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Much Ado About Lineups

Just about every in-game conversation this year has veered into the domain of lineup arrangement.  Should Kendall bat ninth?  Shouldn't we swap Bill Hall and Corey Hart?  Do we really want a minor leaguer and a retired guy batting second?  Should Prince be batting before or after Braun?

I understand why it's a popular topic of conversation.  First off, it's obvious--not like, say, where Rickie Weeks is positioned when Pujols is at the plate--and it's easy to fix.  We can say things like, "If Corey were batting fifth, Prince wouldn't have been walked so many times yesterday."  And in some cases, they might well be true.

But let me tell you: Of the issues confronting this team, how the lineup is arranged is near the bottom of the list.

First off, most lineup decisions have very little impact on the score.  I'm on record supporting the pitcher-batting-eighth approach, but I realize that the end result is a very slight improvement.  The same would be the case swapping Hall and Hart, and unless Prince and Braun are much less adaptable people than I give them credit for, the same would be true in their case, as well.

The usual counter-argument here is...what about protection?  Don't we need somebody good hitting behind [Braun/Fielder/Hart/whoever]?  Short answer: No, we don't.

While a very slight effect can be detected, "protection" is basically a myth.  As we saw yesterday, it doesn't always look that way; the Cards walked Fielder all four times he was up.  I suspect that has as much to do with Looper's track record against lefties than his relative fear of Hart or Hall.  (Hart may be hot in our current two-game span, but that would be a pretty stupid factor on which to base a decision.)

The trouble with most knee-jerk assessments--including many of the common complaints about Yost--is that we tend to assume the best for the alternative that *we* would've selected.  Sometimes we might be right, but more often than not, the difference is minimal.

I don't mean to pick on anybody in particular, but in last night's game thread, there was a torrent of abuse on Yost and Joe Dillon when Dillon made a weak throw to the plate.   Nobody would argue that Dillon is a gold-glove outfielder, or that he has a good arm.  But is it a lock that Braun would've gunned down the runner?  Far from it; this is a guy who is in the outfield because he couldn't reliably get the ball across the infield on target.  I'm not saying that Braun shouldn't be in the lineup, but that play hardly proves it, no more Dillon's great play later in the inning proves that Dillon should be in the lineup over Braun.

The same sort of problems are inherent in most lineup quibbles.  When Jim Powell says, "I'll bet they wish the pitcher wasn't batting 8th here," he's assuming that a #8 hitter--Hardy, let's say--*would* get the job done, *and* that the team won't get any added benefit from having an actual hitter  lead off the next inning in the #9 slot.

We can see the same sort of half-blind analysis when calling for a quicker hook.  It isn't always clear-cut, but the sooner you pull your starter, the sooner you get to a middle reliever.  Dave Bush is no world-beater, but who else would've pitched the 6th last night--Seth McClung?  Maybe there are times where McClung should be in there, but to think you can plug in your 12th pitcher and automatically stop the bleeding, you've got a very optimistic view of major league middle relief.

I'm not trying to argue that all lineup quibbles are wrong, or that Ned Yost is always right.  Surely neither of those are the case.  But there's always another side to the analysis, and lately, I've been hearing the knee-jerk commentary a lot more than the more balanced approach that we ought to be taking.