Line-up Optimization: Why Not?By: kconlin
Baseball can be a game of almost neurotic tradition. The rules have gone largely unchanged over the last century or so, and most avid baseball fans agree that with the exception of a few relatively inconsequential matters, baseball is an almost perfectly constructed game. That being said, some of its sub-components have become so accepted and dogmatic that even the game’s most innovative minds have remained stuck in their ways. One of baseball’s oldest and most outdated traditions is the way that teams construct their batting lineups and the faulty rationale behind it.
The batting order as we know it relies on a few concepts that have been hammered into our brains since we first took to the field as kids. These ideas have become so ingrained that we often simply look at player’s physical attributes and start imagining where they would hit in the batting order without the aid of any on-field data. Any of the following sound familiar?
1) The lead-off batter should be fast. The catalyst who sets the table for the big boppers and uses his wheels to “create” runs (The importance of getting on base at a high rate has increased over the years, but more often than not, if only given the choice between one or the other at the top of the lineup, managers will opt for speed).
2) The best hitter on the team bats third, no questions asked. This most talented hitter has the opportunity to drive in the speedy catalyst before him, and simultaneously set up the…
3) Cleanup hitter is the “power guy.” This hitter is somewhat more one-dimensional than the hitter before him.
Much has been written about the conventional ideas in The Book, among other places. I’ll use a tool called the Baseball Musings Lineup Optimizer, as well as 2010 CHONE projections to take a look at potential 2010 Mets lineup (For simplicity and argument’s sake, I’ll be ignoring the injuries to Reyes and Beltran for the analysis). Before going any further into debunking these baseball “truths,” lets take a look at the best lineup a healthy Mets club could put on the field in 2010 according to the optimizer.
As you can see, quite different from the order that Jerry Manuel would be writing onto his lineup card if his stars could stay on the field. David Wright batting leadoff? Sure, he can run a bit and stole 27 bases last year, but leadoff? And surely, he has too much run-producing capability to be hitting anywhere but the heart of the order. Daniel Murphy third? What? He showed some nice gap power in the second half, but he also posted a .313 OBP for the year. He won’t soon make us forget John Olerud swinging it sweet in the 3-hole. And perhaps most appalling, Jose Reyes and his speed wasted batting 5th? Holy Rickey Henderson!
I won’t go into too much depth about the rationale behind these lineup placements (you can read more about lineup optimization here). I would, however, like to highlight a few key points:
A great base stealer’s talents are maximized in the bottom half of the lineup, not at the top - As a lead-off batter, the base stealer is risking outs to advance in front of hitters that have a relatively good chance to score him via an extra base hit. Those extra bases and the associated risk play better in front of the weaker, singles-type hitters at the bottom of the batting order.
The third hitter should NOT be your best hitter – In fact, the third hitter should be the team’s fifth best hitter. The third position in the lineup is the most likely to bat with two outs and sees way too many two out, no men on base situations.
The best hitters should bat #1,2, and 4 – On-base percentage is the most important attribute that a lead-off batter can have. The #2 and #4 batters are somewhat similar, except that the second batter will receive more plate appearances over the course of the season, while the fourth batter will bat with more men on base. But as you can see in the optimized lineup, the second hitter should NOT be a move ‘em over slap-hitter.
These concepts show that the main ideas behind the traditional batting order are not just slightly wrong, they’re fundamentally wrong. Granted, the ideal Mets lineup above only projects to score 27.38 more runs than the likely Mets lineup over the course of the season. But those extra runs could conceivably generate a couple of extra wins. Hell, the Mets paid Oliver Perez $12 million to cost them a few in 2009. Being that the market rate of one win is something like $4 million to a Major League club, creating the most efficient lineup is something every team should be thinking about.
So why do teams continue to bat the Scott Podsedniks first, the Placido Polancos second, and the Albert Pujolses third?
It really comes down to the element of tradition, habit, unquestioned baseball canon. Continuing to construct lineups in the traditional manner is in many ways a measure of respect to the players. The established players get their well-deserved place in the middle of the lineup. The rookies have to pay their dues and earn their way into those spots. Remember the fuss that was made over a slumping Carlos Delgado being dropped in the lineup in 2008? For many players, position in the batting lineup is part of their identity and even their perceived role on the team. In fact, one can argue that disrupting this identity might counteract any positive gains made from optimizing the lineup.
When it comes down to it, attempting to revolutionize the lineup probably just isn’t worth the risk to a manager. He would stand to lose much more than he would stand to gain, as the bump in runs scored (if things did play out as predicted by the model) would be almost unnoticeable. And if the team struggled, for whatever reason, the manager’s decision to go with an unconventional lineup would provide for a convenient scapegoat. What manager is going to work up the nerve to tell Pujols that his at-bats would be more valuable coming from the 2-hole while Colby Rasmus or Yadier Molina move into his vacated spot batting third? The idea of lineup optimization certainly has its merits, but if we do see Daniel Murphy hitting third in 2010, it will likely have more to do with disabled Mets than Jerry Manuel picking up a copy of The Book.