Out of Left Field: Gooch Talks Balance

Larry Bowa has sought to keep his lineup balanced, but abandoned that in order to get Bobby Abreu back into the number three spot in the order. Now, Bowa's latest edition of the lineup will have Jimmy Rollins back in the leadoff spot. Balance? There's a better way to achieve balance.

This was not what anyone had in mind when they drew up the blueprint for the Phillies season: six losses in seven games, swept by the Marlins, a gloomy loss to open Citizen's Bank Park.  In my mind's eye, I see the Phils winning two of three against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and beating the Florida Marlins two out of three also, in a hard fought series, then returning to Philly on a gloriously sunny spring day to open the new park.  I can see Jim Thome and Pat Burrell cracking back-to-back homers while red-, white-, and blue-shrouded fans clamor for the balls.  I see Randy Wolf setting the Cincinnati Reds down meticulously for seven strong innings before giving way to Tim Worrell.  Finally, I see Billy Wagner striding to the mound, striking out the side before 47,000 screaming, jumping, adoring fans.

I have reviewed the tape several times.  It's not there—none of it.  Especially not the adoring fans. 

It just didn't make any sense to me, so I did what I've always done when I lost my bearings in the game, I consulted my old teammate "the Gooch."   Now, Gooch has been around ballparks his whole life.  He's studied the game from every angle: he's played and/or coached on every Continent except Antarctica (too cold.)  I have never seen a guy get more out of his teammates, or out of his players.  He's one of those guys that wins with whatever talent he has. 

I said, "Gooch, look at this lineup.  Look at this pitching staff.  How can this team be 1-6?"

Old Gooch looked me straight in the eye, spat his tobacco on the ground like Nails in '93, and said, "They ain't balanced."

"Whaddaya mean, Gooch?"  I asked.  "Bowa's got the Lefty-Righty-Lefty thing working in the heart of the order, and he's got the Righty-Lefty-Righty thing working in the rotation."

"Look, son." He said, his eyes boring into me, "This lineup doesn't work.  It's made all wrong.  You got Thome hitting third and Abreu hitting fifth, both out of position.  You got no leadoff guy, and your only switch-hitter doesn't know if he's supposed to bunt or swing away half the time.  The whole darn thing is confused."

So I asked him how he would balance out this lineup, and this is the lineup he said he'd scribble in every night:

First- Marlon Byrd.  Byrd has the talent to hit anywhere from 3-6 in the order, and in the future I see him hitting sixth, but he's the best leadoff option that the Phils have at this point.  Jimmy Rollins doesn't have the mentality to lead off, and never will, so we need to cut our losses and be glad for Byrd's .374 OBP at the top of the order until we can find a real leadoff guy.

Second- Bobby Abreu.  Bowa is correct to split the lefties and righties, but he has them in the wrong order.  Thome strikes out too much and doesn't have enough speed to hit third.  Abreu is the prototypical third hitter, but since the Phillies signed Thome without any thought about how it would affect the rest of the order, the best option is to bat Abreu second, so you can bat Thome fourth.  Besides Abreu is a patient hitter, with good speed and good OPS.  He handles the bat well, and having a lefty hitter in the two-hole should give Byrd enough of a screen to attempt more steals and hit-and-runs.

Third- Mike Lieberthal.  Stay with me here.  There's an old axiom in baseball that calls for your best hitter to hit third in the order.  In Philly, Thome's the most important hitter in the lineup, but he has to hit fourth, which means you need a righty in the third spot.  Pat Burrell whiffs too much, so the answer is Lieberthal or Polanco.  This may sound like a bold move, but Lieby has good power to the gaps and with Thome hitting behind him he should see a whole lot more fat pitches.

Fourth- Jim Thome.  Why Bowa insisted on batting him third is beyond me.  Over the past three seasons, Thome's batting average from the fourth spot is .308, and his OPS is 1.126.  This is clearly his most productive lineup position—you can look it up.  His worst lineup position over the same period?  Third—‘nuff said.

Fifth- Pat Burrell.  He seems to have gotten those yips out of his swing (knock on wood) and he'll do a good job of protecting Thome, as he was expected to do last season.

Sixth- Placido Polanco.  Sure, the guys a great two-hole hitter, but Abreu gives them options in the two-hole that Polanco doesn't.  Plus, Polanco's got a good combination of speed and power.  His bat in the sixth spot will provide protection for Burrell with a base open, and allow both of them to drive in more runs.  Polanco isn't as easy to pitch around as Lieberthal is; that's why I prefer him here instead of Lieby, especially with Rollins due up next.

Seventh- Jimmy Rollins.  His switch-hitting breaks up the righties at the end of the order and historically the guy has produced better in the sixth and seventh slots.  He and Polanco give you good speed towards the end of the order.

Eighth- David Bell.  This guy is the perfect number eight hitter, as long as he remains healthy.  He has always put up his best numbers at the end of the order.

I heard an angel's chorus, and the clouds were opened up to me; this all made tremendous sense.  I said to Gooch, "So what's the possibility that Bowa will look towards this kind of batting order?"

Gooch just stared at me.  He spat again and the glob of tobacco ran down his chin.  He got up from where he was seated, and shaking his head, just walked away.

Columnist's Note:  I welcome your feedback.  Please send any comments to dncurry@comcast.net.


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