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Alex Cora needs to better optimize this lineup

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Put the best hitters closer to the top of the lineup.

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Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

I’m not going to blow anyone’s mind when I say that the Red Sox have a multitude of issues at the moment. Not every area is consistency underperforming in each and every game, but every area of the roster has had their games in which they were chiefly to blame for that day’s loss. And as a fan, there are a lot of different places where your anger will typically go in a situation like this, whether it be the bats or the bullpen or the umpires or the baseball gods. One of the most common punching bags can be the construction of the lineup, and generally speaking that criticism is overblown.

But just because it’s usually overblown, and just because it’s usually not the biggest factor for a team’s downfall (and it’s not in this case either, to be clear) does not mean it is not worth examining. Yes, beyond egregious mistakes like putting your best hitter in the bottom third of a lineup or something, lineup mismanagement doesn’t make a huge impact on a team over a large sample. But failing to optimize the batting order can make big differences in individual games, and with the Red Sox in the kind of postseason fight that will likely come down to marginal differences and a game or two of space between postseason participants and October golfers, these little things are super important.

Alex Cora’s lineups have been a source of frustration for many all season long, but it was easier to ignore when the team was still winning. The team is no longer winning, and these decisions are justifiably coming under a bigger microscope. (Is that how microscopes work? I sucked at biology.) And for me, the specific issue right now lies in how the second spot in the lineup is being managed.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Generally speaking, the numbers show that the second spot in the lineup is the most important and should almost always go to the best hitter on the roster. Different things can change that — a best hitter might be an on-base god with little power, so they’d make a bit more sense in the leadoff spot; or perhaps a hitter doesn’t feel comfortable that high in the lineup — but generally that is the case.

It’s more complex than I can fit in one sentence, but the basic premise is that the hitter gets nearly the maximum number of plate appearances possible in a game, and also have the chance to hit with a runner on base in every at bat. And essentially, that’s what you’re looking to do when you build a lineup. You want your best hitters to hit as often as possible, and you want them to have traffic on the bases as often as possible. And then you build out from there.

The Red Sox have not been doing that this year. The leadoff spot got most of the consternation early in the season, and to Cora’s credit his decision to stick with Kiké Hernández is working out, as the utility man has been quite good in that spot for a couple of months now. But the second spot is even more important, and they’ve mostly run with Alex Verdugo there, who has been fine but only a little better than average this year with a 109 wRC+. They’ve switched things up more recently, turning occasionally to Rafael Devers, who is perhaps the best hitter in the lineup, and also Jarren Duran, a talented but inexperienced hitter facing major-league pitching, and Hunter Renfroe, a notoriously streaky batter.

It’s just not how you want to optimize a lineup, and that fact is reflected in the numbers. Baseball-Reference’s Stathead tool allows us to sort team leaderboards by various splits, including by batting order spots. Looking at that data, Boston is not getting the production from the two spot you’d expect from a team that ostensibly relies more on its offense than its pitching. By straight OPS, they rank 19th in all of baseball hitting out of the two-spot.

Baseball-Reference also has a stat called tOPS+, which compares a split of either a team or an individual player to that team’s or individual player’s overall line. A mark over 100 means they are better in that split than normal, while a mark below suggests the opposite. Given that the two spot is the most important in the lineup, you’d surely expect that number to be in the triple digits, and it is for 22 of MLB’s 30 teams. It is not for the Red Sox, who have a tOPS+ of 97, which ranks 25th in all of baseball.

And as I said above, while slightly mismanaging a lineup doesn’t have a huge effect over a large sample, it can affect individual games. We saw it in both ends of Tuesday’s doubleheader. In the final at bat of the first game, with the Red Sox trailing by two and the bases full, it was Renfroe coming up with two outs. He struck out to end the game with the only three players not getting an at bat in that inning being Xander Bogaerts, Devers, and J.D. Martinez. In the second game, Verdugo hit second and had a chance with runners on the corners and one out in the fifth, Boston trailing by two. He couldn’t get the ball deep enough to get the run home. In the final inning, the top of the order was leading off, but of the big three above — Bogaerts, Devers, and Martinez — only Bogaerts got a chance to hit.

This stuff simply cannot happen. Hernández hitting leadoff is one thing, but when he and another of the non-big-three batters are getting the most at bats in a game, it’s just missing opportunities. Earlier in the season, there may have been an argument for wanting those bigger bats later to balance out the group. It’s not an argument I’d have made, but it was there. Kyle Scwharber can fill that role now. The lineup is deeper.

There is no reason for the big three to not be the two, three, four hitters in every single lineup the rest of the way. Boston is in a race where differences on the margins are going to change the course of this race. Cora has stuck to his guns all season, but the simple fact is he’s making things harder on his lineup than they need to be. This small fix isn’t going to turn the fortunes of the team on its own, but it’s a step in that direction. Those steps are exactly what this team should be looking for.