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How Bud Black is getting ahead of the curve in lineup structure

Drew Creasman Avatar
March 9, 2018

It’s a frightening moment in the life of any parent.

Your child, ever growing in intelligence and curiosity, looks up at you with innocent eyes and limitless potential and asks, “Mommy? Daddy? Where do runs come from?”

You fidget in your seat knowing that this moment was coming but still feeling utterly unprepared. You know you can’t explain all the messy details, the inner workings of BABIP and WAR, but you fear the consequences of simplifying the entire conversation to, “Well sometimes the stork delivers home runs and RBI.”

The truth is, it’s complicated. Runs come in all shapes and sizes. They come from any place you can imagine, and maybe even places you never would have. Some argue they can be engineered through clever managing, manufactured out of thin air from speed and athleticism, and some belief systems even hold that a hidden, superpowered “clutch” gene may be a contributing factor to creating the currency of baseball.

Debate has raged all offseason over whether or not the Colorado Rockies have done enough to address their offensive woes of a season ago. Much of this debate has centered around whether it would have been wise to add a veteran bat like Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, or even Carlos Santana versus an apparent faith in organizational players like Ryan McMahon, David Dahl, and Raimel Tapia.

As the Colorado Rockies 2017 season came to an end, a debate was raging about the use of Charlie Blackmon in the lead-off spot.

Lines were drawn, alliances were made, and the war rages on with many good arguments lost on all sides.

But while all that was happening, manager Bud Black was innovating in the realm of lineup construction while almost nobody noticed.

After the All-Star break, the Rockies manager decided to act, dramatically, on the emerging splits of his shortstop, Trevor Story. He was crushing left-handed pitching but that was being drown out by his miserable numbers against right-handed pitching, especially over the first month of the season.

By the end of 2017, Story slashed .216/.281/.386 for a .668 OPS against righties and .301/.380/.654 for a 1.034 against lefties. In most situations, this would lead a manager to simply bench the player in a traditional split, but Black couldn’t afford to do that considering the insane value Story was provided at a premium defensive position.

This unique set of circumstances led to a unique scenario. Black left Story in the seventh or eighth spot in the lineup against right-handed pitching but put him right in the heart of the order against lefties. And it worked.

A manger’s worst nightmare is that once you act upon the recognition of a trend, it will suddenly evaporate. Got a big game against a pitcher that one of your bench players has absolutely handled in his career? If you start him, the universe will surely laugh down on you as said bench player goes 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

But Story continued to wreak havoc on lefties, of which there are many of the elite variety in the NL West, and on those days became the second most dangerous man in the lineup.

How much control does an MLB manager really have over the outcomes of games? Not much. And usually, those moments come in the form of pitching changes and—in the National League—pinch-hit appearances. But not in this case.

This move played a vital role in the Rockies September surge to hold onto a postseason spot and has been an under-discussed element of the offense. While the consensus is that Story is unlikely to struggle in 2018 as much as he did in 2017, the theory here shows that there is a way Colorado can get the most out of their young, volatile players while, to some degree, hiding their weaknesses.

We spoke to a few league sources and each confirmed that they could not recall a platoon operating quite like this; where the ballplayer is essentially platooning with himself.

We’ve said over and over again that the Rockies will be successful in 2018 not by focusing on outscoring opponents, but rather by winning on the margins and allowing their phenomenal pitching staff and bullpen to go to work. The offense merely needs to be good enough.

We’ve discussed how this could arise out of young players taking highly anticipated steps forward, or how a return to health for a former All-Star could play a big role. We’ve talked about the added athleticism, speed, and defensive prowess. But there are even smaller ways to bet the most out of your run-scoring opportunities.

Maybe they don’t even have to play that well, as long as they are played in the right situations.

Bud Black’s willingness to be flexible with Story in 2017 is a great sign, but he will likely need to kick that gear into overdrive in 2018. David Dahl may end up having to his in every different spot in the lineup. Guys like Ian Desmond, Pat Valaika, and Ryan McMahon are gonna have to move around the diamond a bit. Charlie Blackmon may need to get used to playing in a corner outfield spot or not leading off or both.

The bottom line is that the Colorado Rockies have the talent both in their lineup and on the mound to do some special things this season. But they’re gonna have to be creative to get there.

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