JJ Bleday had the best game of his young major league career on Wednesday. The rookie outfielder went 3-for-3 with a walk and had direct involvement in all three runs that the Marlins scored against the Phillies. It came in a loss, but what a valiant individual effort, nonetheless. Very encouraging for a Marlins team that has been starving for offense throughout much of the summer.
Here’s what made Bleday’s performance extraordinary: he did it from the fourth spot in the lineup.
The Marlins have had a cleanup carousel in 2022. In April alone, Don Mattingly used six different players in that role. The closest thing Mattingly has had to continuity was with Jesús Aguilar during the first half of June. He leads the team with 36 cleanup starts overall, followed by Avisaíl García (25) and Garrett Cooper (14). As injuries piled up, there have been some unorthodox picks like Miguel Rojas and Lewin Díaz.
Almost everybody who has tried batting cleanup for Miami has sucked at it. Bleday became the first Marlins No. 4 hitter all season to reach base safely four times in a game, according to Stathead. Mattingly naturally stuck with him on Thursday, and Bleday responded with a more customary 0-for-4 (including an unproductive plate appearance with the bases loaded and no outs).
As a general rule, baseball teams should place their best offensive players near the top of the batting order. That way, they get as many plate appearances as possible. Even a team like the Marlins that is thin on high-end position player talent should have viable big leaguers to use in the cleanup spot in most matchups.
During this maddening season, however, batting fourth for the Fish has been a curse, not a privilege. Through 111 games (470 PA), the cleanup spot has had the worst production of any 2022 Marlins lineup spot. The cleanup spot has combined for a .310 slugging percentage; next lowest on the team is the seventh spot, at .331. These hitters are striking out at 26.2% rate, which is highest on the team.
The Marlins have had other bad offenses throughout their existence. So have plenty of other teams around the majors during that span. But none of their cleanup spots have been this ineffective. Deferring to Stathead once again, Miami’s .578 OPS from the fourth spot in the order would be the lowest for any MLB team in a single season since the 1992 Angels (.545 OPS). The team closest to the Marlins in 2022 is the Guardians at .626. For additional context, old friend Lewis Brinson posted a .573 OPS during his Marlins tenure.
For opposing pitchers, it’s an oasis where they’d least expect to find one.
It is safe to assume that randomness has played a role in these shocking splits. That being said, there’s gotta be more to it when the sample size has grown beyond two-thirds of the entire MLB regular season.
Have the Marlins weighted their players’ past performance too heavily and misjudged their current abilities? In analyzing daily matchups, should they reassess how to use factors like pitch mix, approach angle and swing path in their lineup construction process? Is Don Mattingly calling the shots like he did earlier in his managerial career or are there additional cooks in the kitchen contributing to this mess?
The Marlins have a lot of work to do during this upcoming offseason to significantly increase run production for 2023. Player acquisition and development will be crucial, but it seems as if they could also see gains just by using the talent they already have on the roster in a more efficient way.