With baseball finally back in the form of exhibition games between the Mets and Yankees over the weekend, it is feels nice to get to nit-pick manager’s lineup decisions again. First year manager Luis Rojas has the luxury of a talented and deep set of hitters to draw from, but already he has raised some eyebrows.
Sunday, Brian Joura broke down Saturday’s box score and raised the same concerns that have come up on social media about Rojas’ lineups – Robinson Cano batting third. Brian mentioned a preference for batting Cano sixth or lower, which we’ll address later. However, assuming a lineup full of regulars for the Mets, Cano presents an interesting case to be the No. 3 hitter.
“Definitely features very well to hit third in the lineup,” Rojas said of Cano to the media on Saturday. “We don’t have the lineup set for Opening Day yet, but he’s a guy that features to be there in the middle of the lineup.
“There’s a lot of versatility in the lineup, guys that can hit in different positions,” Rojas continued. “We are getting a feel for each one, to hit in different spots. We’ve done it throughout camp and that’s what we’re doing today. He should be in the middle of the lineup. That’s what we foresee.”
It should be noted that while Rojas has coached and managed in the minor leagues since 2006, minor league managers typically don’t have the kind of freedom in making out their lineups that MLB managers do. Like all other MiLB managers, Rojas has been at the mercy of what the player development staff tells him to do. The input is assuredly still there in the majors, but he has more decision-making ability than before.
Much of the disagreement centers on lineup construction theory. Even today, the “best hitter bats third” camp clashes with the “best hitter bats second” camp which has gained more mainstream acceptance in MLB circles. The flip side of that theory is that your No. 3 hitter, traditionally the best overall hitter in the lineup should be the fifth-best hitter as outlined in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. For that camp, No. 3 makes the perfect spot in the lineup for Cano.
Cano is 37 and coming off of his worst season since 2008, but the glimmer of hope for him is in his strong finish from 2019. Last year was a story of two seasons for Cano: In the first half he hit just .240/.287/.360 and his wOBA was .276. After returning from injury in the second half of the season he hit .284/.339/.541 and his wOBA jumped to .358.
His second-half offensive numbers are superior to Amed Rosario, Wilson Ramos and even Alonso. It’s not smart to expect a repeat of that second half performance in 2020, but it’s not unfair to expect him to be closer to that than his dreadful first half.
The question becomes: “Is that player the fifth-best hitter in the lineup?” The best answer to that is maybe. Against a right-handed pitcher, Cano probably is. Against a lefty slotting J.D. Davis in that spot or benching Cano altogether probably makes more sense. This is one of the nice parts of Rojas’ problem – with Brandon Nimmo, Alonso, Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil forming a stellar top four hitters, there are a few players who could fit the slot as that fifth guy. For example, a healthy Yoenis Cespedes could be that guy.
If Cespedes does prove to still have something in the tank after two years away from MLB, then Cano’s case to hit higher than seventh really dissipates. With the new three batter minimum rule for relievers in baseball this year, Rojas has shown a preference to flip-flop lefties and righties in the lineup. Both lineups against the Yankees flip flopped lefties and righties in the first six spots. Doing so all the way down the lineup will make it tougher on ex-LOOGYs now charged with getting through at least one right-handed bat.
A Cano that isn’t batting in the top five in the lineup is then looking at slotting seventh to keep that trend further down the order. No matter which school of lineup construction you subscribe to, that may very well be where he is best suited to bat in 2020. What you hope is that if that is the case, neither Rojas nor anyone in the organization above him doesn’t try to force Cano into the middle of the lineup. It could present a real test of the new skipper’s flexibility and willingness to change his mind when presented with information.
Either way, if where Cano is batting is the biggest problem for the Mets heading into the 60-game season, that’s a great problem to have. The strong, deep lineup should be a force to contend with in the playoffs.