Chicago White Sox Lineup Analysis – Is There a Fit for the Second Spot?

The Chicago White Sox made many roster moves Wednesday, and the Opening Day roster is almost fully revealed. The 25th spot is the only item left in question and it seems that it will come down to Travis Ishikawa or Jerry Sands.

Both are viable backups to first baseman Jose Abreu, which seems to be the strongest argument of why they were chosen over some perhaps more viable options. Ishikawa (.283/.340/.543) had the stronger spring overall and has more experience at first. Sands (.200/.260/.422) has more experience in the outfield, but Ventura did state Ishikawa could play there, if needed. Ishikawa is also a left-handed bat on a roster that is lacking depth from the left side. It would be a surprise for the White Sox to not go with the veteran for the final spot on the bench.

Once the full 25-man roster is set, the next question will be what the Opening Day lineup will look like and if that will be a stable entity throughout the season, or at the very least, the first few weeks of the season.

I have written plenty about lineup construction in the past, mainly focusing on arguably the most important spot in the order – second. The main argument of why the spot is the most important was driven from The Book ( which Sky Kalman at BeyondTheBoxScore summarized nicely here. Essentially, the number two spot comes up in the most important spots, most often. Kalman writes about what the “old-school” mentality is behind the thinking of each spot in the order. The Book describes the ideal type of player for each spot, based on statistical analysis.

Another theory I have heard elsewhere is simply “the best hitters should hit at the top of the order. Period.” It doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate that the leadoff hitter will come up to bat more often than any other spot in the order, followed by the second spot, and so forth. It’s pretty simple, but shouldn’t a manager want their best hitters up at the plate the most often?

Out of the three theories described here (“old-school”, statistical and best-hitters-hit-most-often), Ventura seems to have gone with the “old-school” method in his past most often. In 2013, Ventura hit Alexei Ramirez 83 times in the second spot, most often on the team followed by Gordon Beckham. In 2014, it was Beckham most often with Ramirez second. Neither player was an ideal second spot hitter according to any of the theories. Ramirez was arguably one of the top three hitters on the team each year, but his OBP was never high due to his lack of taking walks. Beckham never reached his potential that he showed glimpses of in his rookie year. In the offseason prior to the 2015 season, the White Sox believed they had the missing piece to fill in that second spot in the order each day – Melky Cabrera.

Last season, Cabrera had an awful April and May, and he was moved out of the second spot on June 5. The move may have been a catalyst, as Cabrera hit for a .706 OPS in June, mostly from the sixth spot, and then 1.024 in July after moving up to as far as the third spot. After a brief attempt with Alexei Ramirez back in the second spot, Ventura appeased the masses by putting his best overall hitter, Jose Abreu, in the second spot for a few weeks. Abreu had success, but the promotion of Tyler Saladino to the majors saw Abreu moving to third and even fourth in the lineup with Saladino sliding in the second spot. September saw all four shuffling there and the lineup was a mystery each day.

Spring training does not mean much as far as statistics go, but there is a lot to be read into different strategies that managers try, as that’s what it is – free rein to throw stuff against the wall to see if it will stick. In many different aspects, Ventura has been straight-forward with his lineup construction, leaving no mystery in those areas. With his spring training lineups, there are certain items one can assume, especially in that if a player is often hitting in one spot, that is the spot they are being conditioned for in the regular season.

Adam Eaton has hit leadoff each time he has been in the lineup this spring. Eaton fits nicely in any of the three theories – he has speed and he had the highest OBP on the team last year. He is one of the best three hitters on the team and is the most likely to steal a base if he gets a chance.

Jose Abreu has hit third each time he has been in the lineup this spring. Despite attempts at the second spot last year and the majority of the “new-school” thinkers, it looks like this is Abreu’s spot for the near future. This fits in to the “old-school” thinking of having your highest average hitter bat third. The Book does disagree with this, but clearly Ventura does not.

Todd Frazier has hit fourth each time he has been in the lineup, except for the six times Abreu also didn’t appear, in which he then moved up to the third spot. This makes sense in that Frazier was brought in to provide protection for Abreu and be the big RBI guy. The Book states that the number four hitter comes up to bat in the most important situations of any other spot in the order. Frazier should fit that bill a lot better than Adam LaRoche or Adam Dunn did in the last three years.

Melky Cabrera has hit fifth 11 out of the 17 times he’s been in the order. He has hit fourth five times, but all five were without Frazier in the order. The remaining time was the only game this spring Ventura put Cabrera in the enigmatic second spot. The Book values the five spot even higher than the three spot, citing the need for a run-scoring bat in that slot. Cabrera was second on the team in RBIs last year, which is probably where Ventura is finding his reasons for this arrangement.

The sixth spot was as varied as any spot with Avisail Garcia “leading” the group with five times there. Garcia also had five times as the four and five hitter each, usually when the top two candidates were receiving rest.

Seven, eight and nine were a combination of the catcher spot, Tyler Saladino (who wisely was not put in the second spot until the last game in Arizona, seemingly to troll all White Sox fans) and whomever remained after filling out the top end of the lineup. The “old-school” method is to complete your lineup with the worst three hitters. The Book says speed should be pushed up in the order, hoping to be moved around the bases by the singles hitters that complete the lineup.

Seemingly, the one, three, four and five spot will be the same most days. The second spot, the most important hitter on the team according to statistical analysis, is still in question. The candidates line up as Jimmy Rollins (Ventura has named him the starting shortstop), Austin Jackson and Brett Lawrie. Below are the reasons for and against each of the three.

Jimmy Rollins – The odds-on favorite, Rollins hit second in nine of the fifteen games he played during spring training. Rollins spent the majority of his career hitting leadoff as he used to be a great OBP guy and had plenty of speed once on base. In year 17, he is no longer the same player, and his OBP hit a career-worst .285 in 2015. It had a nice peak in 2014 at .323, but those skills may no longer exist. Rollins’ big advantage comes with his strikeout rate, striking out being the most difficult way to find one’s self on base. Rollins has a career strikeout rate of 12.2 percent and still had a respectable 15.3 percent in 2015. The only theory of Rollins hitting second would be the “old-school” mindset. Rollins will get his bat on the ball, giving a chance to get himself on and/or advancing Adam Eaton on the bases.

Austin Jackson – Jackson is another career leadoff hitter who also showed more speed earlier in his career. One of these two would be the likely candidate for leading off any game that Eaton would miss. Jackson hit second in six of the twelve games since he arrived at camp. Jackson has a career strikeout rate almost doubling Rollins’ (23.5 percent). He had a more successful 2015 and is eight years younger than Rollins, leaving reason to believe there is still a higher ceiling to hit. Jackson had a .311 OBP in 2015 and has a career .333 rate. Using Jackson placed as the second hitter would fit closer to The Book.

Brett Lawrie – Lawrie hit second in nine spring training games out of 17, but four of those occurrences happened before Rollins or Jackson put on a White Sox uniform. Lawrie provides a little more pop than usual for a second spot contender, which would be better suited for further down the lineup. Lawrie had a career-worst 23.9 percent strikeout rate in 2015 but his career rate is “only” 18.6 percent. Lawrie has large splits and moving him in the second spot against left-handed pitching could fall in the theory of having your best players as high up in the order as possible.

None of the three are perfect candidates and they would all fit better in the sixth or seventh (possibly fifth for Lawrie due to his increased power). The Book might choose Melky Cabrera over all three; at least against right-handed pitching (which the majority of the AL Central overwhelmingly features). Cabrera also would be listed as a top four option in the lineup, even after accepting that his 2015 start could be a sign of a downturn. The beginning of the 2015 season does have to resonate in Ventura’s memory and it is possible that Cabrera is more comfortable hitting down in the order. But to begin the 2016 season, it looks as if Ventura will again go with the “old-school” approach and attempt to use his second hitter as a weapon to advance Eaton and hope for more runs from the Abreu-Frazier-Cabrera combination.

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