Red Sox Could Benefit From Very Minor Tweak In Typical Starting Lineup

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Sometimes, a minor tweak is all that’s needed.

Red Sox manager John Farrell made a slight change to Boston’s starting lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. It was a minor adjustment — one that might be forgotten in time, particularly when new faces are inserted — but it’s evidence the Sox are willing to experiment.

Farrell opted to flip-flop Mike Napoli and Pablo Sandoval in a move the skipper said was designed to prevent opponents from exploiting a favorable matchup. Napoli batted fifth Tuesday behind Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez. Sandoval batted sixth.

The original order for a “regular” Red Sox lineup — a term used loosely given Brock Holt’s uptick in playing time and several other factors, including Shane Victorino’s health — made sense from a traditional standpoint. The right-left balance — Pedroia (right-handed), Ortiz (left-handed), Ramirez (right-handed), Sandoval (switch-hitter) and Napoli (right-handed) — in the middle of the order seemed enviable in the context that opponents, in theory, should have a hard time matching up against Boston.

But upon closer examination, the Red Sox discovered they might have been backing themselves into a corner as far as the later innings were concerned.

Farrell noted before Wednesday’s game that opponents twice turned to left-handers to deal with the trio of Ortiz, Ramirez and Sandoval — a move that sets up left-on-left versus Ortiz and that forces Sandoval to bat right-handed, where the third baseman’s looked far less comfortable over the last two seasons.

Consider the following numbers, entering Wednesday (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).

Ortiz career vs. LHP: .266/.339/.480 in 2,684 plate appearances
Ortiz career vs. RHP: .293/.397/.575 in 6,221 plate appearances
Ortiz 2015 vs. LHP: 0-for-10

Sandoval career vs. LHP: .266/.313/.385 in 976 plate appearances
Sandoval career vs. RHP: .305/.359/.492 in 2,613 plate appearances
Sandoval 2014 vs. LHP: .199/.244/.319 in 205 plate appearances
Sandoval 2014 vs. RHP: .317/.363/.461 in 433 plate appearances
Sandoval 2015 vs. RHP: .389/.488/.417 in 43 plate appearances
Sandoval 2015 vs. LHP: 0-for-13

It should be noted that Ortiz actually had better splits against left-handers than right-handers in 2014, but career norms and his production against southpaws this season, albeit in a small sample size, suggest calling upon a lefty to face the nine-time All-Star late in ballgames remains the logical play.

The important thing here, obviously, is Sandoval’s splits. He’s been way better against right-handers (batting lefty) than against left-handers (batting righty), particularly since the beginning of last season, so using a left-handed pitcher to face the trio clearly makes sense when one considers Ramirez’s splits.

Ramirez career vs. LHP: .307/.390/.531 in 1,336 plate appearances
Ramirez career vs. RHP: .297/.366/.491 in 3,994 plate appearances
Ramirez 2015 vs. LHP: .400/.538/1.300 in 13 plate appearances
Ramirez 2015 vs. RHP: .238/.267/.381 in 45 plate appearances

Ramirez, like many right-handed hitters, has slightly better numbers against left-handers in his career, but the difference isn’t drastic enough to sway a team toward using a right-hander against the trio of Ortiz, Ramirez and Sandoval. Sandoval’s dramatic splits essentially override any advantage the Red Sox theoretically should gain by having Ramirez face a lefty.

(Yes, Ramirez has been significantly better against lefties this season. But his career norms, including his 2014 marks, suggest there isn’t an overwhelming advantage or disadvantage with regard to Ramirez based on the opposing pitcher’s handedness.)

So, what about Napoli? Well, he has struggled against both lefties and righties to open 2015, so let’s just examine his splits in the context of his career.

Napoli career vs. LHP: .277/.390/.519 in 1,085 plate appearances
Napoli career vs. RHP: .248/.345/.475 in 2,699 plate appearances

Really, it boils down to Sandoval’s lack of production against left-handers of late. If his splits weren’t so drastic, one way or the other, Farrell probably wouldn’t have considered the minor tweak.

Good for the Red Sox for identifying a subtle, yet logical, tweak that could benefit them later in ballgames as teams tap into their bullpens and look for every advantage possible.

Thumbnail photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images

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