On Wednesday night, J.D. Martinez returned from a seven-week absence on the disabled list by hitting a pinch-hit first-pitch go-ahead home run off of White Sox mercurial ace Chris Sale. The dinger put the Tigers in position to win their eighth-straight game and take over possession of a Wild Card spot. It was kind of a big deal.
Martinez hit the DL with a fractured bone in his elbow in mid-June, but is finally healthy enough to rejoin the Tigers for their playoff push. But with his power bat, J.D. also brings a tough decision for the Tigers' brass: with the offense finally in sync, where does Martinez best fit into the lineup?
The lineup has gone through quite a bit of shuffling already this season. Between a couple of extended injuries and the unsatisfactory performance of Justin Upton, the players surrounding Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the lineup have been constantly shifting.
To start the season, Upton was plugged into the second spot, which made sense given his speed and track record of a high on-base percentage. J.D. Martinez batted fifth, but a few weeks into Upton’s slump they swapped spots, and Martinez moved up to the two-spot. He remained there through May, while Upton forced his way down another spot, allowing Nick Castellanos to take over the five-hole.
But J.D. isn’t a prototypical two-hitter, and while he performed well enough there, Cameron Maybin’s emergence sparked another switch in June: Maybin took over the two-spot, and J.D. dropped back to fifth, bumping Castellanos and Upton each down a spot. Two weeks later, J.D. suffered the arm injury that put him on the DL. In Martinez's absence, Castellanos and Upton resumed their roles and in the fifth and sixth spots, respectively, and the Tigers chugged along into August.
But now that Martinez has returned, the Tigers have a decision to make. The circumstances have changed since Martinez was in the every day lineup, and they'll need to select a batting order as the team moves into a key stretch run.
Would you bump Maybin back down to the bottom of the order, and plug J.D. into the second spot? Maybin has performed well in the role, but an 11-for-61 stretch in July could signal oncoming regression. Or you could preserve the current top of the order and plug J.D. into the five-spot, where he resided at the start of the season and also at the time of his injury.
You could also plug him into the sixth-spot, as Castellanos has been doing his own J.D. Martinez impression and hasn't earned a demotion. Martinez could even drop all the way down to seventh, since Upton has been hitting the way we expected him to hit for the past month. If you believe in not messing with success, maybe you make J.D. earn his way back into the middle of the order.
Or you could get really crazy and bat Miguel Cabrera in the two-hole, where several studies have shown is the optimal position for the best hitter in baseball, which would open up either the third or fourth spot for J.D. An argument can be made to bat Martinez anywhere from second to seventh, and the Tigers are going to have to pick a lineup now that he's back. It's a good problem to have, because no matter where they put him, he'll hit.