talent. As Castillo piles up the walks and singles, it creates more opportunities for Met pitchers to sacrifice instead of swinging away.

Willie may have stumbled upon something here. Church is batting second again tonight; let’s hope it’s a spot he occupies for the rest of the season.

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