Bob Smizik: Lineup ideas for Hurdle

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Since the Pirates game was postponed last night, to be played Thursday, you might have missed the lineup posted by manager Clint Hurdle to face Baltimore right-hander Chris Tillman.

1. Jose Tabata, RF; 2. Ike Davis, 1B; 3. Andrew McCutchen, CF; 4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B; 5. Gaby Sanchez, DH; 6. Neil Walker, 2B; 7. Starling Marte, LF; 8. Tony Sanchez, C; 9. Jordy Mercer, SS.

There are multiple interesting moves in this lineup, none of which would be influenced by Tillman’s history against the Pirates. Active Pirates have only five at-bats against him.

Among the more intriguing moves:

• The flipping of Marte and Tabata in the lineup. Of Marte’s 865 MLB at-bats, 826 (95 percent) have come in the No. 1 spot in the lineup. What has been largely overlooked in Marte’s relatively brief MLB career is that he does not do well against right-handed pitching. It’s common to see power hitters as being singled out for having difficulty with the opposite pitching arm, but this problem can be found in all variety of players.

This is Marte’s career line against right-handed pitching in 699 at-bats: .247/.307/.384 -- .691. It does not require advanced knowledge in sabermetrics to determine that’s not very good, especially for a leadoff hitter. The average on-base percentage for National League leadoff hitters last season was .333. Which means every time the Pirates face a right-hander, and that’s most of the time, they are working at a disadvantage at the top of the lineup.

It also should be noted that Marte’s on-base percentage would be even lower if he hadn’t been hit by an inordinate number of pitches last season.

Tabata’s career on-base percentage against right-handed pitching is .339. Which means, on those occasions when Tabata starts against righties, he, not Marte, is the better choice, despite Marte's large edge in speed, as the leadoff hitter.

This isn’t to suggest Hurdle made the lineup change based on the above statistics. He did it based on how Marte is struggling at the plate and striking out at an alarming rate. He leads the NL with 37 whiffs, not exactly what is desired from a top-of-the-lineup hitter.

“I'm just trying to take a load off the young man's shoulders,” Hurdle said

But moving Marte down in the lineup in games when Tabata is starting might be a good idea on a permanent basis.

• The fact Gaby Sanchez is the best the Pirates could come up with as a DH against a right-handed pitcher and the fact he was batting fifth speaks to the inadequacies of the team’s offense. In 1,286 career at-bats against right-handed pitching, Sanchez has a career OPS of .700. The National League average for No. 5 hitters last season was .749. Again, this puts the Pirates at a considerable disadvantage.

Do the Pirates still harbor a belief that Sanchez, at this stage of his career, is all of a sudden going to become effective against right-handed pitching?

The Pirates do not normally have a left-handed bat on their bench -- thank you, Neal Huntington -- against right-handed pitching. But since Tabata was starting, Travis Snider was available to DH. The fact the Pirates bypassed Snider for Sanchez against right-handed pitching does not speak well for Snider’s future with the team. Or of Hurdle’s opinion of him.

• It was somewhat peculiar to see Davis, a lefty, batting second against right-handed pitching. He was acquired to bat in the middle of the lineup against RHP. No doubt, this move had something to do with separating left-handed batters in the middle of the lineup. That's a common practice and prevents teams from being at the mercy of left-handed relievers late in the game.

But why not bat Alvarez, Walker and Davis fourth through sixth? As a switch-hitter, Walker can swing either way. In the past, he was so useless batting right-handed against lefties, he was no better an option than Alvarez (.614 career OPS vs. LHP) or Davis (.591). But Walker has done so well batting right-handed this season (7-for-19) that he could serve as an adequate buffer between the two left-handed hitters.

A McCutchen-Alvarez-Walker-Davis middle of the lineup would be considerably better than the one posted by Hurdle.


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