I love a manager who isn't afraid to think outside the box. In an era when most managers are essentially interchangeable with their styles, Joe Maddon is one guy willing to try different things -- whether it's using Ben Zobrist as a multi-position star or a catcher hitting leadoff or Felipe Lopez batting cleanup (OK, that one didn't work so well).
Over the weekend, Maddon batted Evan Longoria leadoff in three straight games. While it was a tactic used as much to perhaps shake Longoria out of a little slump, it was also an attempt to get the Rays some production from the leadoff spot. Entering Tuesday, Tampa Bay leadoff hitters -- mostly Sam Fuld -- were hitting just .223 with a .289 on-base percentage. Maddon was desperate for somebody to get on base. But how many managers would use their best hitter (apologies to Matt Joyce) in the leadoff spot?
Anyway, Longoria was back in the cleanup spot Tuesday night (Zobrist hit leadoff) and delivered the game-winning two-run home run off Arthur Rhodes in the bottom of the eighth to give Tampa a 5-4 victory. The towering shot barely cleared the fence, just enough to give the Rays only their sixth win in the past 16 games.
"We haven't really been playing the best baseball, but we have to find a way to win," Longoria said after the game. The Rays won despite walking five batters and committing two errors, including one from Longoria. But a win is a win. "As Joe says," Longoria added, "there is no such thing as an ugly win."
It's that attitude that allows Maddon to make decisions like hitting Longoria leadoff. There are still many managers who just put their fastest guy in the No. 1 spot ... no matter his actual ability to getting on base. Take Dusty Baker, for example. He's managed 17 years in the major leagues and only twice have his leadoff hitters produced an on-base percentage above .350 -- in 1998 (Darryl Hamilton and Marvin Benard) and 1999 (Benard). In 11 of those 17 seasons, his leadoff guys have produced on OBP below .330. Dusty just picks a fast guy and make him the leadoff hitter. (Even now with the Reds, the fact that Drew Stubbs has power is just a bonus. Stubbs is also the fastest guy on the team.)
What I'd like to see are more cases in which a manager tries the unconventional when he lacks the conventional leadoff hitter. A few examples:
Brian Downing, 1982 Angels: Downing was a former catcher turned bulked-up left fielder. Gene Mauch hit Downing leadoff because he got on base, and even though he had just two stolen bases, Downing scored 109 runs and the Angels won a division title.
Wade Boggs, 1986 Red Sox: Boggs didn't hit leadoff the entire season, but led the team in games batting leadoff and was in that spot in the order in the playoffs. In 1988 and '89, he hit leadoff most of the time and -- despite his notorious lack of speed -- led the AL in runs scored both seasons.
1950s Yankees: Casey Stengel never really had a regular leadoff, often using guys without much speed in the spot. But he used guys who got on base, mixing and matching based on the opposing starter. In the 1951 World Series, he used four different leadoff hitters (including a rookie Mickey Mantle twice); in 1952, three different guys; in 1953, two; in 1955, five.
Akinora Iwamura, 2008 Rays: Maddon had three guys with more speed than Iwamura -- Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett -- but he stuck with Iwamura in the No. 1 spot. He drew 70 walks and led the team in runs scored.
Pete Rose, 1975 and 1976 Reds: Sparky Anderson had two prototypical leadoff hitters in Joe Morgan and Ken Griffey Sr., but he wanted Morgan's bat in the middle of the order and the speedy Griffey in the No. 2 hole. So Rose hit leadoff every game in 1975, posted a .406 OBP and scored 112 runs -- without stealing a single base. In '76, he posted a .404 OBP and scored 130 runs. The Reds won the World Series both years.