Sunday, April 7, 2019

In the Starters vs. Bench Debate, AJ Hinch Has a Clear Preference...so far.

How much should baseball players play?  This is a seemingly simple question, but, in reality, it is often difficult to answer successfully.

One one hand, baseball teams should want their best players to play the most. On a daily basis, a team has the best chance to win when its best players are in the lineup. But managers must balance that imperative against the fact that your reserves need regular work to stay sharp, and starters need occasional rest to perform at their best.

This question has come to the fore in the early part of the season for the Astros. The decision by AJ Hinch to start Aledmys Diaz today at 1B led to the entire Astros beat writing articles explaining the crunch for playing time among the Astros bench players.

Diaz had not played since the final game of the Tampa Bay series. Tyler White has not been in the last three lineups written out by AJ Hinch. Tony Kemp started 2 games in the Oakland series, but only one in Arlington. Jake Marisnick started only 1 game in both the Arlington and Oakland series.

There are two key factors driving this crunch for playing time, both which are, on the whole, positive for the Astros.

The first is health. Since Correa returned in Game 4 from his neck strain, the Astros have had a full set of position players to rely on. The Astros have no position players on the IL (note the contrast with the Yankees when the two meet this week at Minute Maid Park).  Bench players get to fill in when a regular is on the shelf, but that avenue has not been available.

Of course, this is a plus for the Astros. Getting to write Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Brantly, Correa, and Gurriel in the lineup each day should give AJ, and the rest of us, a great deal of confidence that the team can, for example, score 9 runs if the other guys score 8.

The second factor driving the crunch for playing time is that AJ seems very content to play his top six and put them in the top 6 spots in he lineup. The six names I listed in the paragraph above appeared in the top six spots in the lineup 5 straight games earlier this week. The only wrinkle was on Saturday, when Springer served as the DH with Marisnick in CF.

The five straight games with the same lineup is a potential signal that AJ will be putting those six in the top six spots in the lineup a lot. This seems, to me at least, a departure from previous seasons, when AJ was much more diligent about getting his starters rest. Of course, in previous years, AJ used his rest for his regulars as a way to get Marwin Gonzalez enough plate appearances to feel like a regular, even if he lacked a set position. AJ may have less faith in players like Diaz, White, and Kemp than he did Marwin.  Understandable.

The top six in the lineup then are our top six hitters. AJ's commitment to this lineup is a commitment to playing our best players and increasing our chances of winning each day. This represents a change from the previous seasons, and one that should be regarded as a positive one.

But the commitment might not be a long-lasting one. AJ said today in his pre-game press conference, "I haven't played out bench enough." This means AJ is focused on providing more opportunities for guys like Kemp, Diaz, and Marisnick.  But AJ still sounds conflicted. In the next sentence, he said "It’s easy to say play your bench until you realize who you’re taking out of the lineup.”

All of this shows the tightwalk that AJ must reach. He both needs to keep his regulars going, while at the same time proving opportunities for his bench to stay sharp. So far, the conflict is being won by the regulars, and those on the beach are scrambling for something that works. While this balance might change over time, right now, there is a clear winner.


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