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On the importance (or not) of lineups

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  January 26, 2011 10:18 AM

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The Red Sox lineup is a popular topic these days. There has been lots of blog posts on different sites and fans are weighing in with their choices via e-mail, Twitter, or on their own blogs. Everybody has an opinion.

You know what? It doesn't really matter and speculating about it is largely a waste of time.

Here's why:

The Texas Rangers went to the World Series last season and used 112 lineups in 162 games. The Rays, who led the league in victories, had 129. The Yankees, who scored the most runs, trotted out 114 combinations.

Virtually every team, even the best ones, have a player or two with lopsided righty/lefty splits. Managers get reams of information every day and ignoring that data is foolish and bad for their job security. So a lineup is really only as solid as who the other team has on the mound.

David Ortiz and J.D. Drew were wretched against lefties last season. With Mike Cameron and Darnell McDonald on his bench, Terry Francona would be irresponsible not to adjust accordingly, especially against the better southpaws.

Testing for amphetamines and PEDs has changed the dynamic of deciding on a lineup. Gone are the days where a team could play 11 innings then come back for a day game with largely the same lineup intact. Instead of sending the boys in for a good strong cup of coffee laced with greenies, managers now have to use fresh legs. When a manager says a player "needs a day" he might as well be saying, "Red Bull's not enough this time."

Lineups are not magic. Teams have tried 100 different ways to take the relevant data and come up with combos that will surely score the most runs. It doesn't work. Players get colds, they fight with their wives, they eat too much pizza the night before. Most of all, players go through streaks.

Sure, Adrian Gonzalez probably should hit third or fourth. But if he's 2 for 28 over seven games, you might want to drop him down for a day or two.

The best thing to do is get your best players the most at-bats. You try and make it hard on the other manager to use his specialists, so you split up your righthanded and lefthanded batters. Beyond that, it's a lot of guessing and hoping. Most days, the lineup is what makes sense to try and win that day. Nothing more.

Look at the Red Sox, for instance. They started last season with what looked like a well-constructed and balanced lineup. It blew up in a week and they still scored 818 runs with Marco Scutaro hitting leadoff most days and the outfield in constant flux.

I'm of the opinion that hitting Dustin Pedroia or Carl Crawford first would cause them more harm than the team good. If Jacoby Ellsbury can't cut it, put Scutaro back there. Hit Gonzalez and Youkilis after Pedroia and Crawford then fill in the rest depending on the opposing pitcher and other factors.

There will be plenty of questions about lineups in spring training and we'll kill a forest of trees writing about it. The Red Sox will trot out nine guys on Opening Day and they'll be listed on the front page for all to see.

Then it probably will change the next day and again the day after that. If the Red Sox get 500 or so at-bats from their four or five best players, how they're lined up won't matter. They'll score plenty of runs.

If you want to worry about something, figure out who's going to break the news to Josh Beckett that he probably should be starting Game 4.

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