There seems to be some talk and to a lesser extent some concern over the line-up the last week or so. It’s always kind of funny to get involved in these little debates over such things as should Ichiro bat third or Figgins should bat last. Ultimately these things really aren’t big deals.
According to The Book optimizing a teams line-up can earn you roughly 10-15 runs over the course of the season or a full win. This comes from the Run per Plate Appearance differential coming in at .02. Over 700 at bats that comes to a full 14 runs.
When you are talking about an offense such as the Mariners that is currently on pace to only score around 600 runs, you could make a point that 10-15 runs is kind of a big deal.
So lets take a look.
Sky Kalkman wrote a great complimentary post over at Beyond the Boxscore nearly two years ago that goes hand-in-hand with The books’ direction of line-up optimization.
Since I don’t want to give away too much of The Book (btw if you don’t own it buy it now)
The old-school book says to put a speedy guy up top. Power isn’t important, and OBP is nice, but comes second to speed.
The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they’re not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.
This without a doubt speaks to me as Ichiro above all others. You could make the case that if he really wanted to hit more home runs he probably could adapt his game and his 20+ but that’s part of his game. I’m alright with that and his life time wOBA of .354
The Two Hole
The old-school book says to put a bat-control guy here. Not a great hitter, but someone who can move the lead-off hitter over for one of the next two hitters to drive in.
The Books says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player. Doesn’t sound like someone who should be sacrificing, does it?
This becomes more of a debate. Because while most people would think Chone Figgins or even Jack Cust because of the high amount of walks. But according to table 52 in the book, this should be the second best hitter on the team with very similar overall run values as the clean-up hitter. But the difference is so minimal that the #2 hitter should be the individual with more walks.
To me the second best hitter on this team is Milton Bradley. A career wOBA of .352 and a SLG percentage of .442 is of value in this spot. The event value of a home run according to Tango is the third highest of the line-up and I believe Bradley fits rather perfectly here.
The Third Spot
The old-school book says to put your best high-average hitter here. The lead-off hitter should already be in scoring position and a hit drives him in. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
The Book says the #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters. So why focus on putting a guy who can knock in runs in the #3 spot, when the two spots after him can benefit from it more? Surprisingly, because he comes to bat so often with two outs and no runners on base, the #3 hitter isn’t nearly as important as we think. This is a spot to fill after more important spots are taken care of.
The book states that because the 3-hole hitter comes up to plate most often with two outs the best chance he can do to bring damage is with a home run. This is funny to me because this makes sense to me and brings back plenty of memories of all the solo home run shots that Griffey had back in the 90s. Sure there were times he had Cora on at second or Amaral on at first but it always seemed like he had plenty of solo home runs.
A key aspect of the #3 hole is that strikeouts negative run value is lower here than any other position in the 1-5 spots. You can afford for the guy to strike out.
Really you could use Cust here or even Michael Saunders. It’s just a situational thing as there isn’t much in the way of stats yet for Saunders. But against Right Handers I do think he could produce some favorable returns.
The old-school book says to put your big power bat here, probably a guy with a low batting average, who will hit the big multi-run homeruns.
The Book says the #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots, but is equal in importance to the #2 hole once you consider the #2 guy receives more plate appearances. The cleanup hitter is the best hitter on the team with power.
This is where your best hitter should hit. Flat out. No question. The funny thing about that is you could make an argument about who our best hitter is depending on who is pitching. While most of us would say Justin Smoak without a second thought, looking at splits it occurred to me earlier today that Olivo is just an absolute destroyer of all things left handed with 900+ plate appearances to back it up. While Smoak is the obvious choice and best all around hitter, you could make an argument that Olivo wouldn’t be a bad choice here.
The Number Five Guy
The old-school book says the number five guy is a wannabe cleanup hitter.
The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.
If you don’t buy the Olivo for #4 guy against lefties this is the obvious alternative. I would have him switch out with Jack Cust hitting against right handed pitchers. Making use of the platoon split.
Spots Six Through Nine
The old-school book says the rest of the lineup should be written in based on decreasing talent. Hitting ninth is an insult.
The Book basically agrees, with a caveat. Stolen bases are most valuable ahead of high-contact singles hitters, who are more likely to hit at the bottom of the lineup. So a base-stealing threat who doesn’t deserve a spot higher in the lineup is optimized in the #6 hole, followed by the singles hitters.
That Whole Hitting The Pitcher Eighth Thing
The Cardinals and Brewers have hit the pitcher eighth in the past, and it’s actually a smart, albeit insignificant, strategy. Yes, giving an awful hitter more plate appearances by hitting him higher in the lineup is costly, but the benefit of having a better number nine hitter interacting with the top of the lineup is worth the trade-off, by about two runs per season. By putting a decent hitter at the bottom of the order, the top spots in the lineup will have more runners on base to advance with walks and hits and drive in with hits.
This strategy isn’t as worthwhile in the American League, because even the worst position player will be on base significantly more often than a pitcher when the top of the order comes around. Only bat the worst hitter eighth when he’s significantly worse than anybody else — maybe someone like Adam Everett or Tony Pena Jr.
Of course the return of Franklin Gutierrez complicates things to an extent. He, just like Olivo, has a history of mashing lefties. I would most likely move Cust down to the 6 spot in favor of moving Gutierrez to the 3-hole.
Against right handers however, I would flip flop him with Kennedy and put Gutierrez in the six hole with Kennedy in the #3 hole.
My (and I want to emphasize that) choice of in filling out the line-up card would look like this:
Versus Left-Handed Pitching
Versus Right-Handed Pitching
I used career averages for the split numbers, just in case you were wondering. Tell me what you think. How would you feel it out this line-up?