When San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin builds his daily lineup — on a 3×5 card or a sheet of paper — he draws a baseball field. Melvin free-hands the diamond of the infield and adds the necessary accoutrements around it, including the foul territory. Within that illustration, he writes the names he’s considering at each position. Next to the field, he’ll list the San Diego batting order, then hand the treatise to his assistants for some feedback.
Once the lineup is agreed upon, associate manager Ryan Christenson works his magic. His grandmother — his Nana — gave him a set of fountain pens when he was a boy, a gift that led to a years-long calligraphy practice. Christenson’s regular cursive is actually not that good, he admits, but with his special pens, patience and the inspiration of his Nana, Christenson likes the idea of creating something special for the Padres’ lineup card. Across the baseball landscape these days, most lineup cards are computer-generated — Christenson’s are different, his calligraphy skill adding an artist’s flourish.
On April 20, Christenson will pen a familiar name to the lineup card for the first time this season — that of Fernando Tatis Jr., the dynamic young talent who is on the verge of completing his 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. For the first time, Melvin will have to decide how to arrange the four transcendent hitters at the top of his batting order: Manny Machado, who has four finishes in the top five of MVP voting; Xander Bogaerts, a career .293 hitter; Juan Soto, whose early-career trajectory is often compared to that of Ted Williams because of his power and patience; and Tatis, who led the National League with 42 homers in 2021.
Melvin has discussed the alignment of his top four hitters with each of the players, absorbing and weighing their preferences as he considers his options.
In the leadoff spot…
Early this season, Bogaerts has hit leadoff for the Padres when San Diego faces a left-handed starter, and Trent Grisham has been in the No. 1 spot against some right-handers. But starting April 20, that will change.
Way back in spring training, Melvin decided this is where Tatis will bat. “It’s like a hurricane going into the batter’s box” when Tatis leads off, Melvin said last week. “There’s a lot of angst for the pitcher, to see this guy coming into the box to lead off the game. I didn’t really know that [before spring training]. I kind of felt it from the other side, going against him quite a few times, but as the guy leading off the game, there’s some impact to it.”
Tatis has an OPS of 1.008 when he has been the leadoff hitter, in 116 of his 273 career games; he has batted second in 93 others, which makes sense, given his superlative speed (and 52 career steals). If Tatis reaches first base to start an inning, he’ll always have to be held — at least one of the middle infielders moving closer to second base, which will create a hole in the infield for the next hitter.
Tatis’ OBP of .382 as a leadoff hitter is actually slightly lower than his numbers batting third or fourth (though in significantly more games) — but by the time he returns to the Padres’ lineup, he’ll be 564 days removed from his last game action in the big leagues. It may be that in the interim, he has evolved as a hitter, developing more patience. It’s something Melvin believes he saw at the outset of spring training, and which has continued during Tatis’ minor league assignment; he has drawn 10 walks in 48 plate appearances.
In the No. 2 spot…
The 2-hole is slightly more complicated for Melvin, with cases to be made for the other three players. Some rival evaluators believe that it makes the most sense for Soto to bat here, because of the opportunities that Tatis might present for him when he reaches base and the multiple layers of protection Soto will receive in this spot.
If Tatis is on first, forcing the first baseman to anchor at the bag, the left-handed hitting Soto will have a lot of space to work with on the right side of the infield — and this is no small matter for Soto. He is known for his patience and power, having accumulated 128 career homers, including the 453-foot blast he launched in Citi Field last week. But he has a relatively high groundball rate — 55% through the first 15 games of this season. Over the past three years, Soto batted .247 when defensive shifts were deployed and .327 when they were not, according to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs — and, of course, infield shifts have been banned this year.
And, as Melvin notes, the threat that Tatis presents as a base stealer could also prompt the opposing pitcher to deploy more fastballs and give his catcher a chance to throw him out, another plus for the guy at the plate.
Additionally: If Soto hits in the No. 2 spot, then opposing managers would face a more complicated choice in the later innings, deciding whether to summon a left-handed reliever to face him. Soto would be immediately followed by two dangerous right-handed batters: Bogaerts and Machado, in some order. If Soto bats third, then the decision is likely to be easier, given that the left-handed hitting Jake Cronenworth usually bats fifth; an opposing manager could call on a lefty to face Soto in the No. 3 spot, then a right-handed batter in the cleanup spot, and then Cronenworth. One evaluator said, “It’s better for Soto if he bats second, because he’ll probably see more right-handers late in the game.”
But Soto, though he hit in the 2-hole in 114 games last year, had a clear preference to bat third when he was with the Washington Nationals, something he said he expressed to Washington manager Dave Martinez. “Most of my career, I’ve hit four, or third,” Soto said last week. “In 2022, Davey Martinez wanted me to hit second so bad, I didn’t like it at all. But he still put me in the second hole.”
“For me, my comfortable spot is third [or] fourth. At the end of the day, I’ll do anything I can do to help the team. Wherever [Melvin] puts me, I’ll be comfortable. If he puts me in the 2-hole, I’ll be fine with it because we have a lot of depth, a lot of good players behind me.”
In theory, Bogaerts has the kind of skills that might make him an excellent No. 2 hitter: He is relatively patient at the plate, and he typically hits the ball to all fields.
But there’s just one problem. Despite his excellent career success, Bogaerts has struggled in the No. 2 spot, something he has discussed with Melvin.
“If you look at numbers, it just doesn’t work out for whatever reason,” Bogaerts said. “[The No. 2 spot] gets me. I told [Melvin] that’s the one place that hasn’t worked out. Anywhere else, I’m fine with whatever he wants.”
If Tatis and Bogaerts aren’t options at No. 2, Soto makes sense. But if Melvin defers to Soto’s preference to hit third, that leaves Machado. Machado batted third in more than two-thirds of the Padres’ games in 2022 — but has batted in the No. 2 spot in nine of San Diego’s first 15 games this season.
In the 3-spot…
During last year’s postseason, opposing managers, pitchers and catchers in effect decided they would not allow Machado to beat them. Over and over, they pitched off the edges of the strike zone and gave Machado a choice: be patient, swing at pitches in the strike zone and take walks — conceding the opportunities to do damage — or swing at pitches out of the zone.
Melvin switched his lineup repeatedly in an effort to get the third baseman more pitches to hit, using Josh Bell, Brandon Drury and then Cronenworth behind Machado. The specifics weren’t as important for Machado as the presence — the numbers indicate that he fares better when he has a major threat behind him in the batting order. In the 50 regular-season games after the Padres acquired Bell — essentially to bat behind Machado — Machado’s numbers spiked, according to ESPN’s Paul Hembekides. He saw more pitches in the strike zone and took advantage of that, batting .366/.403/.705.
The depth of this San Diego lineup reminds Machado of his early years with the Baltimore Orioles, when the presence of Adam Jones and Mark Trumbo, among others, would prompt opponents to pitch to him. Now he’ll likely have either Soto or Bogaerts — or both — batting behind him. Machado is not picky.
“It doesn’t really matter where I hit — 2, 3, 4,” he said. “We’re going to be able to be driving in runs, we’re going to be getting on base, we’re going to be able to do damage wherever we are. For me personally, I don’t have a specific spot.”
In the cleanup spot…
Bogaerts has usually batted in the middle of the lineup — third or fourth in 144 of his 150 games last year. That means that even at the outset of the game, he can take the opportunity to watch video of the pitcher before his first plate appearance, focusing on the pitcher’s stuff — how the ball is moving, what he’s featuring. If Bogaerts is hitting cleanup, he might be able to do that for two at-bats before he’s required to move into the on-deck circle.
Bogaerts is generally effective against all types of pitchers — right or lefty, hard throwers and soft throwers, pitchers who work up or down.
“Bogey is such a pure hitter,” Machado said, “putting the ball in play or working counts.”
He has the lowest strikeout rate among the top four hitters in the San Diego lineup, and he’s batting .361 in his first days with the Padres. If he bats cleanup, he’s also likely to make a lot of plate appearances with runners on base. Which happens to be where he thrives: He hits well with runners in scoring position (.836) and is a little better in high-leverage spots (.845) than low-leverage (.805).
In whatever order they end up, Bogaerts believes the quartet of hitters at the top of the Padres’ lineup will impact each other positively. Without a soft spot for pitchers to land near the top of the batting order, opposing pitchers will have to stay in the strike zone to Tatis, giving him opportunities to do damage. Machado could face pitchers distracted by Tatis’ presence on the bases. Soto will often hit with runners on base, with opposing pitchers backed into a corner. If Bogaerts hits cleanup, the opposing pitcher might have already thrown 15 to 20 pitches to get to him, revealing most or all of his arsenal.
“When the pitchers go through [our] first four guys, they’re going to have to make a lot of pitches, and have to make sure they don’t make a mistake,” Soto said. “That’s how they get tired quicker, that’s how the second time through we have a better chance to get a hit. With Nando [Tatis] up there, he’s going to set him up for us.”
Machado is also looking forward to what the addition of Tatis brings.
“Hitting behind any of those guys is going to give me a chance to see a lot of pitches, read and get my timing down,” he said. “We’ve got four guys you can mix and match, and set the lineup for that day. We’re going to be able to match it up. … It’s pretty fun in these first days, and when Tati gets back, it’s going to get a lot deeper.”
When Christenson signs Tatis’ name on the lineup card on Thursday, it won’t be the most momentous inscription of his career with the Padres. When Machado collected his 1,500th career hit, he asked Christenson to pen the particular details of the hit onto the surface of the ball. Soto did the same thing with the ball from his first World Baseball Classic homer.
But what Christenson writes Thursday will set the tone for the rest of the 2023 season — and the four names he pens at the top will be ready, no matter the order that Melvin chooses.