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March 3, 2008

Prospectus Today

Lineupology

by Joe Sheehan

From the inbox:

"You still work for Baseball Prospectus, right?"

Tone aside, it's a fair point. I didn't write for the baseball site at all last week, although I did put up a basketball article, do a bunch of radio and TV spots, and make a trip to Indianapolis to catch Butler's win over Wright State and meet a bunch of readers at Friday night's event in downtown Indy. Will Carroll and I talk about this a lot, the fact that as BP's profile has grown, we deliver our content in a greater variety of ways while putting more time into it, although we write less. Add in the work that the great staff at Plume is doing getting Steven, Christina, Jay, myself, and all the authors of Baseball Prospectus 2008 media opportunities, and March is shaping up to be a whirlwind.

With all that said, not writing is a problem, and not just because I have a contract. No, what happens is half-executed ideas pile up in a file, and when you sit down to try and work one into shape, you end up flitting around from one to another, getting frustrated and blocked, and punting the whole process. That's what happened to me last week; I didn't have much time available for writing, and what time I did have was unproductive.

See, I spent a lot of time last week thinking about lineups. There's no doubt that it was motivated in part by the Strat-O-Matic tournament I played in over the weekend and the time I was putting into it. I've made the argument before-OK, I stole it from Bill James-that baseball simulations are teaching tools for baseball, and Strat taught me so much about how an offense works. Because the skill sets-the cards-are fixed elements, you can move them around in a variety of ways, and eventually discover which ordering is optimal. Do this… what have I played, maybe 10,000 games of Strat? Well, a lot, and long before that many games, the principles of effective lineup construction become a part of your intuition.

We used to sit around at tournaments, pass each others' teams around, and do "lineupectomies," searching for the best ordering of players, considering things like platoon differentials, tactical issues, the relationship between OBP and SLG. I ported the idea to BP back in our prehistory and learned two things: "Lineupectomy" was a misnomer, as "-ectomy" means "removal," loosely speaking; and that it was harder to do this with real baseball teams rather than Strat cards, but still a worthwhile exercise.

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 critcially, perfectly predictable .330 OBPs. 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

That's pretty much it. There are a number of less-important guidelines, some of which run counter to conventional managerial wisdom. For example, just about everyone inside baseball thinks speed is one of the most important qualities for a leadoff batter. In fact, because middle-of-the-lineup batters are generally the ones most likely to hit the ball a long way, speed isn't that critical. Add in that the cost/benefit of a stolen-base attempt is worst when a good hitter is at the plate-the out costs more, the base means less-and speed is actually not that important in the top two lineup spots. Speed and stolen-base attempts both have more value in the fifth and sixth spots, in front of the worst batters in the seventh through ninth slots, who are more likely to make outs and less likely to pick up extra-base hits.

Now, you can't always put the sabermetrically-optimal lineup on the field, because players aren't Strat cards, and it's worth it to take that into consideration in running a real team. The additional value of swapping, say, the #3 and #4 hitters is often dwarfed by the headaches it may cause with the players and the media. There are other examples, but it is entirely reasonable, when the values are close, to take human factors into consideration.

Many calls, however, aren't close. The Cubs, to pick one example, have the potential for a disastrous lineup in play. A couple of weeks ago, Lou Piniella indicated that he would lead off with Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Theriot, who possess two of the lowest projected OBPs in the Cubs lineup, while batting Kosuke Fukudome fifth. It would be hard to assemble a worse lineup given the talent available; Soriano is simply not a leadoff hitter, possessing the power and OBP of a #4 batter. Theriot, despite 28 steals last season, is at best a #7 batter, and best-suited for eighth. Fukudome will hit for average, OBP, and doubles power, and is a good #2 or #3 hitter depending on the players around him. To Piniella's credit, he has been batting Fukudome in the #3 spot so far in the Cactus League. Then again, it just puts the lack of understanding into relief; batting Theriot second and Fukudome third is one of those things that is a bit hard to make sense of.

What has happened is teams, and even managers such as Lou Piniella, have been trained to regard secondary offensive characteristics as more important than primary ones. Speed is a secondary offensive characteristic, and it always has been. Contact rate is a secondary characteristic. The primary ones are the ability to get on base and the ability to hit for power. How well a player does those two things should determine his lineup spot.

However, on the field you can see speed and you can't really see OBP, so speed gets elevated above OBP, to the detriment of a team. Play Strat, though, and it's the opposite: OBP is capitalized and bolded, speed is tucked into a couple of spots atop the card, and the cards don't run. Play some games, and you come to realize quickly that getting the guys on base is much, much more important than how quickly they move when they get there.

Remember, the vaunted secondary effects of speed, the ones that would be present in a real baseball game, have been shown to be illusory at best. Batters hit poorly when a steal is attempted while they're up, for one, and despite all of the talk about how speed messes with the defense, there's no research that shows it to be true. There's no evidence that teams with more speed perform better than ones with less, and in fact, speed has often been a contraindicator of success (speed teams often lack the primary characteristics).

This isn't to dismiss the value of speed, but to put in its place. When constructing a lineup, you have to focus on the primary characteristics and the guiding principles first, then use things like relative speed to break ties.

Elsewhere, Tony La Russa is again considering batting his pitcher eighth in the regular season, a tactic he employed in 1998 and again in 2007. Now, very smart people have looked at this and determined that it makes some sense. I'll quote Dave Studeman quoting an unnamed contributor in The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchell Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin (because I'm in an airport bar in Indianapolis, 700 miles from my copy): "The second leadoff hitter theory exists. You can put your pitcher in the eighth slot and gain a couple of extra runs per year." I'm of the opinion that the models can't account for the tactical disadvantages of moving the pitcher up in the lineup. We know that the pitcher's spot drives decision-making-not strategy, but the kind of autoplay an eight-year-old could master-in the NL. I have to think that the negative effect on the #7 batter, and of pushing the possibility of having to hit for the pitcher slightly earlier, would swamp the runs that show up in the simulators.

In any case, I'm not here to argue for or against the tactic. What I like is that Tony La Russa is at least trying something innovative, something different. If he hasn't quite alighted on the right answer, he is thinking about the problem, rather than pushing tab A into slot B. Innovation in the running of a 25-man roster is almost dead, so I appreciate any and all attempts to inject some life into it. I may not agree with LaRussa's conclusion, but I love to see a discussion like this. It's Lineupology, and while it's for higher stakes than us Strat geeks played for at a Howard Johnson's by Newark Airport 20 years ago, the idea is the same: given nine lineup spots, how do we get the most out of them?

Oh, I almost forgot the punchline. Dr. Rany Jazayerli, a dermatologist in the Chicago area who also writes a little, walked away with his first tournament title this weekend, besting the field in Indianapolis with an 11-2 closing kick. Congrats to Rany, one of my best friends and a terrific baseball mind.

Lou, there's a tournament in Chicago in May, if you'd like to take Rany on. I guarantee he won't have Ryan Theriot batting second.

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

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