Twins manager Paul Molitor appears to know his nine regulars.
How he'll array them in a batting order remains a mystery.
The importance of the order is disputable. Twenty-some years ago the great Bill James studied the question and concluded that
- a completely illogical lineup will cost a team only about 5 percent of the runs of a traditional lineup and
- the difference between two "realistic lineups" is negligible and unprovable.
I won't detail his findings, because he spent pages describing his research and I haven't the space, and because a goodly number will reject it because it doesn't seem right. How can it not matter where Joe Mauer hits?
James convinced me on the subject years ago, and I have since resisted getting dragged into such disputes.
But the Twins personnel poses some particular dilemmas for the manager.
Molitor's most productive power hitter prefers to hit in a lineup spot that minimizes RBI opportunities. His best hitter at reaching base runs like a 34-year-old with more than 900 games caught, which he is. The fastest runner appears more inclined to hit for power.
There is talent in these pieces, but they don't necessarily fit comfortably into the traditional roles.
Consider Brian Dozier. Dozier last year was the first Twin since Harmon Killebrew to hit 40 homers. Thirty of his 42 homers came with nobody on base, in large part because he was the primary leadoff hitter. This got him more at-bats (which is good) but meant that he was following the weakest hitters in the lineup (which is bad).
Dozier wants to hit leadoff. His speed and on-base abilities fit the role, but the power suggests that he should be hitting a few spots deeper, where there will be more men on base ahead of him.
Consider Mauer. Even in his decline, Mauer gets on base more often than anybody else of the nine likely regulars (.363 on-base percentage last year). But he is also slow, and remains, at least by the stats, the best hitter with men on base. Top of the order, or middle of the order?
Consider Byron Buxton, a popular breakout pick around the game. His speed shouts leadoff hitter to traditionalists, but his September surge was based on his extra-base output. Last week Molitor declared that Buxton would not be his leadoff man.
There is a case to be made for any of those three in any of the first four spots in the batting order. I doubt it makes a lot of difference where they hit, as long as they are in prominent lineup spots.
Miguel Sano and Byungho Park offer big right-handed power and lots of strikeouts. Middle of the order or bottom half? Jorge Polanco has the skill set of the traditional No. 2 hitter, but the current sabermetic thinking is that one should put the best hitter there, and that's not Polanco. Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario are talented but unproven, especially against left-handers; where should they hit?
On Friday, for a game televised back home, Molitor led off Dozier and had Buxton hitting third with Mauer in the cleanup spot. (Max Kepler hit second and Miguel Sano fifth.) Bert Blyleven declared the batting order to be "in disarray." Blyleven's disapproval suggests to me that Molitor might be on the right track.