It’s always interesting when there is a cause and effect in the game of baseball, when something is changed and the result is positive.
Take the action by Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez three weeks ago when he juggled his batting order. Gonzalez moved Jason Heyward into the leadoff spot, which had been a position of inconsistency all season.
The results have been quite remarkable. Atlanta is 17-2 since the switch. The Braves have scored 5.3 runs per game, and the offense, which looked blasé for most of May and June, is definitely back on track.
Some will say it was just time, that the move to put Heyward at the top of the order had nothing to do with it. Perhaps, they might contend, Heyward was just due to get hot after an inconsistent couple of months.
Well, he has hit .373 as the No. 1 hitter. That’s 147 points higher than what Heyward did as the No. 2 hitter, when he usually was behind Andrelton Simmons, who never belonged in the leadoff spot anyway. Simmons proved that by hitting .222 with a .259 on-base percentage.
Heyward has been more aggressive in the leadoff role. He has done much better recently against left-handed pitchers, which has been a problem for him for a while. He looks like a totally different hitter now leading off compared to hitting second. Heyward’s on-base percentage as the leadoff man is .440, while it was only .330 as the No. 2 hitter.
But skeptics who believe lineup construction doesn’t matter might say Heyward is still batting ahead of Justin Upton, who was hitting third and is now hitting second. But look at Upton’s splits. He hit .255 with a .347 on-base percentage as the third hitter and is hitting .387 with a .471 on-base percentage as the No. 2 hitter.
So the combination of these two players moving up in the order has made a dramatic difference.
Heyward never belonged in the No. 2 spot. Perhaps if there had been a true leadoff man in front of him, it would have made a difference. Before this success as the leadoff hitter, Heyward historically had been more productive as the sixth-place hitter, where he has hit .313 and has a .394 on-base percentage in his career.
Eventually, I still believe Heyward will be more productive in the middle of the order, as a fourth- or fifth-place hitter. Remember Dave Parker, the former outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds? He won two batting titles and was a tremendous threat in the lineup. He also had a gun in right field for an arm. That’s what I envision in Heyward, but he was never going to do it as the No. 2 hitter.
For my stathead friends who do not believe lineup construction matters, I guess they’d prefer to have Brian McCann lead off. McCann has the highest on-base percentage of the regulars. Freddie Freeman is right behind him in on-base percentage, so using that logic, how would the two slowest players on the team do in the top two spots? How about Chris Johnson, who leads the NL in hitting? Why not have him lead off?
No, you want those run producers to be in the middle. You want them to drive in runs. If lineup construction doesn’t matter, just put all the names into a hat and pick the lineup that way.
Even though Heyward eventually will be moved down to be one of those run producing spots, until there’s a true leadoff man, he’s exactly where he needs to be in the lineup.
Gonzalez has not given himself enough credit for the lineup switch, and he should. He deservedly got a lot of grief about the lineup before, as he stubbornly kept Simmons at the top for too long and would not move Heyward. But this clearly has worked, and it could be the difference in making the Braves true World Series contenders.
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