All right, enough worrying about the Tigers. They finally put together a winning streak. This is certainly not a spike in their substandard season and should definitely carry on to the World Series. No question about it. Now we can move onto what’s wrong with the Cleveland Indians.
Our friends in Northeast Ohio have the exact opposite problem the Tigers had. They can pitch great, but they can’t hit anything. Catcher Victor Martinez has zero home runs through June 25. Travis Hafner, when he was healthy, had the power of an arthritic grandfather swinging one of those long foam noodles you see in swimming pools. Ryan Garko is OK, but not the answer batting cleanup. The team leader in home runs is actually Grady Sizemore, but he bats leadoff. This sounds bad, and in a way it is, but in another way he ranks in the top five among American League hitters. With 17 longballs through June 25, he has more round-trippers than Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez.
And yet he’s still batting leadoff. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, does it? He’s hitting more home runs than anyone on the team. He should drop down to third or fourth in the lineup in order to drive more guys in, right?
Tell that to manager Eric Wedge. He gets that question all the time, and last week he told the Akron Beacon-Journal, “I tried it last year for two weeks, and with Hafner and Martinez [in the lineup]. It didn’t work.” Wedge must have been going by something else — like instincts or astrological charts — because the numbers say the exact opposite.
In eight games last year, Sizemore batted third and had two home runs in 31 at bats. Compared to his numbers batting leadoff, Sizemore had more home runs per at bat, a higher on-base percentage, a higher slugging percentage, fewer strikeouts per at bat and more walks per plate appearance. The only stat that went down was batting average. Granted, I’m comparing eight games batting third to 151 games batting leadoff, so it’s poor to compare the two. But Wedge has no problem using those sample sizes to dismiss the idea altogether.
Wedge went on to say, “I don’t see why you would want to take one of your greatest areas of strength away? Someone would have to replace him, and you’re not sure it will work,” referring again to dropping Sizemore in the lineup. (Did I forget to mention that Sizemore scored more runs per at bat when he was third in the lineup? I think I left that part out. Oh, well.)
His legitimate argument is that Sizemore is the only practical guy batting leadoff for the Indians. Indeed, anyone that bats first instead of him — Shin-Soo Choo, Jamey Carroll or Franklin Gutierrez — will not be able to replace Sizemore’s amazing “table-setting” abilities.
But the thing is, Sizemore can replace the power missing from Martinez and Hafner. And if guys like Choo and Carroll can reach base — which they can — Sizemore’s home runs are suddenly worth more points in the game of baseball.
This would certainly be a shakeup to a lineup. But look at what Detroit did with its lineup. Jim Leyland switched around Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera and played Brandon Inge in about 64 different positions, including hot dog vendor and parking valet. Even though the pitching was their big issue, Leyland still made field and lineup changes until he found a combination that worked for the Tigers.
Wedge really needs to reconsider his options. He can’t just wait until Travis Hafner gets healthy again and assume — much like I’m assuming the Tigers are finally the odds-on-favorite to win the World Series — that all will be well again.
Visit Matt Sussman’s sports blog at futonreport.net.