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February 12, 2002

Aim For The Head

Set Lineups

by Keith Woolner

This week's question (actually, it's an old question, but I'm just now getting around to answering it) comes from P.W., who writes:

As a Red Sox fan, I enjoy watching the Jimy Williams game of pretending that everyone is a regular. It got me thinking about lineups and percentages of playing time that go to a set lineup. Specifically, I'm wondering if have a set lineup correlates at all with winning. (I believe the pennant-winning 1986 Red Sox had one of the most set lineups in recent history.)

There are a couple of ways that we can think about how "static" a team's lineup is over the course of a season:

  1. How many different lineups are used?

  2. What teams used the same lineup and batting order the most frequently?

Each of the above options gives a slightly different perspective on the question, though they are obviously closely related. The first measures the total amount of lineup juggling (is the manager thrashing around for some lineup that works?); the latter option considers whether a manager has a favorite lineup he sticks to whenever possible.

Throughout this discussion, I'll be looking at the nine-player starting batting order for American League teams, but will exclude the pitcher for National League teams, so as not to confuse position-player stability with rotation or pitching-staff stability. I also exclude (or segregate) strike years, because fewer games were played and thus fewer lineup cards were filled out, which helps make perceived stability easier to attain (fewer opportunities for injuries, etc.). The data span 1978-2000, as I do not have the detailed information to include 2001 yet

Let's look at the first definition: the number of different lineups used over the course of the year:

Team-seasons using the fewest different lineups (non-strike years):

Year Team               Lineups

1984 Boston Red Sox 42 1993 Atlanta Braves 47 1978 Detroit Tigers 52 1978 Montreal Expos 54 1979 Montreal Expos 54 1985 Toronto Blue Jays 55 1986 Boston Red Sox 55 1982 Philadelphia Phillies 56 1985 St. Louis Cardinals 56 1983 Pittsburgh Pirates 57 1980 Atlanta Braves 58 1992 Toronto Blue Jays 58 1983 Houston Astros 60

Team-seasons using the fewest different lineups (strike years):

Year Team               Lineups

1981 Cincinnati Reds 42 1981 Philadelphia Phillies 47 1981 Montreal Expos 48 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers 49 1981 Atlanta Braves 51 1981 Chicago White Sox 53 1994 Cleveland Indians 53 1994 Chicago White Sox 54 1994 Los Angeles Dodgers 55 1981 St. Louis Cardinals 57

The 1984 Red Sox and the 1993 Braves were the most extreme when it came to stable lineups. Just 42 lineups were used by the Red Sox, matching even the most stable team did during a strike year. The Braves were the only other full-season team under 50 lineups, with 47.

How did these two teams fare? The Braves won 104 games, the second-highest total of their 1991-2001 streak run, and won the NL West before losing to the Phillies in the NLCS. The Red Sox went 86-76, finishing in fourth place in the seven-team AL East, sandwiched among four teams who won between 85 and 89 games. The Tigers ruled the division and won the World Series.

So, we have one great team and one average team at the extremely stable side. How about the least stable teams?

Year Team               Lineups

1985 California Angels 155 1990 California Angels 153 1996 Kansas City Royals 152 1999 Minnesota Twins 152 1979 Oakland Athletics 151 1993 Oakland Athletics 149 1992 Texas Rangers 148 1996 Cincinnati Reds 147 1997 St. Louis Cardinals 146 1992 New York Mets 145 1982 Oakland Athletics 143 1983 California Angels 143 1983 New York Yankees 143 1999 Montreal Expos 143 1989 Minnesota Twins 142 1992 Oakland Athletics 142 1989 Oakland Athletics 141 1990 Kansas City Royals 141 1990 Minnesota Twins 140 1991 Cincinnati Reds 140 2000 Boston Red Sox 140 1979 Baltimore Orioles 140

The 1985 Angels won 90 games and finished in second place by a single game, while the '90 Angels went 80-82 and finished fourth. The '96 Royals won 75 games and finished in last place (fifth). The '99 Twins lost 97 games and finished last, and the '79 Athletics lost a miserable 108 games, finishing last, 13 games behind second-worst Seattle in the AL West. For the most part, this is a sad lot of teams, but not exclusively: the '85 Angels had the fourth-best record in a 14-team league while setting the gold standard for lineups used.

What we really need to do is look at all teams, check their records, and the number of lineups they've used, to see the overall trend. I've plotted this below.

There's a very slight relationship in which teams that use fewer lineups tend to win more games. As you can see from the scatter chart, it's not very strong, and explains only a portion of variance. Of course, the cause and effect are important to consider: teams that are healthy and winning have less incentive to voluntarily change lineups, since what they are doing is working. It's the teams who are losing who might as well try something different, from changing the batting order to taking a look at some prospects. Injuries will force any team to adapt. Mostly, though, strong teams lead to using fewer lineups, not vice versa.

Another approach would be to see which teams used the same starting lineup and batting order the most, and consider how often they won. The following is a list of teams that started the same position players in the same batting order 27 or more times.

Year Team G Lineup
1984 Boston Red Sox 66 Wade Boggs
Dwight Evans
Jim Rice
Tony Armas
Mike Easler
Bill Buckner
Rich Gedman
Marty Barrett
Jackie Gutierrez
1978 Detroit Tigers 48 Ron LeFlore
Lou Whitaker
Rusty Staub
Jason Thompson
Steve Kemp
Milt May
Tim Corcoran
Phil Mankowski
Alan Trammell
1990 Pittsburgh Pirates 44 Wally Backman
Jay Bell
Andy Van Slyke
Bobby Bonilla
Barry Bonds
Sid Bream
Mike LaValliere
Jose Lind
1983 Atlanta Braves 38 Brett Butler
Rafael Ramirez
Claudell Washington
Dale Murphy
Bob Horner
Chris Chambliss
Glenn Hubbard
Bruce Benedict
1998 Atlanta Braves 33 Walt Weiss
Keith Lockhart
Chipper Jones
Andres Galarraga
Ryan Klesko
Javy Lopez
Michael Tucker
Andruw Jones
1978 Montreal Expos 30 Dave Cash
Andre Dawson
Ellis Valentine
Tony Perez
Larry Parrish
Warren Cromartie
Gary Carter
Chris Speier
1979 Pittsburgh Pirates 30 Omar Moreno
Tim Foli
Dave Parker
Willie Stargell
John Milner
Bill Madlock
Ed Ott
Phil Garner
1998 Toronto Blue Jays 30 Shannon Stewart
Shawn Green
Jose Canseco
Carlos Delgado
Jose Cruz Jr.
Tony Fernandez
Darrin Fletcher
Craig Grebeck
Alex S. Gonzalez
1995 Cleveland Indians 30 Kenny Lofton
Omar Vizquel
Carlos Baerga
Albert Belle
Eddie Murray
Jim Thome
Manny Ramirez
Paul Sorrento
Tony Pena
1998 Philadelphia Phillies 29 Doug Glanville
Gregg Jefferies
Scott Rolen
Rico Brogna
Mike Lieberthal
Bobby Abreu
Mark Lewis
Desi Relaford
1984 Chicago Cubs 28 Bob Dernier
Ryne Sandberg
Gary Matthews
Leon Durham
Keith Moreland
Ron Cey
Jody Davis
Larry Bowa
1978 Los Angeles Dodgers 27 Davey Lopes
Bill Russell
Reggie Smith
Ron Cey
Steve Garvey
Dusty Baker
Rick Monday
Steve Yeager
1979 Montreal Expos 27 Warren Cromartie
Rodney Scott
Andre Dawson
Tony Perez
Gary Carter
Ellis Valentine
Larry Parrish
Chris Speier

Again we see the Ralph Houk's 1984 Red Sox as an extreme outlier. No other team in the past 23 years has come close to submitting the same lineup card 66 times in a single season.

Looking at the above chart, there are a few things to note: It's rare for a team that wins fewer than 70 games to stick with one lineup more than 15 times. That makes sense, given the roster shuffling that occurs in an attempt to find the guys who can play. However, the reverse isn't true: successful teams often have constantly changing lineups. Only four teams that won more than 100 games used the same lineup more than 20 times, while several more 100-game winners never used one lineup more than 10 times. Perhaps highly successful teams have managers who can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. The statistical analysis of this chart is similarly uninteresting: just a .112 R^2 value for the linear model.

To summarize, other than a very slight positive tendency between using a set lineup and winning (in which the causal arrow is most likely: winning leading to set lineups), there isn't a very interesting relationship between lineups and winning. Perhaps the most interesting fact that has come out of this analysis is how much of an anomaly the 1984 Red Sox were.

Thanks for the question P.W. Remember to keep sending your "Aim For The Head" questions to kwoolner@baseballprospectus.com.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Keith's other articles. You can contact Keith by clicking here

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2002-04-01 - Premium Article Aim For The Head: Innings Pitched to Wins
2002-04-01 - Aim For The Head: Innings Pitched to Wins
2002-02-12 - Aim For The Head: Set Lineups
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2002-04-01 - Premium Article Aim For The Head: Innings Pitched to Wins
2002-04-01 - Aim For The Head: Innings Pitched to Wins
2002-02-12 - Aim For The Head: Set Lineups
2002-01-15 - Aim For The Head: Kicking Off the New Year
2001-10-24 - Aim For The Head: They Cringed
2001-10-16 - Aim For The Head: The Mariners