In 13 games so far this season, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has posted 13 different batting lineups. He’s also only repeated a defensive alignment once. No one can accuse him of managing by rote.
While the modest early success of the season has certainly helped to fuel optimism in the initial weeks of the schedule, what has been decidedly fun has been observing the manner in which the Blue Jays are using their newly added depth to their advantage.
Some of this is clearly by design, as the “raise the floor” campaign brought the quality of the bench to a higher level of respectability. Given the roster construction, one would have expected to see the team rotating players through the lineup to take advantage of platoon advantages or players on a hot streak or with a history of success against a pitcher or a team.
But then, how many of us would have figured at this early point of the season that we’d have already seen Yangervis Solarte at shortstop, or Josh Donaldson making heroic stretches at first base, or Steve Pearce tracking down liners in the gap in right field?
While Donaldson and Justin Smoak have mostly remained constants in the two and three holes, the leadoff and cleanup spots have been split by three players each, while seven different Blue Jays have seen their name slotted in the fifth spot in the order.
There was a time when such lineup manipulations would have driven certain fans to frustrated anguish. One of the hallmarks of the Blue Jays’ World Series teams was manager Cito Gaston’s insistence on slotting the same players into the same spot in the lineup to allow the players to feel at ease in their role. WAMCO wasn’t just a clever nickname for the collection of Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter and John Olerud; it was a mantra posted to the lineup card. It worked, so that’s why we liked it.
Most ardent fans now no longer need to wait until the pre-game show to see the daily lineup, as each day well in advance of the game, a combination of beat writers’ Twitter feeds and alerts from various apps announce the lineups and alignments. This precipitates an immediate reaction, as any change gets noticed and parsed on social media in the hours before a game.
There have been times in the past where you didn’t even really need to read the names and order, and that your eyes would pick up on the small distinctions based primarily on the shape of the text block. Your eyes would be drawn to an unusual wrinkle in the expected image.
This season, though, every lineup has brought its own surprise. Pearce and Curtis Granderson have bumped back and forth between leadoff and cleanup, which is probably about as far from a traditional approach as one can imagine. From five through eight, the lineups are constantly changing, with no one having hit more than five times in any of those slots.
And yet, these lineup machinations never seem desperate or wrong-headed. While changes in the lineup can often spur passionate debates or at least fleeting bouts of second-guessing, the response in general to Gibbons’ daily posting has been one of genuine curiosity.
“Huh … that’s interesting. Let’s see how it plays out.”
There’s also an increasingly popular viewpoint that in the abstract, lineup construction doesn’t especially matter that much, and it is not worth sweating it. Although as much as one can rationally accept this fact, there’s an ontology deeply ingrained in every baseball fan, coloured by their own biases. You might feel more enlightened to think that your leadoff hitter needs to be a speedster, but when you see Pearce leading off, you probably need to consciously process that fact to make it sit peacefully in your mind.
And then, thousands of simulations and regression tests would never offer up the evidence that Smoak should stay in the lineup because it is his bobblehead day, and he’ll surely reward you with two homers and six runs batted in.
It is obviously still early in the season, and there’s a novelty to having these new additions, which contributes the added patience as we play along at home with the manager’s decisions. Maybe in the coming weeks, more of these decisions will come into question based on our increased knowledge of the players.
Still, it’s unquestionably been fun so far to follow along with the team that hits the field, and to recognize that to some extent, the off-season strategy is working as was intended.
More to the point, it’s fun to see Gibbons manage when being given the full resources to truly be able to make roster decisions rather than glumly accepting default roles. Given the opportunity, he’s shown himself to be a sage and clever steward, and so far, this has been the most noticeably impressive performance in his managerial career.