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White Sox get a refresher course in lineup construction

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For the second time in three years, Blue Jays show value of batting the best hitter second

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

On one hand, the headline of the recap for Tuesday's game -- "A new way to lose" -- is accurate. Before David Robertson's collapse in Toronto, the White Sox were 12-0 after eight innings, and 16-0 after nine innings, so that's a first for 2015.

On the other, we've seen this loss before -- to the same opponent, and because of a specific aspect of the way said opponent operates.

Back on June 11, 2013, the Sox led the Blue Jays 5-4 with two outs in the ninth inning. Then Addison Reed hung a 1-2 slider to Jose Bautista, and Bautista did this:

That pushed the game to extra innings, when, to make a long story short, Ramon Troncoso helped the White Sox get Carlos Rodon.

It's not surprising that Bautista, who has led the league in homers twice, would come through in the ninth inning. On that day, though, Bautista hit that homer while batting second for the Jays.

That particular detail made that White Sox loss weirdly satisfying, because Hawk Harrelson devoted a good chunk of the first inning to knocking the Blue Jays for batting Bautista in the No. 2 spot. Steve Stone presented the idea -- Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos wants his best hitter batting second, because the numbers support it -- and Harrelson descended into condescension, saying Anthopoulos didn't understand this aspect of baseball, that Bautista was compromised by having to take on the traditional duties of a No. 2 hitter, blah barf blah.

Of course, John Gibbons' lineup card was validated when Bautista came to the plate with two outs in the ninth, rather than standing on deck and hoping a lesser hitter would extend the game to get Bautista involved. As a White Sox fan, the homer was a crushing blow. As somebody who likes reasoned-base strategical exploration, I did relish it a little.

Star-divide

On Tuesday, Bautista was batting in third, which Harrelson and Stone believed to be his rightful position.

But that's because Josh Donaldson batted second.

If Harrelson had traveled with the Sox on this road trip, you might've heard the same comments. Donaldson rolled into Tuesday hitting .300/.363/.533 with 10 homers, including a 469-footer back in April. He's hit 53 homers over his two full seasons, and he's only executed one sacrifice bunt. He's not somebody who goes to the plate trying to fulfill the "job to do."

The Blue Jays benefited handsomely from his swinging away. He went 4-for-4 with two homers, a double, a walk, four RBIs and five runs scored, including the game-winning two-run homer off Robertson.

Batting Donaldson second posed a big problem for the White Sox closer after he gave up a pair of doubles to ninth-hitting Josh Thole and leadoff man Jose Reyes. A traditional lineup construction would've given Robertson chance to get his footing against a worse hitter and gird his loins for a gnarly 3-4-5 of Donaldson, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

But nope. With Gibbons' lineup, that 3-4-5 is a 2-3-4. Robertson had no respite, and he had no good choice. Hindsight says that maybe he should've pitched around Donaldson, but without explicit knowledge of future events, an intentional walk just makes it more likely that the winning run would've scored. Run expectancy:

  • Man on second, nobody out: 1.08 runs
  • Men on first and second, nobody out: 1.45 runs

That's why it made sense for Robertson (with Robin Ventura's blessing) to go at Donaldson. It just didn't work out. The other way didn't work out earlier in the game, when John Danks walked Donaldson only to give up a two-run double to Bautista.

That was a painful, painful inning, and since Chuck Swirsky is sitting in for Harrelson, I'm guessing we can't even take pleasure in some defeated hubris (I had the Toronto feed on Tuesday, so correct me if I'm wrong).

What we do have is another example of why I wish Ventura would be more adventurous with the top of the order.  The White Sox are getting the league's worst production out of the second spot (.283 OBP, .281 slugging percentage), and they're no strangers to substandard offense there. Melky Cabrera is starting to get some of his BABIP back with the world's softest singles this week, but if that's a Rogers Centre mirage, it'd be cool to emulate Toronto and cut out the fat before the thump.

Ventura has options. Want an on-base guy? Slot Adam LaRoche there. Rather have a guy with some speed and an opposite-field approach? There's Avisail Garcia. Or, just want the best hitter to get as many chances as possible? Abreu. It might be a little weird the first time through, but when the late innings roll around, there's nothing strange about having as few obstacles in front of the best hitters.