On the Pirates: The batting order ... who, not where

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Manager Clint Hurdle received a note from a fan this past week containing some advice. Because Michael McKenry was 3 for 5 with two doubles in his career against Chicago Cubs starter Edwin Jackson, the fan argued, he should start that night's game rather than Russell Martin.

Lineup construction, Hurdle said, "... matters to a lot of people."

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The members of the lineup certainly make a difference, but outside of a few parameters, the impact of their location in that lineup may not make much of an impact.

The Pirates used the same lineup in their first two games. Pedro Alvarez hit cleanup. Garrett Jones batted second, Neil Walker sixth. Starling Marte led off.

There are reasons for all of those, just as there are justifications for all sorts of lineups. Some are rooted in tradition, some more recent analysis, but in the end, the impact is not as big as perceived.

"It doesn't make as big of a difference as a lot of people think," Hurdle said.

Some studies of different batting orders and their effect on run production have suggested that arranging the lineup in a certain fashion may add or subtract about 10 runs over the course of a season, which amounts to roughly one win.

"There's some basic black-and-white staples that you keep in place and try not to get too smart," Hurdle said. "Don't try and stick your strikeout guys together, four, five and six in the order, because it creates a hole or a vacuum."

Managers must balance batting their best hitters early enough to get them more plate appearances over the course of the season with giving them the best chance to come to the plate with runners on base. They also must avoid lining up hitters from the same side so that opposing managers can't mow them down in order with a reliever in the late innings. To combat that, the Pirates' first two lineups went right-left-right-left-right-switch.

Hurdle said he believes a batter's spot in the order can affect his approach.

"The one thing you need to fight -- and I've seen it happen -- a team gets hot and starts scoring runs, you want to start moving some of those guys that were hitting lower up higher because it makes more sense," Hurdle said. "All of a sudden, they're hitting in a different spot. Their perception is what gets altered, not so much yours."

Hurdle experimented during the opening series, batting the power-hitting Jones second twice and catcher Russell Martin second in the third game. Jones had a .317 on-base percentage last season, Martin .311.

The idea of optimizing a lineup is sort of akin to Blackjack: Follow the rules over an extended period of time and it gives you the best chance of winning.

Hurdle also believes in a certain degree of continuity -- a tenet he found beneficial when playing for Whitey Herzog on the Kansas City Royals -- but wants his players to respect their teammates enough to accept changes.

"I think when you start getting a group of men together in a room like we're starting to get, these guys are becoming more aware," he said. "You need to honor a man's skills that's sitting two lockers down from you from time to time as well."

The unlikely reliever

Jeanmar Gomez has made four relief appearances in his three-year major league career. He came out of the bullpen twice in parts of seven minor league seasons, both times as an 18-year-old in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

But Gomez, a 25-year-old right-hander, broke camp with the Pirates to pitch out of the bullpen, forcing a rapid adjustment to Gomez's routine.

"For me, it's getting ready more quickly in the bullpen," Gomez said. "When you're a starter, you have 30 or 40 pitches for warming up. In the bullpen, you have 10, 15 to be ready."

Gomez said Jason Grilli, a starter in a former life, offered some tips on making the adjustment.

Hurdle will use Gomez as another long reliever, giving the Pirates two men -- Chris Leroux is the other -- who can pitch multiple innings. That flexibility could help the Pirates salvage games if their starter leaves early.

The Pirates received Gomez from the Cleveland Indians in January for minor league outfielder Quincy Latimore. In three seasons with the Indians, Gomez had a 5.18 ERA. Baserunners have been a problem for Gomez: He has allowed at least one hit per inning in each of his three seasons and strikes out only 4.9 batters per nine innings in his major league career.

Gomez said he wanted to improve his command over the offseason.

"I think for me, it's going to be, more aggressive in the zone," he said.

"Don't be too fine in the zone because when I would be too fine, I was always behind in the count, 1-0, 2-0, and then I have to throw a strike. I have to be aggressive."

Looking ahead: Diamondbacks

When the Pirates arrive at Chase Field Monday for a three-game series, the Arizona Diamondbacks will not have shortstop Willie Bloomquist, outfielder Adam Eaton or outfielder Cody Ross. Their replacements, A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra, hit well in the opening series.

Pollock had three hits and a double in his first nine at-bats, and Parra had a home run, three doubles and a triple among his eight hits in 16 at-bats entering the weekend. Good starts from Miguel Montero and Martin Prado have also helped.

Prado came over from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for outfielder Justin Upton, once the centerpiece of the Diamondbacks organization.

The Pirates will likely face right-hander Brandon McCarthy, another offseason acquisition, in Monday's game. McCarthy allowed six runs on nine hits in five innings against St. Louis Wednesday, but the Diamondbacks eventually won in 16 innings.

The Pirates will be spared facing Ian Kennedy, their opening day starter, because he is scheduled to start today. Kennedy allowed two runs and struck out eight in seven innings against the Cardinals on opening day.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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