If there’s one thing about Bob Melvin that I thought I could count on this year, it would be relative predictability. My impression of Melvin has always been that he’s a fairly conservative manager when it comes to in-game decisions, and that his thinking was also influenced by the A’s front office. What I mean is that he doesn’t steal or bunt overly aggressively so as to lose runs, and he doesn’t shy away from platooning when it benefits the team. So far that philosophy has played out in some respects. The A’s were the last team in the league to even attempt a stolen base, and so far on the year they’re 2/2 as a team. Billy Hamilton is blowing them away. However, there is one notable exception to this philosophy; the playing time of Rule 5 rookie Mark Canha. Take a look at what I wrote in my season preview for the A’s:
The A’s are pretty good about optimizing batting order, but will very frequently tinker in order to give guys rest, to the point that they only had the same lineup two days in a row twice last year. Melvin will occasionally keep a guy in a spot he’s comfortable, such as he did with Yoenis Cespedes, but aside from that expect a well run lineup card with frequent switches for day offs.
That hasn’t gone to plan. So far this year Canha, who got off to a sizzling start that saw his OPS jump to 1.357 after three games, has seen a crazy amount of consistency compared to previous years. Canha’s first game was April 8th, 2005. In that game, he batted fifth, and faced lefty Ross Detwiler of the Rangers. Nothing atypical there; Canha was brought in to face lefties. Canha went 3/5 with two doubles and the A’s won 10-0. Then the next day, surprisingly, Canha got the start against righty Nick Martinez, albeit in the 7 spot. This one went a little more predictably; he went 1/4, though he did have some hard hit outs. The A’s lost that game 10-1. Then, inexplicably, Melvin decided to give Canha the 2 spot in the batting order against righty Taijuan Walker. Canha had a great game, to everyone’s surprise. He went 3/5 with his first major league home run, and the A’s won 12-0. Ever since then, Canha has hit in the 2 spot every single game.
His production has suffered there, too. In the games since that magical outburst in Seattle, he’s gone 5/27 with just one walk and seven strikeouts, only facing one lefty along the way (J.A Happ, Canha went 1/6 and the A’s lost 5-4). Melvin, nonetheless, has decided to stick with his young rule 5 slugger. This isn’t for lack of other hitters either; even Friday Night against the Royals, Canha batted in front of both lefties Ike Davis and Stephen Vogt, who are having impressive starts themselves (OPS’s of .995 and .882 respectively). So what’s the big deal, though? Why does it matter that Canha is playing full time and batting second?
The reason I find this fascinating is that it’s very atypical for Bob Melvin. Using the Play Index from Baseball Reference, I found that Melvin had very little consistency in the 2 hole last year. While Canha has played more than half of all A’sl games so far on the season for the A’s in the 2 hole, the A’s didn’t come close to a stretch like that in 2014 from a righty. The closest thing to a mainstay last year batting second was Jed Lowrie, and even he logged just 195 plate appearances there, and he’s a switch hitter. After that John Jaso came in with 194, but then you quickly drop to the double digits as Sam Fuld was third with 84 and it goes down from there. What’s different about this year with Canha?
Could it be that Melvin didn’t have a guy like Canha last year to plug in that spot? I don’t think so. Alberto Callaspo had basically the same start in 2014 that Canha did in 2015; after his first three starts he had an OPS of 1.332 with a home run. In the ensuing five games, Callaspo started each one and battted sixth, while Melvin fuddled around with Lowrie and Jaso in the two spot, who had middling production there. Callaspo didn’t see a single game there. It’s worth noting that Callaspo is also a switch hitter, so the comparison isn’t completely fair, but you can make a similar argument for righty Derek Norris, who also started off strong and never batted second.
So why do I care about the 2 spot so much? My thinking going into the year was that a lot of Melvin’s decisions were at least somewhat sabermetrically inclined. The Book, a seminal Sabermetric guide, has always held that the 2 slot is one of the most important positions in the lineup, behind perhaps only leadoff and cleanup. The 2 hole tends to come up frequently for run producing opportunities, and isn’t a throwaway spot. This is a position that should be maximized given all opportunity. Melvin showed last year that he was trying do to that, but it seems so far this year that he’s gone with a hot hand approach. While Melvin does occasionally stick with guys who are producing, in the past he’s very rarely rewarded such people with a premium batting order slot.
So what makes Mark Canha so special? I can’t answer that, unfortunately. He’s looked good, sure, but a decision to go by the eyes is a notable change for Bob Melvin. Only time will tell if Melvin is changing his philosophy for good, or if this is just a bit of a fluke in a two week sample size.
(Canha image via Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Next post: This Week in “Banished”: April 19, 2015
Previous post: Write-Up For Yesterday: April 16th, 2015 (and a weekend preview!)