CLEVELAND -- The Indians beat the Blue Jays 2-0 on Friday night, winning a tidily played game on the strength of pitching dominance and one big hit, while also leaving a few notes of frustration behind for Toronto.
Corey Kluber put two runners on base in each of the first three innings and didn't pitch a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen then dominated in relief, retiring eight of the nine batters they faced. A booming two-run homer in the sixth by the incredible Francisco Lindor provided all the offense the Indians would need.
Still, one thing stuck in my craw in this game. It's something that has been bothering me for weeks while watching the Blue Jays. And it came back to bite the Jays in the ass Friday night.
Why is Russell Martin batting fifth in Toronto's lineup?
Let's get the caveats out of the way first. The Indians pitched really well Friday night. They played excellent defense. Plenty of other Jays hitters not named Martin made a lot of outs, too. And lineup order, in the grand scheme of things, is a relatively minor factor compared to many other variables that decide baseball games.
That said, Martin batting right behind three of the best hitters (and dangerous on-base threats) in the league, and ahead of Troy Tulowitzki, makes no sense. With Bautista in particular being a walk machine who bats in the No. 4 spot, it becomes even more puzzling.
Even after adjusting for Coors Field's offense-inflation dimensions, Tulo has been a better hitter than Martin in every season of his career except 2015 -- in most of those seasons, much better. Though Tulo's numbers were down sharply this season compared to those glory years, his .254/.318/.443 line in 2016 still topped Martin's .231/.335/.398. Tulowitzki was and is, by every objective measure, a better hitter than Martin.
But a funny thing happened in August of this year: Martin got hot, at exactly the same time the Jays ran off their longest stretch of the season in first place.
On Aug. 13, with Martin batting sixth behind Tulo, he cranked a go-ahead, three-run homer in the sixth inning, giving the Jays a 4-2 victory against the Astros that propelled them into first place.
Batting sixth behind Tulo again the next day, Martin homered again, helping the Jays to a 9-2 victory (Tulowitzki also homered that day).
After a day off, Martin homered twice on Aug. 16, giving the Jays a 12-6 blowout win a day after a Martin-less Toronto team got shut out by the Yankees (Tulowitzki homered and had four hits in that 12-6 win).
On Aug. 17, Martin got moved up to the five-spot in the order, leapfrogging Tulowitzki. He banged out three hits, and the Jays offense exploded again, this time beating the Yanks 7-4.
Martin has batted ahead of Tulowitzki pretty much ever since. He did so as the Jays built their AL East lead to a season-high two games in late August, and continued to do in September, when the Jays offense spent much of the month in a nasty slump, and Martin started hitting like a pitcher. Since Sept. 18, including the five playoff games Toronto has played in, Martin has gone 7 for 67. Tulowitzki has been erratic in his own right over that span, batting .250, but with eight extra-base hits to Martin's two. By that smaller sample and by the much larger career sample, Tulowitzki has been a better hitter with considerably more power. Martin has also hit into double plays at a higher rate over the course of his career than Tulowitzki has.
On Friday night, we saw the damage that a mediocre No. 5 hitter can cause for this lineup. The Jays put runners on second and third in the first inning, then watched as Martin followed a Bautista strikeout with an inning-ending groundout to first. In the third inning, Martin again came up in a huge spot, this time with runners on first and second and two outs ... he looked awful as Kluber struck him out on a slider. The last time the Jays threatened, in the eighth, Martin ended yet another inning with another strikeout, on another slider.
I asked Gibbons after the game why Martin continues to bat ahead of Tulowitzki, given how important the No. 5 spot in the order is for a Jays team that bats the excellent trio of Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista 2-3-4. Even acknowledging the excellence of Cleveland's pitching and defense in Game 1, why was he sticking with Martin during a run in which the Jays catcher was hitting a hair above .100, at a time when the season is on the line? Had he considered moving Tulowitzki and his superior numbers (both this year and for their careers) up to number-five instead?
"No," Gibbons replied. "Because ... we've been playing good baseball ... it's been working. You start screwing with things sometimes when there's not a need."
This is a curious answer, given the Jays have changed other things over the past few weeks, from flip-flopping the Nos. 1 and 9 hitters in the lineup to how certain relievers get used to a bunch of other little tweaks. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument is also curious, given that the Red Sox ran away with the AL East while Martin's numbers plummeted, and that a 7-for-67 run -- while certainly up for potential regression -- still looks kind of broke. Falling behind 0-1 in the League Championship Series when your No. 5 hitter leaves five men on base isn't ideal either.
Gibbons went on to praise Kluber, Miller, and Allen for their terrific performances, and Lindor for his big home run. It's entirely possible that swapping lineup spots wouldn't have mattered in this game one way or another (Tulowitzki went 1 for 4 with a single, Martin went 0 for 4). And slump or not, Martin remains a valuable and well respected member of the team -- the idea of moving him down a spot isn't meant to cast aspersions on a well-liked player who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career.
Still, the playoffs are often decided by the little things. A speedy runner takes an extra base. A pitcher misses his spot by an inch and watches a ball fly over the fence as a result. A grounder hits a pebble to decide a World Series. The margin for error, and the factor that decides who wins and who loses, can be tiny.
Given all of those minuscule factors, every manager has to do everything in his power to put his team in position to succeed. Maybe making this one little change has no effect either way, whether on Friday night's game or the rest of the series. But if a move has even a fraction of a chance of helping your team, you have to make it.
Thank Russell Martin for his service, then slide him down one spot in the order. Superstition isn't a rational reason for maintaining this bizarre status quo. Nor is it a viable strategy when it comes to winning baseball games.