One opinion on the Brewers' lineup construction

Mike McGinnis

I propose a solution so simple only a child's mind like mine could conceive and attempt to defend it.

Children break for recess on a beautiful spring afternoon. They would love to play baseball, but it's 2014 and public schools would rather save on bodily injury premiums by not handing out baseball bats to undisciplined violent prepubescents.* The kids can't get coverage themselves because the school pays in human capital, which is not legal tender. Instead, they substitute the little white rock for a big red rubber ball and voila, kickball.

*This is wholly unresearched. I don't remember baseball provisions at recess. I've heard stories about tag being banned. Assuming the worst here.

The children chatter and elect two captains. The captains perform a kind of preadolescent fantasy snake draft and point their fingers alternately at the boys and girls who they believe will make their team best.

Once this selection process is complete, the two captains use a juvenile method to determine who bats first: rock-paper-scissors, thumb wars, coin flip, a wrestle, net worth, etc.

Tommy wins dibs on kicks and surveys his team: Timmy, a squirmy boy with surprising speed, Ellen, the cutest girl in his class, Sally, a daughter of a professional pool player, who can put on some wicked underhand english and keep the ball rolling over the plate, Johnny, a mouth-breathing hulking six foot tall overgrown monster of a 7 year old, and quadruplet infielders Seth, Sam, Sean, and Scott, four physically average boys who are only playing to compete for Ellen's attention - but they would never admit it. You know them.

Tommy quizzically observes the lot who stand in line before him. Who should kick first? His eyes scan over them along the path of an inverted cosine wave on account of the behemoth Johnny standing in the middle. His right foot is larger than Tommy's head. Who to pick to kick first? Tommy's eyes rest on Johnny. He nods, reassuringly gestures to Johnny, and says,

"You can kick fourth."

Clearly, this would never happen. Johnny would kick first. But any true baseball fan wouldn't flinch. He's got the most power. He's a cleanup hitter. Cleanup hitters hit fourth. Let the girls and the spindly kid improvise their way on base and let the big dog eat. It makes sense. You would rather get the home run when there's people on base.

This method works most completely with a finite number of plate appearances. If you know there will be three at bats, and there are three total outs, you have everything to gain by putting the high probability of a homerun or extra base kick after giving two other kickers an opportunity to get on base first. Even if the likelihood of them reaching base is slim to none.

However, the kicking order is not finite. As the game continues and the lineup turns over, there will be situations where Johnny comes to the plate with no one on base. It will, admittedly, be rarer than if he were kicking after the worst, bottom-of-the-order kicker, but it could conceivably happen at any time given the variant nature of spontaneous events. Sometimes in high-leverage situations. Over the course of many games, the first kicker will have many more opportunities to kick than the fourth.

This Joe Sheehan editorial from 2008 is a bit dated, but I don't believe all that much has changed since then:

The thing is, lineups aren't supposed to matter, with the difference between the best and worst reasonable ordering of players worth maybe a win a year. That conclusion has never set well with me, not when I see teams routinely doom their best hitters to batting behind hitters with .330 OBPs, and more critically, perfectly predictable .330 OBPs.

That sure sounds familiar.

The guidelines for an effective lineup are simple, and they haven't changed in about 35 years, since offensive levels came back out of their valley:

  • Get your best hitters the most plate appearances
  • Guys who get on base should bat in front of guys who hit for power
  • Within reason, separate same-side hitters, to make life hard for platoon-centric managers

Guys who get on base should bat in front of guys who hit for power. This can be interpreted either as "guys who get on base frequently" or "guys who have the ability to get on base sometimes." I accept the former. Because there's a straightforward trade-off here; the only way to justify diverting plate appearances from your best (and often most powerful) hitter is by giving them to guys who will consistently get on base in front of them. Consistently.

Let's put this in Brewers context. Who gets on base consistently? Braun and Ramirez are on their own tier. Lucroy and Davis (I'm putting him here, he has a good OBP reputation) on the next. Gomez' and Segura's average-to-okay OBPs - another step down - are fueled by BA (I want runners in scoring position when they're at the plate). You can include Gennett in that category. Weeks is a wild card. Reynolds and Overbay are, well...you know.

"Hit for power" is relatively subjective. I'd say Braun, Ramirez, Davis, and Gomez hit for power. Lucroy is close. Who is left in the starting lineup who gets on base consistently enough justify taking plate appearances away from these five? It was Aoki. This year? I say none. So what Brewers(s) should bat in front of the Brewers' guys who hit for power? Nobody.

It's fair to point out the Brewers splits from 2012 as evidence that the current method has its merits (I chose 2012 because Aoki, Braun, and Ramirez were all healthy); clearly, Braun and Ramirez got the most PA with men on base - not only because they received the 2nd and 3rd most PA on the team, but because Nori Aoki was frequently on base when they came to the plate. Right now - unless Gomez, Segura, Scookie Geneeks or Lark Roverbay start getting on base far more often than I believe to be reasonable - the Brewers cannot optimize the output of their power without simultaneously robbing their best hitters of PA and handing them off to lesser ones.

When the bubble of the perfect world is popped and the hitters with power happen to be the only hitters on the team proficient at getting on base, it's unwise to confiscate those valuable positive plate appearances and convert them to something less. When the roster is devoid of a non-power hitter who also frequently gets on base, I am willing to trade some PA with the power hitter at the plate for several more PA with men on base across the board.

I think Johnny should kick first.

9 Braun
5 Ramirez
2 Lucroy
7 Davis
8 Gomez
6 Segura
4 Weeks
3 Reynolds
1 Pitcher

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