GOODYEAR, Ariz.: The Indians’ lineup for Friday’s exhibition opener could have been mistaken for the regular-season batting order. Manager Terry Francona must have thought so, too.
Michael Bourn led off, Asdrubal Cabrera batted second and Jason Kipnis third, followed by Nick Swisher, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Mark Reynolds, Lonnie Chisenhall and Drew Stubbs.
Without prompting, Francona made certain that his players and the media knew that the spring lineup had nothing to do with the batting order he will design once the real season starts.
“I told [coach] Brad Mills to tell the players that this lineup is insignificant, it means nothing, other than Bourn batting leadoff,” Francona said. “Not a lot of thinking went into this batting order. I’m not ready to make out a lineup for the season yet.”
Priorities for creating a lineup vary with different managers. But all of them try to do at least two things: Install guys at or near the top of the order who reach base most often, and alternate left-handed and right-handed batters as much as possible, given other considerations, such as speed, power or contact.
“I want to make sure that when an opposing manager brings in a lefty, he has to face a right-handed hitter or a switch hitter,” Francona said. “I’m mostly talking about [lefties] Brantley and Kipnis. Both of them are good hitters, and I wouldn’t be doing them any favors hitting them back to back.”
That would have been difficult to avoid if Francona had been the Tribe manager last year, when the roster was stuffed with left-handed batters, putting the team at a distinct disadvantage against left-handed pitchers. The only way to get more than two righties (switch hitters) into the game was to go to the bench for players who too often are offensively challenged.
In addition to acquiring more potent offensive players during the winter, an effort was made to bring in hitters who bat from the right side, such as Reynolds and Stubbs, or a switch hitter, such as Swisher. Francona has three switch hitters to work with, including Cabrera and Santana.
The other part of the Indians’ new look revolves around speed. Five legitimate base stealers will dot the lineup on a regular basis. It’s been decades, if ever, that the Tribe attack contained that many players who can run.
Bourn, Kipnis, Stubbs, Cabrera and Brantley can all steal bases. Together, they stole 124, succeeding 76 percent of the time in 2012.
Francona emphasized that the most significant statistic related to stolen bases is not the raw number of steals but the rate of success. If a runner doesn’t make it safely to the next base at least 70 percent of the time (some baseball people say 75 percent), a team will run itself out of too many innings.
“Your percentage is the most important thing,” Francona said. “But it’s not just steals. It’s base-running — taking the extra base, making the other team stop you on the bases.”
The prototype franchise for using speed as a primary weapon is the Los Angeles Angels under manager Mike Scioscia.
“When I’d go there for a series, I’d already have a headache,” Francona said. “Not only were those guys fast, they ran the bases with intelligence. They could really run you into making mistakes.”
Is there a formula for slotting speed players in the batting order? Probably not.
“I don’t care about putting them together,” Francona said. “If you have a choice, you put one guy at the top of the lineup.”
In that regard, Bourn fits perfectly. He is the most prolific of the Tribe’s base stealers (he led the National League three years in a row) and has a relatively high on-base percentage.
Then there are places in the lineup you definitely don’t want to plant a speed guy.
“If you have someone who hits 40 home runs, you don’t want a base-stealer in front of him,” Francona said.
That’s because if the speed player steals in front of the home run hitter, it gives the pitcher an opportunity to walk the power guy if a steal creates an open base.
There are limitations in executing the running game, but it can be a valuable tool.
“It’s a good thing,” Francona said. “It’s not a problem.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.