TORONTO – Debating how the Toronto Blue Jays can optimize their batting order is a fun baseball conversation to have.
George Springer is an offensive catalyst, but what about all that on-base percentage Cavan Biggio offers up? Is Bo Bichette better in the two-hole or the three-spot? How is Marcus Semien leveraged best? Teoscar Hernandez or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for cleanup? On the days he plays, where is the right spot for Rowdy Tellez to break up the righties? Where does Lourdes Gurriel Jr. go?
In many ways, there are very few wrong answers given the depth of talent available to manager Charlie Montoyo, although he called the order that scorched the Detroit Tigers 10-6 on Thursday “one of the best lineups I’ve written since I’ve been here.”
Springer, who homered out of the leadoff spot, was followed by Semien, Bichette, Hernandez, Tellez and Guerrero, whose three-run homer in the first was one of three balls he hit with an exit velocity of at least 107.9 m.p.h.
Biggio, Randal Grichuk and Alejandro Kirk, the latter two each adding a home run, rounded out an impressive nine that pounded Tigers starter Michael Fulmer for seven runs on five hits and two walks over two-plus innings.
“You saw Biggio and then you saw Grichuk, and he hits lefties pretty good, so if they’re going to bring in a lefty for Biggio, he’s going to have to face Grichuk and Kirk,” Montoyo said. “It was pretty deep, everybody protecting everybody.
“Springer swings the bat. Marcus is more patient. Bo likes to hack a lot. Teoscar, same way, patient at the plate. It was a pretty good lineup to write down.”
How often it repeats, especially given the Blue Jays’ emphasis on positional flexibility and matchups, is an open question, especially since Gurriel had the day off. Montoyo has used Springer, Semien, Bichette and Hernandez as a top four a few times already this spring, so perhaps that’s a construct he’s locking in — but chances are most everyone will have to get used to hitting in different spots.
The flux can sometimes get into hitters’ heads, since the vast majority of players in the league — not to mention fans — have grown up with the notion that certain types of hitters belong in certain spots in the lineup.
Back in 2013, for instance, Jose Bautista took some friendly ribbing from teammates when he was moved up into the two-spot in the Blue Jays order, the joke being No. 2 hitters were supposed to be slap-guys whose job was to move runners over. By 2015, the thinking had advanced enough for Josh Donaldson to hit No. 2 during an MVP campaign, batting him that high seen as a way to potentially get him an extra at-bat during a game.
Still, the ghosts of traditional constructs linger, leading to some debate whether Springer should hit lower in the lineup to better leverage his slugging, even though he’s a proven catalyst in the top spot.
“I understand the traditional roles of a three-hitter, a five-hitter, a nine-hitter but I think the game has evolved, the game is changing to where you're starting to see different types of hitters hit in different positions that you're not accustomed to,” said Springer, who showed no ill-effects from the abdominal tightness that sidelined him earlier this week. “The big thing is every team is designing their lineups to complement the next guy. So, there may be a guy who's hitting second as opposed to first, or a guy who's hitting fifth as opposed to eighth only because of the guys who are up behind him or the guys who are in front of him.”
Springer echoed Montoyo there, but making that work depends on everyone not trying to mould themselves into the traditional demands of different spots in the order.
"No matter what spot you're hitting in the lineup, you need to do what you know how to do, hit the way that you know how to hit,” Springer said, “but also understand the way that the guys hit in front of you and the way that the guys hit behind you.”
That type of thinking is why Guerrero liked hitting behind Gurriel last year, because he could watch how pitchers handled the left-fielder and anticipate a similar approach. Montoyo said this year that’s “a little less important,” since Hernandez also gets similar treatment, so Guerrero could very well hit behind the Silver Slugger this year.
No matter how it all shakes out, Montoyo must ensure everyone is comfortable because, with such a deep order, players who would hit up the lineup elsewhere are going to end up in the bottom third.
“When it comes to people being comfortable, it’s just a lot of communication,” Montoyo said. “Why I’m doing this, why you’re hitting there, stuff like that.”
ROARING ROARK: Tanner Roark described his second start of the spring – three shutout innings of one-hit ball with three strikeouts – as “a big moving forward outing.”
Rightly so, as some mechanical adjustments to increase the hinging off his hip and create more drive off his back leg he implemented over the winter, along with his work with a weighted ball, showed some results.
The right-hander’s average fastball jumped from 89.1 m.p.h. last Saturday to 90.7 Thursday, and he commanded the ball more effectively, too. That had him attacking a Tigers lineup that included Niko Goodrum, Jeimer Candelario, Miguel Cabrera, Wilson Ramos and JaCoby Jones, and feeling like he has something to build off.
“I've thrown uniquely, but I haven't thrown and used my backside as much as I should, and my hips as much as I should,” Roark said. “That's what I really focused on all off-season, is trying to hinge and get into my glutes, you know? I've got a big one, so I might as well use it. And I've overused my quad, put too much of a strain on that and other muscles start to take over. And then it's just a spiraling effect of not feeling the greatest. So I've changed something this off-season and really focused on working on hinging and getting into my backside and moving my arm quicker. And, after today's outing, it's really the best it's felt.”
WALL RETURNS: Outfielder Forrest Wall, part of the return from Colorado for Seunghwan Oh back in 2018, became a minor-league free agent this off-season but ended up rejoining the Blue Jays.
Given all the uncertainty around the minor leagues over the winter, it wasn’t necessarily the best time to be searching for a better opportunity. The 25-year-old said the market for him “was active as much as it can be,” but that he was “super thankful and really happy to be back."
“It was an interesting process, first time for me,” Wall said. “I learned a lot, but for me mainly it was just about being comfortable. I have a lot of great relationships here with the Jays and it was a great fit coming back.”
Wall is part of a crowded depth layer behind a crowded big-league outfield, but the toolsy 25-year-old — a first-round pick in 2014 — will likely have a chance to separate himself at triple-A Buffalo this year.