For most of the young 2012 season, you could set your watch by the Cleveland Indians’ lineup. Monday’s game excepted (Manny Acta gave four of his starters the day off after the 37-inning opening weekend), the Tribe’s batting order has looked exactly the same each time the team has taken the field.
For the most part, the lineup has pretty closely resembled what Acta said it would be before the season: Michael Brantley leading off, followed by Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana, and Travis Hafner. Luckily, though, Acta has reneged on his preseason plan to hit Jason Kipnis seventh in the lineup.
But right now, hitting Kipnis in the No. 7 spot actually looks preferable, because somehow he’s become the No. 8 hitter in the Indians’ lineup. Looking at the Indians’ batting order, I’m not sure how that makes any sense—specifically, that he’s hitting behind Casey Kotchman and Shelley Duncan.
Let’s start by looking at how each member of the lineup hit in 2011, in terms of wRC+ (100 = league-average hitter). There’s no special archetype attached to players this low in the order, so it seems reasonable to simply give more plate appearances to the better hitters.
Kipnis had only 150 plate appearances last year—it’s a tiny sample size and there’s no question he’s due for some regression. Still, it’s worth noting that Kipnis was the Indians’ best hitter last season, and he’s being rewarded by hitting in the No. 8 hole. Duncan and Kotchman had career years in 2011 too, by the way, and neither of them have Kipnis’ youth and upside.
It’s smart of Acta not to base his lineup solely on last year’s numbers. So what if we extend the scope of our inquiry? Here’s how each member of the Indians’ everyday lineup ranks in career wRC+:
Kipnis made his debut last year so it’s not a totally fair comparison, and there’s reason to think that at least Duncan really made some legitimate strides in 2011 so he shouldn’t be punished too harshly for his past. But even so, Kipnis looks way, way better than both Duncan and Kotchman here.
But it’s not the past that really matters. How do the Indians’ starters project to hit in 2012? Here are their mean projected OPS+ figures for this year (as calculated in our 2012 Player Preview series with the help of our Simple WAR Calculator):
Kipnis is expected to undergo a ton of regression, and both Duncan and Kotchman are pencilled in to perform far better than their career norms. Yet even in this, the best light for which to justify this batting order, Kipnis projects to be better than his immediate predecessors.
Not to mention what happened Monday, when the bench players all got to start. Kipnis was promoted to seventh in the order as both Hafner and Kotchman got the day off, but he still found himself hitting behind not just Duncan but also Jose Lopez. We’ve already covered the irrationality of hitting Lopez fifth, but it’s worth looking again at how marginalized Kipnis was:
You could make the argument that Kipnis hasn’t played well enough to be promoted: he’s hitting just .095/.174/.238 after five games. But 23 plate appearances is a tiny sample size—if he did that in a stretch in July, no one would notice. What’s more, Kotchman has been even worse, hitting a measly .095/.095/.095 (i.e., Kipnis’ line with no walks or extra-base hits). So that argument doesn’t hold water.
There’s no one right way to build a lineup, and I’m sure Acta has a reason for his rhyme. But Kipnis looks like one of the Tribe’s best hitters (or at least, better than the players hitting ahead of him), and it seems like a misallocation of resources to hide his bat at the bottom of the order.