Can Subtle Lineup Changes Send Tribe Into October?

A day after Terry Francona expressed qualms about altering the Indians lineup, he decided to go against his uncertainties and try out something new.

On Monday, July 22, Nick Swisher found himself moved from the number four to the number two spot in the lineup, switching places with Asdrubal Cabrera for the game against the Seattle Mariners.

Although the Indians lost 2-1 in Seattle, the lineup shift proved to be a positive change for Swisher, at least for that game. Swisher delivered a solo home run in the first inning, providing the only score for the Indians that night. He also singled in the third inning.

Moving Cabrera to cleanup did not seem like the most effective decision at first glance. However, simply moving Swisher to second in the lineup and bumping Cabrera and Jason Kipnis each down, respectively, would take Kipnis out of the top three. Francona is quoted on as saying that he would not want to take Kipnis out of hitting in the first inning.

Kipnis has been hitting right around .300 for a while now, making him an invaluable hitter at the top of the lineup. With Swisher previously hitting .238 at cleanup, he needs to find some place at which he can excel.

Francona originally said that he was contemplating moving Swisher so the first baseman would regain his hitting power, but also implied that he may wait until Swisher showed that improvement in the four-spot before making any sort of decision.

Apparently deciding that a shift in order was what Swisher needed to show improvement, Franconca switched only the two guys at spots two and four, not causing too many waves in the order.

The top of the order has promise to continue to be strong. With Michael Bourn as the lead-off hitter, speed is put on the bases right away to start the game. Bourn has 13 stolen bases this season, and has posted significantly higher numbers in years past (61 SB in 2011 and 42 in 2012). He also posts a .334 OBP, demonstrating his ability to watch pitches and get on base when needed.

Cabrera has spent of the season in the second hole and is hitting .244. Although he has spent much of his career hitting at the top of the lineup, he has the ability to hit anywhere. However, his OPS is .705 this season, putting him at an average level for getting on base and hitting for power, which doesn’t seem to make him a prime candidate for the cleanup spot.

Kipnis, however, has been invaluable in the three hole. As one of the strongest bats on the team, the second baseman has been delivering hits regularly, driving in 62 runs and capitalizing on the speed and abilities of the guys already on base when he is at the plate. His power with the bat drives in runs and his ability to reach base (his triple slash is .382/.521/.903) has helped him score 56 runs this season.

Swisher as cleanup, however, has been a struggle as of late. He has been struggling with shoulder soreness since spring training, which has impacted his abilities at the plate. With a cleanup hitter needing to deliver clutch hits when necessary, Swisher has not appeared to be the guy to do that. A player like Michael Brantley would be more valuable as a four hitter, as he has been demonstrating his value as a hitter with runners in scoring position and in clutch situations.

Because the fifth spot player has to be good enough that his presence in the lineup forces the pitcher to throw strikes to the batter in front of him, a guy with a strong presence should find himself batting fifth for Cleveland. Cabrera could theoretically fit there. Francona is also quoted saying that Cabrera can hit anywhere, and that it’s important not to lock Brantley in in one place because his ability to bounce around the lineup is an asset to the Tribe. Perhaps experimenting and switching Cabrera and Brantley at four and five could make a difference – it seems that Cabrera is not a poor enough hitter that pitchers would intentionally walk Brantley in order to get Cabrera out.

Although six-through-nine hitters appear at the plate around 100 less times than those at the beginning of the lineup, it’s obviously still important to have power at the end of the lineup – these guys can drive in runs put on base by the strong hits of those at the beginning.

This season, Ryan Raburn has had success at the plate, being one of two players to in the majors to hit 10 or more homeruns and doubles in fewer than 200 plate appearances going into the All-Star break. He’s hitting .271 this season, putting him as one of the top hitting players on the team. Carlos Santana comes in hitting .270 and normally finds himself somewhere in the middle of the lineup. Santana has 11 homers and 43 RBI on the season, making both him and Raburn solid choices to stay in the middle – both can hit in runners from the top of the lineup but also can prove efficient batting on their own later in the game.

Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, batting .260 and .256 respectively, seem to be players who can bounce around the lineup as well. Although probably not the best choice to bat at the top, they can move around the middle of the lineup with success.

Players with lower averages, such as Jason Giambi (.192), Drew Stubbs (.241), Mark Reynolds (.213) and Lonnie Chisenhall (.240) are good candidates to frequent the bottom of the lineup. Although they have low averages, all have at least 6 homeruns this season – Reynolds has 15, reflecting his hot streak earlier in the season. These are guy who have the potential to deliver, although not consistently, leaving them out of top spots that would frequent more appearances. Could moving these guys around the bottom of the lineup provide any sort of change in the team’s offense throughout the rest of the season? It’s not out of the question.

While a change in the lineup may not work wonders for the Indians, the move of Swisher to the two-spot has already seemed to be a change for the better. If guys continue to move around in the middle and bottom of the order, hopefully a winning formula will soon be produced that will have Tribe bats swinging and hitting consistently, driving the ball far and driving the team into October.

Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

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