Lineup Construction

Background

Rickie Weeks is a leadoff hitter, but he is not an ideal one because he does not excel at making contact.

J.J. Hardy is a 2-hole hitter. He is a good hitter overall, has good bat control for sacrifice bunting, and isn't one of the top power hitters.

Ryan Braun is a 3 hitter. He makes incredible contact, has power, and is the best *pure* hitter on the team.

Prince Fielder is a cleanup man. He is big, he is slow, he hits lots of home runs, and he plays first base.

Corey Hart is a 5 hitter. He is pretty good, and he protects Prince in the lineup, because he has power.

Have you heard these justifications before? Probably, because they have been endlessly regurgitated by the media, the coaches, the players, and the fans who have repeatedly heard them from the above sources.

The modern baseball lineup is still based on these two faulty ideas:

1. The leadoff batter gets on base. The second hitter bunts him to second, or the leadoff man, who is fast, steals second. The third hitter, who hits for a good average, drives him in.

2. The first three batters get on base. The cleanup batter, who has a lot of power, hits a grand slam.

Can you spot the problems with these concepts for lineup construction? The first point originated when baseball began, and the second point can be traced to the Yankees of the 1920s, who were the first to give their players numbers on the back of their jerseys. It s the reason Babe Ruth wore number 3 and Lou Gehrig wore number 4. Is it a problem that our main plans for lineup construction rest on two ideas that predate World War II?

I know Jeff hates talking about lineups, but hopefully this clears up some of the confustion regarding what is generally our stance here at Brew Crew Ball. I am just posting this tonight because there's no sense in just waiting until tomorrow morning.

Building a Better Lineup

These perceptions are the problem with convincing people of radical lineup construction today. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder do not look like #2 hitters, though one of them should hit in that spot in the lineup.

Over the course of the year, the number of plate appearances received by each player in the order decreases by about 15 from the leadoff man on down to the 9th batter. The key is finding the balance of getting your best hitters the most at-bats, while leveraging their at-bats when the most runners will be on base.

There is not a true template to build the best lineup possible, but there are several rules a manager should abide by.

We will focus on the first five spots in the order first. Here are the basic rules, with some explanations. In The Book, all of the tables and evaluations are listed, if you are interested. I will just boil the information down to its essence, without using actual numbers to justify the reasoning, which will hopefully make this clearer.

So here is a step-by-step process:

  • Of your best five hitters, your first batter should be the one with the least amount of power and the most walks. Preferably, the player here has a large split in batting average and on-base percentage because the value of a hit is similar to the value of a walk due to the fewer amount of runners on base in this spot.
  • Next, you should decide who your two best overall hitters are, excluding your leadoff man. These players should always bat in the second and fourth spots in the lineup-- not the third, as is usually assumed. The reason is that the third spot in the lineup comes has the highest likelihood of coming up with 2 outs, and commonly comes up with 2 outs and no runners on, mainly because of the freqent occurence of the first two batters making outs in the first inning. The second spot comes up about 30 more times per year than the fourth spot, and the fourth spot comes up with more runners on base. These factors balance out almost equally. You would prefer the second hitter to have the advantage of more walks and the fourth hitter to have the advantage of more power to fully optimize your two best hitters.
  • After the three top hitters are taken, you should look at the next two best hitters on the team. The third and fifth spots balance out almost the same way the second and fourth ones do. The fifth spot has an advantage for every event except a home run-- which makes sense, because a single with two outs has little impact, while a home run always scores, and we have already established that the third hitter comes up frequently with two out. If the hitters under consideration are relatively equal in skill, hit the one with more home runs third and the one with more singles and doubles fifth. Overall, the fifth hitter should be better than the third hitter.  
  • The quality of hitter should generally decrease through the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth spots in the order. There is one notable exception, though.
  • In almost all situations, a pitcher should bat eighth in a National League lineup. The difference in plate appearances between the eighth and ninth hitters over the course of the year is about 15 plate appearances. This can be reduced to about 10 when pinch-hitters are introduced. Those 10 plate appearances are more than made up for by increasing the amount of runners on base for the top of the lineup. The overall impact of hitting the pitcher eighth would only add a few runs in a year, but that is no excuse to ignore it.

By optimizing a lineup, a team might add 5-10 runs each year. It is a small amount, but again, there is no excuse for ignoring it considering the incredible amount of money that is spent each year searching for even the smallest advantage in baseball. Optimizing the lineup comes with no risks or cost for the team.

Applying this to the Brewers

To create an example, I'll go through my thought process of creating an optimal Brewer lineup. I did not use a lineup optimizer, so this is subject to not being the best possible, but it pretty closely follows The Book's rules.

1. Rickie Weeks | The high OBP-BA split is best utilized here beacause of the aforementioned reasons. Baserunning ability does help here, too, but it does not have as big of an impact as common wisdom would have you think.

2. Prince Fielder | Braun and Prince are the best two hitters on the team. Of the two, Fielder walks more, and Braun gets more extra-base hits. Fielder's walks put him on base for the next three good hitters, and Braun's extra-base ability drives in more runners on the basepaths. Kendall hits ninth, adding to the runners on base when Fielder does go deep.

3. Mike Cameron | A strong argument can be made for Hardy or even Hart here, but Cameron has the mix of being a good overall hitter with a lot of home runs and less singles and walks than others. If Cam hits similarly to the way he did last year, this is his best spot. If he falls off, I'd put Hardy here.  

4. Ryan Braun | As mentioned in the two spot, Braun's extra base abilities give him the cleanup spot.

5. J.J. Hardy | Hardy projects as a slightly better hitter than Cameron at this point, and the tiebraker is home runs vs. singles, doubles, and walks.

6. Corey Hart | 2007 Corey Hart hits third or fifth. 2008 Corey Hart hits seventh. I'll balance them out and put Corey here. Also under consideration is that a good basestealer should hit fifth or sixth-- his skills are best leveraged here. A stolen base has less of an impact in front of a good hitter that might drive in the run anyway. In front of worse hitters like the 3B platoon, the pitcher, and Kendall, a stolen base is more important.

7. Hall, Lamb, and the 3B | The worst hitters go seventh and ninth, and the OBP advantage goes to Kendall, who acts as the "second leadoff man".

8. The pitcher

9. Jason Kendall | His advantage in OBP over the pitcher puts him on base about 33% of the time for the top of the order.

A Short Summary

Your two best hitters should hit second and fourth in the lineup. The hitter with more walks should hit second, and the hitter with more extra-base hits should hit fourth.

Your best OBP hitter excluding your two best hitters should generally hit first. Speed is lesser consideration.

Your fourth best hitter should generally hit fifth, and your fifth best hitter should generally hit third. A tiebreaker would put the hitter with more home runs third and more singles and doubles fifth.

The rest of your hitters should be arranged from best to worst, with the exception of the pitcher, who should almost always bat eighth.

Most of this information is from The Book, which I highly recommend if you are more interested in the details and numbers behind these concepts. Check out Insidethebook.com for more.

One of us will try to answer any questions or problems with anything in the comments section. Thanks for following me all the way through here, I know this got long. We will stick this in the reference section if anyone needs to brush up on their fundamentals later.

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