Cards Lineup Optimization -- Tango Style

Today I’m going to look at a piece of Dan’s post yesterday from a slightly different point of view. About a week and a half ago, Sky Kalkman over at Beyond the Boxscore discussed how teams should optimize their lineup by The Book. So if we use The Book as our guide for the optimal lineup, what would the Cards’ lineup look like?

First, some background. It should be pointed out initially that Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin extensively researched the number of plate appearances, the likelihood of runners being on base, and the run probabilities of each lineup position. They showed, conclusively, that the traditional method managers have of distributing their hitters in the batting order does not maximize the number of runs produced. Now, I’ll allow that there’s not going to be a huge difference over the course of a season between the way a traditional manager will distribute his hitters and the optimal way to distribute the batters. However, if you can gain 10-15 runs over the course of a season by optimizing your batting order, shouldn’t you?

Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin demonstrate in their book that the leadoff hitter needn’t be a one who steals a lot of bases, as has traditionally been done. In fact, the best basestealers are wasted in front of your power hitters. They need to be pushed down in the order in front of the singles hitters. The leadoff hitter should be a high OBP guy. Homeruns will be wasted in this spot b/c the leadoff hitter bats w/ a runner on base much less frequently than other hitters in the lineup.

The #2 hitter should, again, be a high OBP guy, not a Jay Bell or Aaron Miles. (No one batted 2nd more often for the Cards last year than Aaron Miles. Miles should’ve been either 6th, 7th, or 9th.) Traditional managers have always placed their best hitters in the 3 hole. The Book tells us that they’re wasting their best hitters by batting them 3rd b/c they bat w/ runners on base much less frequently than the #4 and #5 hitters. They’re also poorly placed b/c the #2 spot comes up much more frequently over the course of a season than the 3 hole. Among the top 5 spots in the order, the #3 hole is probably the worst spot for Pujols.

The cleanup hitter should be, along w/ the #1 and #2 hitters, one of your best 3 hitters. He comes up to bat w/ more runners on base than the #2 hitter, but much less frequently than the #2 hitter. Power is essential in the 4 spot. The #5 spot is much like the #3 spot but can be more valuable than the #3 hitter as long as he’s not an all-or-nothing homerun hitter. The pure-homer guy would be a better fit in the 3 hole whereas a guy who gets on base more frequently would fit better at #5.

The rest of the batting order should, basically, be allocated in decreasing order by their hitting ability w/ 2 small exceptions. First, if any of these 4 players is an above average basestealer, he belongs in the 6 hole in front of the other singles hitters. Teams can best take advantage of that basestealing ability at the bottom of the order (unless the basestealer’s also one of your best 4 or 5 hitters, ala Jimmy Rollins). The other caveat is that the pitcher should bat 8th rather than 9th. Yes, the #8 hitter bats more frequently than the #9 hitter. However, it should be pointed out that pitchers only bat about twice a game. The pinch hitter often isn’t going to be considerably worse than the worst hitting position player. Even if he is, the benefit of having the slightly better position player in the 9 hole, in terms of providing the best hitters at the top of the order w/ another runner on base, is greater than the cost in terms of having the #8 hitter bat more often during the course of the season.

This other stuff, pointed out by Dan yesterday, from Tony about only batting the pitcher eighth when there is an ideal "second leadoff hitter" is simply hogwash. Rasmus belongs in this spot b/c he has speed? No, not according to The Book. Tony was right in batting the pitcher 8th last year and will be right when he does it this year. Not doing it b/c Duncan’s in the OF instead of Rasmus is…well, hogwash.

The problem w/ trying to optimize our lineup is that we’ll have so many of them. Sometimes Duncan will play and sometimes Rasmus will play. Skip has no business playing against lefties (and maybe Duncan or Rasmus don’t either) so we should see Ryan at 2nd against southpaws. Freese/Mather will play 3rd until Glaus gets healthy. So let’s look at the optimal lineup against righties w/ Duncan in the OF instead of Rasmus. The first problem w/ optimizing this lineup is that the 3 best hitters – Pujols, Ludwick, and Glaus are the best power hitters as well and it’s reasonable to wonder if any of them belong in the 1 hole. The 4th highest OBP guy last year was Skip Schumaker. Unfortunately, he’s only projected to have a .341 (Chone) or .344 (PECOTA) OBP this year. That’s just not good enough for the leadoff spot. There’s Duncan, who’s been a high OBP guy when healthy, but he, too, has power and you’d be wasting homers. If Skip can put up a .359 OBP again, he would be a decent fit in the 1 hole. Still, your top 3 hitters should bat in the leadoff, #2, and cleanup spots and there’s no doubt that Skip is distinctly NOT one of the Cards’ 3 best hitters. Therefore, I’m going w/ Glaus. He’s not an ideal fit, but he’s better than Skip (when healthy).

Pujols belongs either in the 2 hole or the cleanup spot. The cleanup spot bats more frequently w/ runners on base while the #2 hitter bats more often, period. Since Pujols is so good, he’s just not pitched to as often as we’d like – runners on base or not – so I’m going to put him in the 2 hole so that he gets more PAs. Plus, we know that Tony likes to see him hit in the first inning and this guarantees him a PA in the opening inning. Therefore, I’m putting Ludwick in the cleanup spot. He hit as many homers last year as Pujols, so Pujols doesn’t have a distinct power advantage. He’s a better hitter, but doesn’t necessarily have more power. There’s a good argument for swapping Pujols and Ludwick but, since Pujols walks so much more frequently than Ludwick, he belongs in the 2 hole.

The 3 spot hitter holds an advantage over the 5 hole hitter w/ homers and the 5 hole hitter has an advantage w/ avoiding outs. Thus, Ankiel goes in the 3 spot w/ Duncan in the 5 hole. They both have a ton of power but, when healthy, Duncan’s simply a better OBP guy. Putting Ankiel 3rd and Duncan 5th also helps our lineup by having us go R-L-R-L in spots 2 through 5. Any manager who wants to bring in a lefty to face Ankiel and Duncan’s going to have to have him face Ludwick as well. (Ludwick was much better vs. lefties -- .929 OPS – last year than previously and he’d certainly be better than either Ankiel or Duncan, reverse splits or no.)

6, 7, 8, and 9 should be Skip, Greene, the pitcher, and Yadi though there’s an argument to be made that Greene should bat 6th, w/ Skip 7th so that you continue staggering the lefties and righties. Skip’s better at getting on base. Greene’s better w/ power so it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference. Therefore, I’m going w/ Greene 6th and Skip 7th.

  1. Glaus
  2. Pujols
  3. Ankiel
  4. Ludwick
  5. Duncan
  6. Greene
  7. Schumaker
  8. Pitcher
  9. Molina
What about when Rasmus plays instead of Duncan? You could put Skip at the leadoff spot, w/ Glaus 5th. Rasmus then bats 6th, to take advantage of his basestealing ability, and Greene hits 7th, followed by the pitcher and Yadi. But that just doesn’t make a lot of sense unless Glaus and Skip have almost identical OBPs. As long as Glaus is considerably better at getting on base, he stays in the leadoff spot. Ankiel’s a high-homer guy, so he goes in the 3 hole. Skip moves to #5, w/ Greene 6 and Rasmus 7. This gives us the lefty-righty balance we want, plus it moves Skip – now our 5th best hitter – further up in the lineup where he would belong. Hitting Rasmus in the 7th spot instead of the 9 hole (where Tony would like to put him) allows him to better take advantage of his ability to steal bases. Rasmus should easily be our best basestealer this year.

  1. Glaus
  2. Pujols
  3. Ankiel
  4. Ludwick
  5. Skip
  6. Greene
  7. Rasmus
  8. Pitcher
  9. Molina
What about for the first month, when Freese/Mather plays 3rd rather than Glaus? Now Skip goes in the leadoff spot and we hope that he can put up the .359 OBP he put up last year. If we had gotten a .359 OBP out of the leadoff spot all year long, it would have been the 2nd best in the NL, behind Hanley Ramirez’s ridiculous .400 OBP out of the leadoff spot. Skip leads off, followed by Pujols, Ankiel, Ludwick, Duncan, Freese/Mather, Greene (you could swap Greene and the 3B if you want), the pitcher, and Yadi. When Rasmus plays, either Greene or the 3B goes in the 3 hole w/ the other batting 6th. Rasmus hits 7th and Skip leads off.

What about vs. lefties? I’ll assume here that Glaus/Freese plays 3rd, Ankiel plays CF, Mather plays LF, and Ryan plays 2B. That’s probably the way it should play out unless we’re better off w/ Rasmus in CF b/c of his defense vis-à-vis Ankiel’s. Here, we can’t consider Ryan in the leadoff spot. We’ll stay w/ Glaus, Pujols, and Ludwick in the 1, 2, and 4 spots. Mather’s always mashed against lefties in the minors, though he struggled some in limited PAs last year against southpaws at the major league level. Greene’s always been stronger against lefties than righties at the major league level but there’s an argument to be made that Ankiel’s still as good or better than Greene against lefties. Last year, in 123 PAs against lefties, Ankiel’s OPS was .717. It’s a small sample, but it’s worse than he fared in 2007 against lefties (just 51 PAs). Greene’s career OPS against lefties is .758. Since Ankiel’s the only lefty in the lineup, it doesn’t much matter where he goes in terms of forcing the manager’s hand late in the game. Still, I like Greene’s chances against a lefty better than Ankiel’s so we’ll put Ankiel in the 3 hole w/ Greene in the 5 hole. There’s not much difference between Ryan and Molina – either could bat 7th or 9th. Molina’s career OPS against lefties is slightly higher (.746 to .732) but Ryan has slightly more speed and is easier for the pitcher to sacrifice so we’ll put Ryan 7th and leave Molina at the bottom of the order.

  1. Glaus
  2. Pujols
  3. Ankiel
  4. Ludwick
  5. Greene
  6. Mather
  7. Ryan
  8. Pitcher
  9. Molina
When Freese plays instead of Glaus, it’s not at all clear who our 3rd best hitter is but I can’t abide Greene, w/ his career .324 OBP against lefties, in the leadoff spot. No. Won’t do it. Then who? Freese? Mather? Ryan? Yuck! Pujols? No, not enough runners on base. Let’s try Freese there (10% career minor league BB rate vs. Mather’s 8.7%) and pray. It won’t be difficult to beat Greene’s career .324 OBP. The rest of the order remains the same. If Rasmus plays instead of Ankiel, Mather (I guess) bats 3rd and Rasmus hits 6th. Why not? He’s got more speed than Ryan and can’t be that much worse at the plate. If he is, Ankiel will play against lefties.

The more I look at this, it’s hard to like our lineup a lot against lefties – at least until Glaus gets healthy. Hopefully Freese and Mather will hit a little – Chone likes both of them quite a lot, actually. But they won’t hit like Glaus. April could be a long month. In fact, we should face 3 lefties in that first series against the Pirates. Oh dear! Cross your fingers.

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