Out of Left Field: Stop the Tinkering

Larry Bowa talks loud and clear about needing consistency out of his players. Maybe, the solution to the problem begins with a consistent lineup. You can never be quite sure who is going to be where when Bowa delivers his lineup card and that could lead to players not putting up consistent numbers.

It's not as if this is new to us. We knew that Phillies manager Larry Bowa was a tinkerer when he was hired. He tinkered with the lineup all of last season, and he tinkered with the lineup all of spring training. I admit though, it maddens me, this constant tinkering. I tried to reason it away in the past: Pat Burrell struggled all year, Marlon Byrd didn't cement the leadoff spot until June, etc. This spring, it was necessary to juggle the lineup because of Jim Thome's injury and David Bell's fragile back. Besides, spring is the time to tinker. But, enough is enough Larry; you have to settle this thing down.

During the Phillies first 18 games, Larry Bowa used a different batting order in 12 of those games. Let me repeat that for effect: T-W-E-L-V-E. I'm not even counting the pitcher's spot in those 12 lineup changes. This begs the question: "Have the Phillies been inconsistent because the players are struggling, or have they been inconsistent because their manager has a tendency to be—well—inconsistent?"

Let's break this down further. Kevin Millwood was the opening day starter in Pittsburgh on April 5th, a game the Phillies lost 2-1. By the time Millwood made his next start five games later, Larry was already on batting order number four. Larry maintained all spring that one of the keys to the Phillies offense was Burrell bouncing back so that he could break up the lefty-lefty combo of Thome and Bobby Abreu. On April 12th, the Phillies opened up the new home ballpark, The Vault, with a lineup that included Abreu and Thome hitting back-to-back for the first time. This was game number seven on the schedule, and Burrell was hitting .364 at the time, so this change in philosophy was definitely not due to his inconsistency.

Here's a little snippet of how this lineup has been configured. Both Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins have led off and been inconsistent. Three different players have hit third, while four players have hit fifth and sixth. Six players have hit seventh, and five players have hit eighth. Keep in mind, we haven't yet completed the first month of this 162-game marathon. Marlon Byrd, who hit .319 with an OBP of .374 as the leadoff batter last season, and was second on the club in hits during spring training, was moved out of the leadoff spot after just four games (he's back there now.) Jimmy Rollins, who is off to a horrible start at .177, replaced Byrd in the leadoff spot on five occasions. Bowa has also hit Rollins sixth, seventh, and eighth. He is hitting poorly in all four positions.

By contrast, the World Champion Florida Marlins, who are off to a 13-7 start this season, have used only seven different lineups in those 20 games. In fact, even in changing lineups, Marlins' manager Jack McKeon has been remarkably consistent. Their lineup is pretty much a given every night: Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Lowell have been locks in the first four spots. Jeff Conine and Hee Seop Choi have flip-flopped in the fifth and sixth spots, but even that is consistent. McKeon has platooned his catchers (Ramon Castro and Mike Redmond) in place of Ivan Rodriguez, but no matter which one starts they always bat seventh. Their shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, is also off to a horrible start (hitting .179 through Tuesday) but he's been penciled in the lineup at the number eight spot in all but one game.

These different philosophies have not been borne out of injury; neither team has been hit with injuries to its starting eight. It's also difficult to make sluggish starts the reason for juggling the lineups; the Marlins starting eight have been as sluggish as the Phillies in some cases, with Castillo and Conine joining Gonzalez with poor first few weeks. The difference has been that the Marlins have won despite these players sluggish starts, and McKeon has stuck with a lineup that he feels gives the Marlins the best chance to win every night. You can't argue with success.

To be fair to Larry Bowa, many people (including myself) have offered alternatives to the current starting lineup. In comparison, Joe Torre (the modern day Joe McCarthy) has used 14 different lineups so far this season. Of course, Torre's Yankees are also off to a poor start at 9-11, and Torre has been forced to juggle his lineup due to injuries to Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton. The Yankees also opened the season in Japan, and Torre used different lineups in those first two games in what seemed largely an exhibition series. Finally, Torre has penciled in a 3-4-5 of Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield without exception, even through struggles like A-Rod's 0-16 collar against the Red Sox and Giambi's current .211 batting average.

Ultimately, it's Larry Bowa's responsibility for the constant lineup juggling. It's Bowa's responsibility for the mixed signals (committing to splitting Thome and Abreu, then acquiescing to their desires after six games.) His inconsistency has rubbed off on the entire team, and his constant juggling of lineups has not gone unnoticed around the league. Until Larry Bowa decides on a lineup and gives that lineup a chance to "gel," the Phillies are doomed to remain inconsistent.

DN Curry comes to you Out of Left Field every Thursday on PhillyBaseballNews.com. You can email him at dncurry@comcast.net.

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