One of my least favorite things in the community surrounding online baseball writing is the seeming refusal consider the possibility of factors beyond our vision or scope. While the questioning of authority is a good, healthy impulse in almost all pursuits, it's not something to be casually dismissed or mocked reflexively. Too many times here, and so many other places, we've seen lines of thinking expressed roughly as: "It's just so obvious, and if (X) doesn't see it then he is an idiot and isn't qualified to be a (Y) in the major leagues!" The truth is that far more often than not the object of online ire is not only aware of the data we're collectively so wound up about, but about 10-15 more layers of information, things far beyond our field of vision. Criticism should not be avoided, but this reality can and should be held in mind, lest we become the shouty rageaholics so many believe internet baseball fans to be.
I wrote briefly about Scott Servais' need to learn on the job back in April, and the demands of his job have only increased since that time. A manager thrives in a consistent, stable environment, with players who remain as close to static, known quantities as possible. The 2016 Mariners have, um, not been those things. A slew of injuries and wildly fluctuating performances have forced Servais and Jerry Dipoto to constantly juggle every major component of the team. It has made a difficult job even harder.
Invariably, these challenges have led to decisions that seem suboptimal, that are suboptimal. Occasionally, that has resulted in outcomes like Dae-Ho Lee vs. John Axford in Oakland. Predictably, inevitably, the vast majority of the time it has resulted in things like last night's decision to lead off with Daniel Robertson. Robertson is, to be blunt, not particularly close to being a major league baseball player. While you can squint and see the idea of him as an organizational placeholder to keep Nori Aoki's 2017 option from vesting, and you can further convince yourself that as a right-handed hitter giving him a start in left field against Chris Sale is not a disastrous decision (squint harder), all caveats, disclaimers, and deference to authority fall by the wayside at the choice to bat him in the lead off position.
The idea of the lead off position being the sole claim of speedy slap hitters is desperately antiquated. The first hitter in the lineup should be priotirized by two main factors:
1. Hitter quality. The leadoff hitter mathematically has the best chance of getting the most plate appearances over the course of a game. More plate appearances for your best hitters increases the chances of scoring, which increases the chances of winning.
2. Ability to get on base. If any skill should be prioritized over another for the leadoff hitter it is not footspeed, but rather on-base percentage. If the team's best overall hitters are going to bat 2-4, per tradition, putting a hitter likely to get on base in front of them, again, increases the odds of scoring.
Those two points are basic, rudimentary sabermeterics. They are the kind of thing Bill James was writing about in the 1970's. Daniel Robertson is a 30-year old organizational filler with a career .318 OBP. He belongs in the major leagues only through poor planning and poorer fortune. He never, ever, ever should be batting leadoff, doubly so in a lineup that contains right-handed hitters like Franklin Gutierrez, Chris Iannetta, Nelson Cruz, and Dae-Ho Lee.
That Robertson went 0-4 last night is, while predictable, completely immaterial to the quality of Servais' decision in lineup construction. Had he gone 4-4 I had every intention of still writing this exact same article. The appearance of hunch-based decision making, combined with a devotion to the bygone notion of only batting slappy gritmonsters leadoff makes it hard to explain the decision away, and leads to deeper questions about Servais' overall strategic philosophy.
Moving forward today's lineup is now a no win. Facing the excellent left-hander Jose Quintana does Servais double down on his error, and bat Robertson lead off again, clinging to a poorly thought out idea? Or does he bat him towards the bottom of the order, where he belongs? If he acquiesces, what changed between yesterday and today, other than one hitless game for Robertson? It's a spiral of questions, all set in motion by a tactical decision that, even as I spent two introductory paragraphs qualifying my criticism, appears inexcusable from what we can see.
For a manager the baseball season, on a very basic level, consists of 162 separate logic puzzles. The job of the manager, in game, is to form a knowledge of his roster and opponents that allows for the application of a consistent logic, and allows for the best chance of long term maximization of resources. This is made more complicated by the fact that these resources are relational, ever-changing, living, breathing, emotional millionaires. It's an incredibly difficult job, and it's why many were and are so resistant to the idea of a manager with zero experience leading this team. It's not a skill one simply "has", it is something refined over years and years.
Daniel Robertson led off last night against Chris Sale, and it was a mistake. Scott Servais' grace period is over, and the time for pushing buttons and pulling levers on the 2016 Mariner control board to see what happens has passed. It's time to commit to logic, common sense, and lineup optimization. It may be too late to save the season, but it's never too late to give yourself your best chance at success.