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January 4, 2012

Painting the Black

On Lineup Tinkering

by R.J. Anderson

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If P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster were a baseball manager who employed a normal fan in Jeeves as an advisor, then the latter’s ingenuity would have been easier to craft. When Wooster asked Jeeves how to score additional runs, the answer would have revolved around a more consistent lineup. How could Wooster keep the players focused? By running out a more consistent lineup. But Jeeves, what is the answer to world peace? A more consistent lineup, sir. And so on and so forth.

Suggesting that a normal fan thinks the answer to all of baseball’s ills is a consistent lineup is an overgeneralization.  Still, during slumps, the need for consistency comes up across the media platforms frequently enough to last a lifetime. Managerial tinkering can even save a player from criticism. Fans can be unrelenting in their criticism after a player commits a physical mistake, unless that mistake is precipitated—imagined or not—by managerial interference. Then fans then take on a maternal mindset towards the players. This scene plays out in those cases:

Setting: Tropicana Field, mid-May 2012
Person of interest: B.J. Upton
Interest of person of interest: For the first time this season, Upton is batting sixth instead of second.
Action of person of interest: Upton hits a home run in his first at-bat, but forgets to touch third base and is called out.
Select dialogue from the crowd:
- Fan number one: “Dagnammit, Upton!”
- Fan number two: ”This never would have happened if Joe Maddon just left him in the number-two spot.”
- Fan number one: “You’re right. Stupid Maddon and his tinkering. ”

You would never know that baseball players adapt to constantly altering variables given the importance placed upon predefined roles. For all the mock-worthy reasons expressed from folks who want an everyday lineup, there are legitimate reasons too. It should come as no surprise to anyone that in 2011, the playoff teams held a lower median amount of lineup and batting orders used than the teams that failed to make the playoffs:

Split

Lineups used

Orders used

Median (all teams)

99

126

Median (playoffs-only)

92

112

Median (without playoffs)

103

130

The reasons for this should be evident. Consider that the chief reasons a team would use more lineups throughout the season revolve around aspects that translate to team success. A team with healthy and well-performing players is less likely to need various lineups. Similarly, those teams are less likely to sell off pieces, thus beginning a game of musical chairs. Teams that suffer through injuries, demotions, and become mass in-season traders are going to use more lineups by default.

There are exceptions to those variables. Take the Royals, who fielded the fewest amount of lineups in the league last season. Before accusing Ned Yost of being stubborn to his team’s detriment, remember that the Royals infused youth throughout the season. Once those young players arrived, Yost lived up to his billing as a developer by keeping the kids in the everyday lineup—for instance, Eric Hosmer arrived in early May and started all but four games the rest of the way.

A junk stat can be created using each team’s lineup and batting order data, then comparing it to the league-average marks. Thus, the aptly named TINKER+ shown below (Note: There are no league adjustments required, as the pitcher position is not included in either measure). As you have come to expect from adjusted-statistics, the higher the TINKER+ score, the more lineups and orders relative to league-average marks used and vice versa:

Team

TINKER+

MIN

130

SEA

126

LAD

118

SFG

116

CLE

116

SDP

114

COL

114

TOR

113

CIN

111

OAK

109

PIT

107

DET

107

STL

102

TBA

98

HOU

98

NYM

98

LAA

96

WSN

96

TEX

96

CHC

92

BOS

92

ATL

91

ARI

90

FLA

89

BAL

88

CHA

88

PHI

88

MIL

80

NYY

77

KCR

66

The results look as you would expect. Here are some observations:

  • On the high end, you have the injury-flooded Twins,
  • Nipping on the Twins’ heels were the Mariners, who made adjustments at every lineup position except leadoff—and even then, they could have moved the mortal-looking Ichiro down in the lineup.
  • Meanwhile, the Yankees and Brewers are the lone threats to the Royals’ position as the league’s most economical lineup setters.
  • As the previous numbers would have suggested, most of the playoff teams have TINKER+ below 100. All but two, thanks to the Cardinals and Tigers.
  • Baltimore might be the most surprising team near the bottom, given the revolving door at second base, Derrek Lee trade, and injuries to Luke Scott and J.J. Hardy.

The takeaway from the 2011 data is that having a consistent lineup is desirable because it implies the team has good things going for it. Still, teams can make the playoffs and even win the World Series if they tinker a little more than the average team. Of course, teams that tinker the most are likely to have records that produce laughs as often as Wodehouse’s works.

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

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