Lloyd McClendon has had a relatively successful first 57 games as manager of the Seattle Mariners, leading the club to a 29-28 record, including its first winning month since July 2013.
Despite dealing with a starting rotation decimated by injuries, McClendon has managed the Mariners into contention for a Wild Card spot through two months of the 2014 season. In general, it seems like McClendon is more equipped to steer Seattle towards success than Eric Wedge and his other predecessors.
One thing McClendon has opened himself to criticism about is his lineup construction. McClendon has been stubborn to make needed changes and is a little too eager to run out platoons at the price of keeping superior hitters out of the lineup.
McClendon’s lineup construction may have already cost the Mariners a few wins, and further tweaks from the optimal lineup will continue to hurt the team if they continue.
The big mystery of the first month of the 2014 season was McClendon’s insistence to bat Abraham Almonte consistently in the leadoff spot. Almonte led off for the Mariners in 23 games, running a .198/.248/.292 line before being demoted on May 4.
Almonte had all the signs of an old-school manager’s pet project. He possesses an interesting skill set, including the speed and aggressiveness that’s typically associated with a leadoff hitter.
But it became clear after several weeks that batting a rookie with nearly seven times as many strikeouts as walks was not conducive to fielding a successful lineup. Keeping Almonte in the lineup for another couple of weeks to see if he could bring anything to the table was fine, but batting him in the leadoff spot was only going to hurt him and the team as a whole.
That experiment came at the expense of reduced playing time for Michael Saunders, an above average hitter in terms of OPS+ over the past two seasons and a plus defender on the corners. Saunders is hitting .279/.329/.456 in 2014 and has helped the Mariners climb to the top half of the majors with 4.18 runs per game since receiving more playing time.
Since then, McClendon has mostly run out the best available lineup, apart from a few choices. James Jones (.281/.330/.375) and Saunders have energized the Mariners at the top of the order, helping everything else fall nicely into place and giving the Mariners an ideal order that there is no need to tweak.
But then, in the first two games of a three-game series with the Detroit Tigers, McClendon made a few strange choices.
Granted, McClendon’s hands were tied due to Robinson Cano missing four games with a hand injury and the Mariners still managed to split the two games, to give him some credit. But it’s a bad process to run out such a lineup, and the results will eventually suffer if such decision-making continues.
“I know [Drew] Smyly's pretty good. He's tough on left-handers. This year, they're hitting .122 off him. That's hard to ignore. I'm just trying to put as many right-handers in there as we can and hopefully we're successful with it."
He’s right about Smyly being dominant against left-handers, but the rest of that quote doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It makes it sound as though McClendon is throwing in righties just for the sake of supposedly favorable matchup platoons rather than considering the pieces involved. That is backed up by some of his selections for that particular game and others over the past couple of weeks.
There’s absolutely no reason Jones and Saunders, who have two of the top-four wRC+ marks on the team, should be left out of the lineup. They are the club’s two best outfielders and likely were the two hottest available bats coming into the Detroit series. Both would have produced more than any possible replacement, regardless of opposing pitcher handedness.
Jason A. Churchill of Prospect Insider highlights that Saunders has actually been better against left-handed pitching in a small sample size this season.
Despite this, Saunders is being benched once or twice a week, mostly against lefties. If the Mariners want to field the best lineup possible every day, Saunders needs to be included.
McClendon is also misusing Stefen Romero by tossing him in as a right-handed bat just because the club is so overloaded with lefties. Romero has actually shown a reverse platoon split over the past two seasons, including a .801 OPS against righties in Triple-A in 2013, compared to a .688 OPS against left-handers.
So far in his major league career, Romero has 73 at-bats against lefties and 39 against righties, and he has struggled mightily as a result. Romero has the skill set of an interesting prospect, but he is not being given the chance to succeed.
Another concerning emerging trend has been the use of Endy Chavez, particularly at the top of the lineup. The 36-year-old posted a .617 OPS with Seattle last year and owned a .636 OPS with Tacoma in 2014 before being called up May 30 and starting four consecutive games, batting first or second in three of them.
You can make an argument that Chavez shouldn’t even be on the team, but playing him that often and batting him at the top of the order when he does play doesn’t make much sense. Chavez isn’t going to give you more production offensively or defensively than Saunders, Jones or Dustin Ackley. Even backups like Romero or Cole Gillespie provide more upside and a better chance to win.
Finally, it’s well past time to move Kyle Seager into the cleanup spot in front of Justin Smoak. Seager raised his OPS to .857 Monday night with a double, two triples and this three-run blast against the New York Yankees.
With the one-game outburst aside, Seager has been a better hitter this year and in previous seasons than Smoak. While Smoak might look more like a typical cleanup hitter, he is currently mired in a strikeout-fueled slump and has the lowest OBP in the league among qualified first basemen.
Tuesday night’s lineup against Atlanta Braves right-hander Gavin Floyd features the team’s best three outfielders and Seager in the cleanup spot. McClendon needs to keep that against lefties and righties and eliminate these unnecessary tweaks that have cost the club.