Cronenworth should hit third ... and here's why

February 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell's Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- I don't make the lineups -- that's manager Mike Shildt's purview. I'm also aware that lineup construction, in general, is probably overrated.

But -- I don't know -- there's just something romantic to me about the lineup. I spend more time thinking about it (and writing about it) than other topics that are probably more relevant to wins and losses.

Which brings me to the point of today’s newsletter. I'm here to convince you that should hit third.

Probably not a popular take, especially in a lineup that features four hitters who were better offensively than Cronenworth last year and another, Luis Campusano, who would've been, if he qualified. (I'll preface my argument by noting that I'm talking mainly about lineups against right-handers.)

Here’s the crux of it: This offense is too righty-heavy. When the Padres traded Juan Soto and Trent Grisham to New York, it left Cronenworth as the only returning left-handed-hitting starter. Their five best returning hitters based on wRC+ -- Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Ha-Seong Kim and Campusano -- all bat right-handed.

Generally, of course, you'd want your best hitters as close to the top of the lineup as possible. But there's a downside to stacking those righties together. Late in a game, an opposing manager can fire his top righty reliever at that group. There's no lefty hitter to break it up.

Enter Cronenworth. If he were to hit with two fearsome righties on either side of him, he'd almost never face a left-hander late in a game. With an always-favorable matchup, Cronenworth goes from a league-average hitter to a well-above-average hitter, a player with a career .770 OPS against righties.

On the off chance an opposing manager uses a lefty with two outs and Cronenworth at the plate? Well, he's not terrible against lefties (.703 OPS), and if he works his way on base, you've got some pretty fearsome righties due up with a matchup advantage.

OK, let's pause for a moment. I can hear your argument against it. If Cronenworth hits third, it means fewer at-bats for, say, Machado and Kim.

Here's where it's important to recognize what the No. 3 hitter actually does. It's not exactly the RBI spot it's cracked up to be. The numbers show there's no place in the lineup that comes to the plate with two outs and the bases empty more often.

You'd rather have Cronenworth in that spot, working his way on base, and setting the table for Machado in the No. 4 spot, the top RBI spot in the lineup. Not to mention, even in a down year, Cronenworth had a higher on-base percentage against righties (.316) than both Machado (.301) and Tatis (.303) -- the primary candidates for the cleanup spot. Let Cronenworth get on base. Let them drive him in.

Some other benefits:

  • Although the Padres are short on lefties, it's possible they'd stack a few at the bottom of their lineup. Perhaps Jackson Merrill and Jakob Marsee. The farther Cronenworth hits from that group, the harder it’ll be for opposing managers to maximize their lefty relievers.
  • The Padres really need a bounceback season from Cronenworth, and what better way to get him jumpstarted in that direction than by giving him favorable matchups?
  • If the goal is to keep the rally alive for the bopper in the cleanup spot, Cronenworth is sneaky excellent at avoiding double plays.

Here’s the short version: Cronenworth's presence at No. 3 breaks up the righties, gives the Padres more favorable matchups, and it puts their biggest bats in the most leveraged lineup spots.

If I'm drawing it up on Opening Day, I'm going:

1. Tatis
2. Bogaerts
3. Cronenworth
4. Machado
5. Kim

But, again, that's not my job.