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10 Possible Tampa Bay Rays Defensive Alignments Versus Lefties

By Robbie Knopf
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This is a pretty standard lineup that the Rays could use against lefties, but it has one clear flaw: both James Loney and Kevin Kiermaier are playing. Loney performed well against lefties in 2013, but 2014 saw him go back to his previous struggles against them. Kiermaier, meanwhile, hit them decently in the minor leagues but couldn’t handle them at all in the majors last year.

Kiermaier and Loney easily have the best defense of any Rays options at their positions and that is a compelling argument, especially for Kiermaier. However, the Rays lineup needs as many capable hitters as it can get for each game, and this alignment doesn’t even put Logan Forsythe out on the field along with Beckham.

Both Loney and Kiermaier deserve chances to prove themselves worthy for more time, but the Rays will try to have only have one of them in the lineup for a good portion of their games against lefties. With that in mind, this could be the most often used Rays lineup versus lefties, but only by a small margin. Also worth noting is that Franklin would never replace Beckham in this lineup and Wilson would be unlikely to replace Rivera because there would simply be too many offensive questions.

We talked about Forsythe’s absence above, and this is the case where he does actually replace Loney. One major issue is that Forsythe has played first base just once in his professional career, but with Sean Rodriguez in Pittsburgh, we have to expect that he will see time at the position this spring. Alternatively, Steven Souza, who played first base 117 times in the minors, could play first with Forsythe at DH and Guyer in left field.

Loney’s name recognition makes it strange for him to be out of the Rays’ lineup, but his defense simply isn’t good enough for him to play all the time against lefties if he isn’t hitting them. Kiermaier is a different story because his defense is so spectacular in right field, and it is always nice for the Rays to have at least one left-handed batter in their lineup at all times.

Our general rule will be that Franklin can back up Beckham as long as at least one of Loney and Kiermaier is not in the lineup, and that is obviously true here. Especially if Franklin’s defense is better than Beckham’s at shortstop or if Beckham isn’t hitting anyway, it will make sense for the Rays to use the absence of one of their lefty bats to get Franklin some reps against left-handers.

Kiermaier will give the Rays exponentially more defensive value than Loney will–that is not up for debate. However, Loney is a more formidable hitter, making this quite possibly the Rays’ best offensive lineup versus left-handed pitching.

It will be up to the Rays to manage the tradeoff between offense and defense, but it is clear that this is a lineup that makes sense in certain situations. One example could be if the Rays see a favorable offensive matchup for Loney that could tip the scales between him and Kiermaier.

In addition, this lineup is nice because Brandon Guyer finally gets to play the outfield. There would certainly be times where he pushes Souza to DH in Lineups A and B, but given that he is a better defensive player in left than Forsythe is at any position, it is a little bit strange that the Rays’ optimal defensive lineup doesn’t feature him playing the field more. I guess we can call that “The Kiermaier Effect.”

This is a lineup we talked about previously when discussing a Rays roster without Beckham, but we can also craft a scenario when the Rays would want to use it even with Beckham. Let’s say that Beckham is struggling at the plate and the Rays’ starter that day is a flyball pitcher like Jake Odorizzi or Drew Smyly. Then playing Forsythe over him could make sense, especially with Kiermaier and Loney canceling out most of his defensive damage.

This is clearly a variant of Lineup A–if we take out Kiermaier or Loney, then Beckham would be back in the game and would be playing shortstop over Forsythe. With that in mind, it is hard to believe that Forsythe will be playing shortstop very much. Even so, this is the type of lineup we could expect the Rays to use at least two or three times in 2015.

If you were wondering after Lineup D how I was going to come up with six more lineups, now you have your answer. Once we add in lineups featuring both Wilson and Rivera, we have even more permutations to talk about.

It is worth noting that you won’t see any lineups with Wilson and not Rivera because it would always be inferior to one with Rivera at catcher and therefore fail to meet the definition of a starting defensive alignment. Also, you can replace Wilson with Casali in each of these lineups and the logic would be basically the same.

This lineup in particular is interesting for a variety of reasons. The first is something I didn’t realize until I was writing this piece: Rene Rivera is the second-most experienced major league first baseman on the Rays with a grand total of three games at the position. He also has 34 minor league games, third to Loney and Souza.

That doesn’t have any practical meaning as Forsythe will probably be ahead of Rivera by the time the season ends. Rodriguez also entered 2013 with just 8 games at first base before appearing in 41 games there the last two years. Forsythe will hope to follow that same pattern. Even so, Rivera could receive a couple of starts at first base before the year is through.

The more important fact in this case is just how good of a platoon bat Rene Rivera is against left-handed pitching. Bobby Wilson will start against left-handed pitching for a disproportionate amount of his games because there is reason to believe that he can be at least a halfway-decent hitter against them. Just because Rivera isn’t starting at catcher, though, does not mean he should be on the bench every time.

In 2014 for the San Diego Padres, Rivera had a .280/.351/.530 line versus left-handed pitching, leading to an sOPS+ 47% above league average. We are only talking about 111 plate appearances here, but even if Rivera regresses to a certain extent, he will still likely be better than Forsythe and Tim Beckham.

With that in mind, it makes sense for the Rays to play Rivera against right-handed pitching even when he isn’t catching. He does obviously need to get some days off, but the Rays have better-quality options against right-handed pitching and it makes more sense for him to get his full days off in those games.

One flaw with this lineup is that all nine Rays hitters would be right-handed. That goes against conventional baseball wisdom, which states that it’s important to have at least one same-side batter in the lineup to give the opposing pitcher more than one look. Of course, conventional baseball thought isn’t always right and the Rays did have four lineups last season that consisted of all righty batters. We will get to lineups later on, though, that fix this problem.

This is the same as the preceding lineup, only with Forsythe at first and Rivera at DH. The logic here is pretty straightforward–if Rivera is playing but not catching, he deserves to rest as much as possible by playing DH.

This lineup corrects for the issue of having all right-handed batters and acknowledges a pretty simple fact: Rivera is a better platoon bat than Forsythe. Especially if Wilson is starting at catcher no matter what, Loney’s improved defense and left-handedness may be enough to warrant starting him over Forsythe. Especially if Loney is hitting lefties decently anyway, the Rays could find themselves using this alignment a handful of times.

If you’re using a flyball pitcher, maybe it makes sense to have both Rivera and Forsythe on the field. In that case, though, this lineup probably doesn’t work as well as Lineup I.

Lineup H does have a case–maybe Loney is hitting lefties much better than Kiermaier–but it would be strange if the Rays were willing to put Forsythe in because say Odorizzi was on the mound but left out their best outfield defender in Kiermaier. It’s difficult to see the Rays starting Rivera at first base more than a couple of times all year, but this lineup does look solid offensively with enough defense to be fine.

Finally, we have this lineup, which would provide a solid offense-defense balance even if say Alex Cobb was pitching. The issue is still the need for Rivera at first base (any chance Guyer can play there?), but if Kiermaier was hitting lefties decently enough, the Rays could use this lineup at least once or twice.

Now you’ve made it to quite possibly the most interesting part of all of this: how often we could expect each lineup to be used and what it would say about everyone’s playing time. We said above that the Tampa Bay Rays have faced an average of 50.6 left-handers per season the last five years, so let’s say that they are going to face 51 lefties in 2015.

After looking at all the lineups, the three arrangements that will be used far more than the rest are Lineups A, B, and C. James Loney and Kevin Kiermaier have enough of a track record hitting lefties and–especially in the case of Kiermaier–delivering great defense that they will receive plenty of chances to play against them. Tim Beckham, meanwhile, looks like the best combination of offense and defense at shortstop that the Rays have versus left-handers.

After some fiddling around, the Rays’ may be best off using Lineup A 16 times, Lineup B 12 times, and Lineup C 10 times. They will most commonly play both Loney and Kiermaier, but Kiermaier could see a shade more time because of his defense, at least when Rivera is behind the plate. When only one of Loney and Kiermaier is playing, the Rays will occasionally sub in Nick Franklin for Beckham. Let’s say that he appears in three times each with the rest of Lineups B and C.

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From there, the next most common lineups look like Lineups F and G. Rivera will play alongside Bobby Wilson a decent amount, especially in those cases, when he will have the opportunity to DH. Let’s say that the Rays will use F four times and G three times. That would leave four games where Logan Forsythe would play shortstop (Lineup D twice, Lineups H and I once each) and three where Rivera would play first base (Lineups E, I, and J once each). Franklin would also sub in for Beckham once in Lineup F.

If the Rays used their lineups that amount of times, Loney would start 32 games against lefties and Kiermaier would play 32 as well. That number be a shade over 60% of the Rays’ games against lefties, which sounds about right for both of them. Kiermaier’s defense is better, but the Rays believe a little bit more in Loney’s ability to hit same-side pitchers.

In terms of the middle infielders, Beckham would play 40 times against lefties, Forsythe would play 31 times (16 at 1B, 11 at DH, 4 at SS), and Franklin would play 7 times. That would obviously be subject to change–it would all depend on how much Beckham hits. If he struggles, the Rays could start using Forsythe a lot more often whenever Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, or Alex Colome (all flyball pitchers) are on the mound.

The most interesting aspect of all of this, though, may be the look at the catching situation. We have already accounted for 11 games for Wilson, and it could be reasonable for him to play 13 of the other 40 because of just how bad he is against right-handed pitching.

Of the remaining 111 contests, meanwhile, Rivera could make 78 starts versus just 33 for Wilson. That would mean 105 starts total for Rivera at catcher plus 11 more at DH and first base. He has averaged 113 games between the majors and minors the last three years, and while not all of them were starts, it is realistic to expect him to start at least 100 games at catcher this season. He wouldn’t be a true starting catcher, but he would be as close to it as the Rays have seen in a long time.

It’s also worth noting that Curt Casali or Luke Maile will be ready at some point in the year. Whenever that is, the Rays could decide to designate Wilson for assignment and then play the new guy a little bit more to ensure that Rivera’s workload doesn’t get so crazy. But Rivera wants to play as often as possible and has a clean injury history. If he hits–and the standard is not is not so high for “hitting”–he will play a lot.

This has been as free-flowing of an article as I’ve written in a while, but it is finally time to wrap it up. The bottom line is that Kevin Cash has a lot of work ahead of him as he hopes to figure out which defensive alignments to use against left-handed pitching, and he will constantly need to make adjustments depending on how everyone is hitting. At the end of the year, we will have to take a look at which lineups he decided to use and how often he utilized them.

Next: Joey Butler's Clutch Hits Not Enough in Rays' Spring Opener