Tipping Pitches: Sports: The Lineup Debate


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sports: The Lineup Debate

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As a baseball fan, it's fun to play manager. We always think we're a little smarter, or we at least could improve upon a certain aspect of our favorite team's management. Bunting, stealing a base, use of the bullpen, use of platoons. We argue about it all. But one of the most basic management strategies is also the most hotly contested.

The Lineup Card.

Everyone has an opinion. The manager is almost always wrong.

The season hasn't even started, and we're already debating lineups. Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha admitted to toying with the idea of batting the pitcher eighth this year, moving speedy rookie Alcides Escobar to the nine hole.

He's crazy! Why would you give the pitcher more at bats than a non-pitcher?! Managers never do this, and there's a reason for that!

Well, this actually isn't the first time a manager has considered such a strategy. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa often uses it (he abandoned it last season). LaRussa, though, wasn't the first.

And it's not the first time Brewer fans have dealt with this issue either. Former manager Ned Yost also employed it from time to time. I admit, I thought it was idiotic when Yost did it. But I generally doubted Yost's baseball acumen in general, so it just seemed to me like he was trying to look smart without having any supporting evidence to do it.

When Macha discussed it, I may have had a slightly different reaction. The first was, "Eh?" But I at least heard him out.

When Yost did it, he batted Jason Kendall ninth as his "second lead-off hitter." With Macha, it's Escobar. Immediately, the argument seems to be much stronger this time around.

Baseball has traditions, and the lineup is one of them. We've come to expect the following in a National League lineup:

Ken Macha has employed some unconventional lineup strategies
1) Fastest player
2) Slap hitter who controls the bat well, bunts, probably doesn't hit for much power
3) Team's best hitter
4) Team's most dangerous power hitter
5) Next most dangerous power hitter, provides protection for clean-up hitter
6) Next best power hitter
7) Next best hitter
8) Team's worst non-pitching hitter
9) Pitcher

This is the way it is, and the way it's seemingly always been. There are defined roles in the lineup, and some rather poor players have made a career out of satisfying one of these roles.

Yet, the dirty little secret in baseball is that the lineup means less than any of us wants to admit. Studies by Cyril Morong of BeyondTheBoxscore, Ken Arneson of CatFishStew and Ryan Armbrust of ThePastime have all provided some support for questioning the generally accepted lineup strategies. It's largely over my head, in some cases, so I encourage you to read it for yourself so I don't do it a disservice by attempting to explain the work.

BaseballMusings gets credit for bringing it all together and creating a nifty little lineup tool. Based on On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage, the tool generates the lineups that will result in the most and least possible runs scored.

Here is an example, based on the Milwaukee Brewers' 2010 projected roster.

As you can see, they speculate that the Brewers would score the most possible runs with Prince Fielder hitting lead-off and Ryan Braun hitting second. Additionally, Yovani Gallardo (or whatever pitcher would throw on that day) would hit eighth with Alcides Escobar hitting ninth. Not surprisingly, the line-up that would result in the least runs has the pitcher batting first.

Now, forget for a moment that it looks funny having big Prince Fielder bat lead-off. Throw out the traditions of baseball for a moment. Have an open mind.

It makes sense.

It makes sense because you want your best hitters to get as many at bats as possible throughout the game. That would give you, one would expect, the best possible chance to win.

It makes sense that Escobar would hit ninth instead of eighth since it would make it more likely that a runner would be on when Fielder and Braun come to the plate after the first inning.

But your biggest power hitters need to hit third and fourth because they need to come up with runners on base. You are giving up runs by having them hit at the top of the order!

This may be true, but in the first inning only. Over the course of the season, however, if you are giving your two best hitters more plate appearances, shouldn't that result in more home runs? More runs?

It's also interesting that Carlos Gomez, who some may see as a prototypical lead-off or number two hitter due to his blazing speed, is often listed second in the lineup as part of the "Worst Lineups" list. Gomez is often sixth or seventh in the "Best Lineups" list, which would be atypical. You'd never see a no-power hitter like Gomez hit sixth.

But in these cases, it appears the intent is to hide your worst hitters (Gomez and Hart) in the six and seven holes before the pitcher.

Whether you think this is a crazy lineup or not, possibly the most interesting part of this study is the difference between the highest (5.295 runs) and lowest (4.613) scoring lineups. In other words, the worst thing you could possibly do with your lineup is cost your team about .7 runs per game. And that's by hitting the pitcher lead-off.

Now, this is based entirely on statistics, and I'd argue that it misses some important factors. For example, speed is never a consideration. It's based entirely on OBP and SLG. However, if you have two players with similar OBP, wouldn't you rather have the one with better speed on base in front of a good hitter? He would have a better chance to score from first on a double or from second on a single.

That said, I still appreciate the study. It makes us question conventional wisdom. That's always a good thing. And it provides some statistical evidence that batting the pitcher eighth isn't all that crazy.

And more than anything, it makes me question these set roles we've come to expect. Particularly when you have players like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, who hit home runs and extra base hits at a high rate, speed in front of them is of little use. Base runners will not (or should not) regularly attempt stolen bases with Braun and Fielder up or coming to the plate.

In the end, what should a Brewer fan want more than anything else when Braun or Fielder are up? It really should be an easy answer. You want base runners. And whether that means batting them early in the lineup and a non-pitcher ninth or it means simply loading the top of the lineup with high OBP hitters, you accomplish that.

Instead, I've seen many asking for Escobar to lead off and Corey Hart to bat second. Why? Because Escobar is the fastest and Hart also has speed. Would this really accomplish more runs than putting two players at the top of the order who reach base most often?

Maybe Prince Fielder shouldn't hit lead-off. Maybe he should. But baseball, though it is great partly because of its history and traditions, also fails to progress because of them. It isn't blasphemous to question the way things have always been done. Innovation isn't a dirty word.

In all likelihood, we won't notice any difference no matter what lineup Macha writes up. But he's bound to be criticized the first time the pitcher, batting eighth, comes up to bat in a crucial situation with two outs. And it's unlikely he'll get any credit when, over the course of the season, the Brewers score a couple of runs more.

In the end, that's all it's going to be. Teams aren't going to hit the pitcher first, second, third, or anything other than eighth or ninth. So in the end, the difference in lineups for a single game is close to nothing, completely unnoticeable. So while we shouldn't expect Fielder to bat lead-off, it isn't going to make much of a difference where he hits.

But I guess if it were obvious who needed to bat where, we'd have nothing to argue about. And that, after all, is part of the fun of being a baseball fan.


Nate on February 24, 2010 said...

I always wondered about stuff like this too...

The lineup card is designed to work for one inning - the first. You get your first 3 on base and the cleanup hitter hits them home, right? Something like that. But does that ever happen? Not really. And the leadoff hitter in every inning after is a total crapshoot. If Macha for some reason bats Fielder first and the pitcher 8th and whatever, like you said, he'll get criticized whenever the pitcher leads off or an unfortunate situation arises. But don't those situations happen all the time? That's usually when they put in pinch hitters. But I bet never, not once, would Macha get praised if in another inning, Escobar leads off and everything goes right, Fielder and Braun both get everyone home.
I always felt the lineup was only written the way it is because there is only one inning you can actually control who bats where. And it seems like an advantage to try and control it. But it almost never goes as planned.
The Brewers scored 785 runs last year (4.85/game). If this analysis is correct and the Brewers score 5.295/game, that's 857 runs. 72 more than last year! That would equal quite a few more wins, too.

Thanks for writing this article!

Jon Loomer on February 24, 2010 said...

It's the unfortunate part of baseball fandom and sports media. We'll never let a manager/coach innovate in amazingly creative ways.

72 runs sounds like a lot, but I'd bet it's less than that. The number of runs is based on this year's roster. I've heard someone else say that the minor variations (not something crazy like Gallardo first) could potentially result in a very small handful of runs over the course of the season.

Either way, whether two or 72, you always want to do whatever nets you the best chance to score. Even if it looks crazy.

Anonymous said...

Good article. If I was the manager of a failing team in the 2nd half of the season (like the nationals or pirates) i'd have some fun with the lineup.

I'm kind of on the same page with Nate here. The lineup is designed to give you an advantage in the first inning (which is usually the hardest inning to be successful in, as you're going up against a fresh pitcher for the first time that day - you haven't seen what he's got, not that day at least). While it's true that the first inning rarely goes as planned, you guarantee you'll have the 'ideal' lineup scenario happen once per game, and in doing so you dramatically raise number of times per season that this magic progression happens to top off an inning. Which theoretically should produce more runs.

Jimmay on April 05, 2010 said...

(i just posted a long comment that got lost, so i'll repost in summary form).

1. Good blog entry, it was a nice read.
2. I agree with Nate that the lineup card is designed only to help the first inning, and that it rarely goes as planned (largely because you're facing a fresh pitcher for the first time that day and don't necessarily know what 'he's got')
3. However, the fact that you guarantee this 'magic lineup' happens at least once a game dramatically raises the number of times it'll happen per season, theoretically producing more runs
4. If I were managing the nationals or the pirates in the 2nd half of a failing season (any season) i'd tinker with some of these unconventional lineups.

Jon Loomer on April 05, 2010 said...

Jimmay -- Thanks for the comment. I moderate comments to combat spam, but you're not the first one who who's been confused. May need to switch it up.

I'm with you, I'd LOVE to see #4. If your season is lost, try something different. People are finally starting to come around on alternative thinking (see Bill Simmons) so the door may finally be opening to doing something like that without getting fired.

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