Forysthe Leading Off Full-Time
Earlier this morning, Neil Solondz reported that Kevin Cash has said Logan Forsythe will be leading off full-time in 2016. Forsythe batted mostly in the middle of the lineup in 2015 with 503 of his 615 plate appearances coming out of the 4th or 5th spot in the lineup. It is not often a team moves someone from the middle of the lineup to the top of the lineup on a full-time basis. Joe Maddon liked to do it for a game or two to reset a player’s focus at the plate, but this is a full-time promotion. Let’s take a look at the process behind the decision.
Forsythe, for his career, has spent little time hitting leadoff in a lineup as he has just 100 career plate appearances in that spot, 13 of which have come during his time with the Rays. The .283 wOBA is nothing to write home about, but most of those at bats came in 2013 when he was dealing with plantar fasciitis for a good chunk of the season. In 2012, he spent a considerable amount of time hitting second for San Diego (.301 wOBA). In all, Forstyhe has fewer than 400 plate appearances in his career while hitting high in the lineup, and those results (.297 wOBA) do not exactly scream hidden value. However, what those high levels do not show is revealed by a deeper dive into the skills.
One of the things that has been noticeable in watching Forsythe as a Ray is that he’s a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde at the plate. As Dr. Jeckyll, Forsythe comes to the plate with nobody on base or a runner at first and is able to keep the offensive train moving down the track. As Mr. Hyde, Forsythe comes to the plate and mysteriously turns into a less desirable hitter that often stalls the offense. The trend began in San Diego, but has continued with Tampa Bay (data from 2013-2015):
The league-average wOBA in the first split is .325 and Forsythe’s performance is 3% above the league average whereas Forsythe’s .264 wOBA with runners in scoring position in recent seasons has been 20% below the league average. In short, Forsythe has been the antithesis of Allen Craig. Craig quickly gained a reputation with his ability to hit with runners in scoring position and enjoyed a two-year stretch from 2012 to 2013 where he batted over .400 in those situations and drove in many runners. As quickly as that success came for Craig, it went away and now he’s trying to hang onto the major leagues in Boston.
The stability of one’s performance with or without runners in scoring position is anything but stable, but the fact remains that Forsythe’s at bats look different when he’s asked to drive runners in. To date, he has shown a tendency to expand his strike zone, make less contact and thus put fewer pitches into play, and see fewer pitches during those at bats. If we isolate Forsythe’s numbers to only what he’s done with Tampa Bay, there is marginal improvement, but still a noticeable difference in the tendencies. Forsythe’s wOBA becomes 6% better than the league average in the first split but is still 15% below the league average in the second split.
Despite the differences, the fact remains Forsythe is one of the best hitters on the roster. To date, he has proven to be ill-suited for the middle of the lineup, which means moving him up or down. Moving one of your best batters down in the lineup makes zero sense because batters lose roughly 18 plate appearances over the course of a season the further you move them down the lineup. The other issue with Forsythe is moving him down the lineup does not necessarily take him out of the situations in which he has struggled in recent seasons.
According to research in The Book, a team should have their three best batters bat 1st, 2nd, or 4th in the lineup. Ignoring the fact Evan Longoria batting 3rd, the team clearly views Forsythe as one of its three best hitters. They’ve tried batting him 4th and the offense suffered from it. The Book also shows us how frequently the 1st spot in the lineup comes to the plate with men on base:
Batting Forsythe 2nd would be an option if Cash did not care about Right-Left balance in the lineup, or if he thought Kevin Kiermaier was a better option to lead off. If we compare Forsythe and Kiermaier’s numbers over the past two seasons in situations where they come to the plate with nobody on base or just a runner on first, the decision for Cash appears rather straightforward:
Kiermaier’s aggressive and free swinging approach is ill-suited for the leadoff spot and placing Forsythe in the leadoff spot allows Cash to use a balanced lineup that may look like the one below come this time next Sunday:
#Rays lineup: Forsythe 2B, Morrison 1B, Longoria 3B, Dickerson DH, Jennings LF, Miller SS, Souza RF, Kiermaier CF, Casali C – RHP Carpenter
— Neil Solondz (@neilsolondz) March 27, 2016