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When being right is oh, so wrong

The Orioles sent in their "White Flag" lineup last night to combat Tampa Bay's soft-tossing lefty Mark Hendrickson:

Orioles' starting lineup, July 6, 2004
Player Pos Bats 2004 OPS
v. LHP
Brian Roberts DH S .633
Jerry Hairston 2B R .975
Miguel Tejada SS R 1.084
Javy López C R .879
Rafael Palmeiro 1B L .508
Luis Matos CF R .485
Chad Mottola LF R 1.333
Luis López 3B S .774
Tim Raines Jr. RF S .750

(OPS figures were from before last night's game. By the end of the game, all of those numbers had dropped except the Lópezes'.)

Waiting for Righty...

By enlisting only one left-handed batter in Palmeiro, manager Lee Mazzilli went to drastic lengths to get the platoon advantage against the tall southpaw Hendrickson. And perhaps drastic measures were justified, because going into the game his team was 9-16 (.360) in games against left-handed starters. That mark would drop to 9-17 by evening's end, although the Orioles nearly pulled off a ninth-inning rally against right-handed closer Danys Báez that could have tied or won the game.

The lineup evoked the Orioles' 1997 playoff games against Seattle's Randy Johnson, in which Davey Johnson started eight right-handed hitters, including Jerome Walton in place of Palmeiro at first base and Jeff Reboulet instead of Roberto Alomar at second. That lineup beat the Mariners twice, 9-3 and 2-1, on the strength of homers by Reboulet and Gerónimo Berroa and the pitching of Mike Mussina. Sitting Palmeiro and Alomar was a gutsy tactic, but it fit the extreme circumstances of facing the game's nastiest left-handed pitcher.

But while Hendrickson, at 6'9", is tough for lefty hitters to read, he's no Randy Johnson. His fastball clocks in the middle to high 80s, and he has no out pitch that compares to the Big Unit's slider. Nor does he change speeds as cleverly as, say, Jamie Moyer. But he was crafty enough to shut out Baltimore for eight innings last night in the Devil Rays' 3-1 win.

...Or is that Mr. Right?

More to the point is that last night's neutered lineup, while more right-handed than usual, still had enough holes to give the Orioles scant chance of beating any team, including the punchless Devil Rays. The main problem with last night's lineup—and, for that matter, Baltimore's overall hitting depth—is an anemic lack of power against lefties. Collectively, the Orioles are slugging .379 against left-handed pitching and getting on base at a run-conserving .315 pace. Those figures both rank next to last in the league, ahead of only Kansas City, and contrast with the Birds' respectable .441 SLG and .362 OBP (6th and 1st) against right-handers.

As mentioned before, the Orioles have been lame ducks against left-handed pitchers all year, and the biggest culprits have been Palmeiro, Matos, Larry Bigbie (.471 OPS v. LHP), and the injury-ridden Jay Gibbons (.563). Gibbons's ailing hip and back explain his miserable numbers, but the sheer impotency of the other three has had a crippling effect on the offense. Among regulars, only Hairston, Tejada, Javy López, and Melvin Mora (.860) have hurt lefties this season, and Mora is on the disabled list.

Although a few faces changed in the starting lineup last night, there was little in the numbers to suggest that the hitting story would improve. Last night's starting outfield of Mottola, Matos, and Raines would be mediocre for a Triple-A team, let alone a major-league squad. Roberts has no business being the DH in an already handicapped lineup. He has been unproductive enough over the last three months that his spot in the lineup should no longer be secure; Hairston deserves more starts at second base and in the leadoff spot. Light-hitting Luis López is best used sparingly.

Hit 'em with your best shot

What are the alternatives? Left-handed hitting David Newhan (.979 in 20-odd plate appearances) has eaten up lefties in his brief stint with the O's. Although it's too early to tell if he can continue that performance, the way he's been hitting, he should have every opportunity to show that he can't hit them. Games against left-handed starters are also good times to use a backup catcher and play Javy López at DH or first base. The return of B.J. Surhoff from the DL would represent a marginal gain, as he would likely replace Mottola or Raines. Last night's pickup of catcher Ken Huckaby, who has a career .670 OPS in Triple-A, gives Mazzilli some flexibility with Javy but does no favors for the offense; Huckaby looks for all the world like the second coming of Keith Osik.

And what are the O's doing with thirteen pitchers on their active roster? It's true that Friday's marathon and Monday's doubleheader taxed the pitching staff, but they sapped the position players as well. Having just twelve active position players severely restricted Mazzilli's ability to construct an effective lineup against Hendrickson, and of course it also limited his late-inning pinch-hitting options.

If the Orioles elect to mine their Ottawa affiliate for offensive help, they will find few attractive right-handed hitting options. The obvious one is corner infielder José León (.331/.395/.719), who has gone back to socking the ball like a madman in his return to the International League. Among left-handed Lynx batters, outfielder Pedro Swann (.281/.348/.477) has been slumping but still has good overall numbers, and DH Jack Cust (.254/.358/.425) and second baseman Mike Fontenot (.273/.316/.425) are finally coming around at the plate after their atrocious starts.

Going, going...can you wave him bye-bye?

The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin, the Sun's Joe Christensen, and MLB.com's Gary Washburn used yesterday's loss to focus on Palmeiro's failings at the plate this year against lefties. Is this the end of the line for Raffy? He's clearly not the hitter that he was, most notably against southpaws, but he's still holding up against righties (.862 OPS).

It's possible that his skills have finally taken that climactic plunge into a nether realm from which even the healing powers of Viagra cannot rescue him. But Palmeiro doesn't sense that anything is wrong physically, so the problem is likely mechanical or mental in nature and therefore correctable. If he fixes it, he should have enough left in the tank to bring his numbers up to respectable levels. Still, his string of 30-homer seasons is in serious jeopardy, and if he doesn't turn things around he may not remain in the majors long enough to notch his 3,000th hit.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 7, 2004 12:52 PM.

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