The Lineup – Out of Order?


Gordon should remain at the top of the order. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Piggybacking off a great Marcus Meade article regarding flawed logic and proper use of talent…I thought I’d take a closer look at how the batting order should shake out this year.

The “rules” of the lineup generally dictate a speed guy at the top, a decent bat handler in the second spot…a guy who can slap the ball around, bunt, etc. Then of course your best hitter slots in at three, with the best power hitter in the cleanup spot, and so on, and so on. Not all teams follow this blueprint, though. Sometimes due to a forward thinking manager, and sometimes out of necessity.

This team, for example, has gone with Alex Gordon at leadoff, who many would argue is not  your typical leadoff man. He’s not a prolific base stealer. He’s got some good pop in his bat, which most would argue belongs in the middle of the order. He has, however, been very productive out of the spot and I’m not ready to cave to the old school train of thought. As we’ve shown over the past few months HERE (Jeff Parker) and HERE (yours truly), at least a couple of us like the idea of leaving him as the leadoff batter. I bring up the Alex Gordon debate to highlight different school of thought. Where, according to a more sabermetric approach, should Alex (and everyone else, for that matter) hit?

In a book titled, well, The Book, authors Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin have done extensive research on topics, including lineup optimization, and compared their findings to the old school, unwritten rule book of baseball. What did they find? According to the authors, while the general consensus has always been to go with the fast guy up top, the new train of thought says OBP is king. If we go on that idea alone, Billy Butler would lead off, which seems laughable, right?

The numbers say the three best hitters on a team should bat in the #1, 2, and 4 spots of a lineup, while the fourth and fifth best hitters should take the #3 and 5 positions. The first two guys in the lineup should have more walks than those batting in the fourth and fifth spots, and from the sixth spot through the bottom of the order, you just arrange the hitters in descending quality.

Simple enough…but wait…there’s more.

The researchers also assessed the run value of each possible batting event. They claim that hits by the first two batters in the lineup will usually generate more runs than hits from any other spot in the order, with the exception of the cleanup hitter. They go on to point out these two batters will start every game for you (obviously), and then generally come to bat later with runners on base. So what’s wrong with having guys who hit for a little power in those spots? Absolutely nothing, in my opinion.

If these two batters will hit more often than anyone else in the game, and hits by these players generate more runs than hits anywhere else in the lineup, it does makes sense to place a couple of your best guys here. That said, just because Butler had the highest OBP last year, I don’t think he’s the ideal leadoff guy. He’s got some power that would be wasted at that spot (he could homer with a man on base versus bases empty, for example). So I will start off by saying that yes, it appears Alex Gordon was the ideal leadoff man in 2012, given that he also led the team in walks.

But let’s not base this lineup on last year’s numbers. I’m going to jump over to Fangraphs and look at the various projections available for each player, and we’ll build from there. Taking the four available projections for each player, I’ll come up with their average projections for OBP, SLG, OPS, and home runs, and we’ll build from there.

Is Hosmer a number two hitter? Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

According to the projected OPS numbers, our best three batters in 2013 are likely to be Butler (.867), Gordon (.823), and Eric Hosmer (.797). I have to admit, I was surprised at Hosmer ranking third…not that I don’t think he’s fully capable. So now we plug these three into the first two slots of the lineup, along with choosing our cleanup hitter.

Butler and Hosmer are both projected to have a similar walk rate, somewhere in the range of 9-10%, with Gordon closer to 11%. Their home runs are projected at 25 for Butler, 20 for Hosmer, and 19 for Gordon. Based on all this, I say we go with Gordon and Hosmer at the top, and Butler as our cleanup guy.

Now that we’ve tackled that piece of the lineup, we move on to the third and fifth spots.

The Book says one problem with the common lineup is that managers put their best hitter (and often the guy with the highest OBP) in the third position of the order. The authors found that the #3 hitter has more plate appearances with two out and the bases empty, leading to the theory that the value of any hit other than a homer (the only way to generate a run in that circumstance) is lower in this spot than any of the other top five. Given this information, we should place our fourth best hitter in #5 spot, while our fifth best hitter bats third.

Batting third…. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Going back to the projections, our fourth best hitter should be Mike Moustakas, so I’ll plug him in as our #5 hitter, while our #3 hitter becomes Salvador Perez. The top of the order now goes like this: Gordon, Hosmer, Perez, Butler, Moustakas. This allows Butler, our best hitter, more situations with runners on base, where Perez could hit more often in less impactful (bases empty) situations.

At this point, we basically just place the remaining hitters in order from best to worst. That would be Lorenzo Cain, Jeff Francoeur (not that I’d be sad to see Jarrod Dyson get plenty of playing time – although he’s projected to pretty much match his 2012 OPS of .650), and then some combination of Alcides Escobar and whoever is on second base. Depending on who wins the battle between Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella, it could place Escobar as either the #8 hitter (with Getz batting last), or the #9 (with Gio taking the #8 spot). Of course, predicting what will happen at second base is a crap shoot at this point. I think Getz should get the job at this point, so we’ll just go with him as our guy for this exercise.

That leaves us with the following:

Alex Gordon, LF (.823 OPS, 19 HR)

Eric Hosmer, 1B (.797 OPS, 20 HR)

Salvador Perez, C (.766 OPS, 16 HR)

Billy Butler, DH (.867 OPS, 25 HR)

Mike Moustakas, 3B (.767 OPS, 22 HR)

Lorenzo Cain, CF (.738 OPS, 12 HR)

Jeff Francoeur, RF (.721 OPS, 14 HR)

Alcides Escobar, SS (.684 OPS, 5 HR)

Chris Getz, 2B (.655 OPS, 1 HR)

After all this, I feel like running on the field at a game this year and reenacting the famous scene from …And Justice For All.

While not the lineup I would’ve scratched out on paper, it’s not too outlandish. What do you think? Would you be comfortable with this as the opening day lineup for your Kansas City Royals?