Let’s be honest: The Detroit Tigers have only made it this far in the postseason due to their pitching. The bats have been pretty quiet against the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox. After leading the league with a .283 batting average during the regular season, the Tigers have dropped to a .237 in the playoffs. This is the second-largest drop of any team in the playoffs.
While it is tempting to set the lineup based on how players are currently hitting, there is more to the order than that. There are different pressures to batting toward the top of the order, and some managers like to manage the left- and right-handed batters throughout a lineup. Speed, power and several other variables go into a lineup.
One thing is certain though: Austin Jackson needs to move from the leadoff spot. In 30 playoff at-bats, he has struck out an alarming 18 times. He has only reached base five times during the playoffs.
With such a void in the leadoff spot, it really puts the offense in a bind. The team’s scoring average in the playoffs is 3.4 runs per game. That has dropped by over 1.5 runs per game from their regular-season performance. If not for the eight-run Game 4 against the A’s, their numbers would be an even-worse 2.6 runs per game.
The issue is that they need to be able to put someone on base or at least advance a runner if needed. With the high number of strikeouts, Jackson is doing neither. He has poor at-bats and just cannot seem to get on track. He fails to work the count, to cause a pitcher to throw many pitches and to get on base.
Manager Jim Leyland needs to move Jackson further down the lineup. Due to his defense in center field, he should not be benched, though. A move deeper in the lineup will hopefully accomplish two things. First, it will hopefully spark the offense. Secondly, it will allow Jackson to find his swing again without the pressure of leading off.
There are not many candidates to fill that spot and, to be honest, none of the options are classic leadoff hitters. With that in mind, Omar Infante should be moved to the top spot. He has a history of batting near the top of the order and while he is not on fire at the plate, he is hitting at twice the rate Jackson is and he only has three strikeouts.
At minimum he will put the ball in play. If he only maintains his current pace, he will still reach base more often than Jackson. The on-base percentage (OBP) gives Infante a sizeable advantage—.259 to .129. Obviously you still want better numbers out of the leadoff spot, but at this point this is the best option.
The only other realistic option is Don Kelly. Go ahead, let that sink in—I am a little surprised I wrote that myself. Although he too is batting better than Jackson (.222 to .100), it is his patience at the plate that could make him useful here. Although it is a small sample size, he has drawn three walks in nine at-bats. This gives him an OBP of .417.
It is difficult to trust Kelly in the leadoff spot, though. He is a career .229 hitter with a .290 OBP. However, having him hit ninth would have a better chance for someone to be on base when Infante and his .279 career batting average and .319 OBP comes up.
This would leave the team with a batting order of:
It is tempting to move Fielder down and Martinez and Peralta up. However, too many moves will disrupt the team and could have a negative impact. Moving Infante to the top and Kelly to ninth will help the team finally score runs and is the most painless move for the team.
The bigger question is will Leyland make such a move? He is great at massaging egos during the regular season and is known to stick with veteran players, often for too long. He struggles to make the tough calls come playoff time, especially when a player is failing at the level Jackson is. The team must win the next game so it is time to make this move before the season ends too soon.