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Aledmys Diaz keeps hitting eighth

Diaz has been on fire, but has generally found himself in the eighth spot in the lineup for some reason

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Obsessing over lineups is really easy to do. There is usually a new one every day, and given they come out several hours before the start of the game, scrutinizing lineups often helps pass the time until baseball actually starts. A recent obsession of mine and many Cardinals' fans is Aledmys Diaz's curious lineup positioning. Despite being the National League's best hitter (194 wRC+ is first) over a month into the season, Diaz cannot seem to shake the eighth spot in the lineup. It is a position that makes a lot of sense and no sense at the same time.

Aledmys Diaz has been amazing so far this year, and as Ben Markham noted in his recent piece, no Cardinals hitter has done more in one month to change his projections than the Cardinals current starting shortstop. After just 102 major league plate appearances, being older than many at his debut, and a minor league career that on the whole was more on the good than great side, DIaz has already upped his hitting projections to average with a .271/.314/.424 line and 101 wRC+.

While it might be nice to say that Mike Matheny should have put Diaz higher in the lineup a month ago and taken more advantage of his great production, the information we had at the time was little fuzzier as to how much of an impact he would have. As far as what the lineup should be going forward, we should be most concerned with expected production.

When it comes to a fairly standard Matheny-like lineup, we could use as follows:

Matt Carpenter .269 .367 .438 124
Stephen Piscotty .275 .335 .428 111
Matt Holliday .268 .361 .438 121
Brandon Moss .237 .320 .450 111
Yadier Molina .282 .335 .392 101
Randal Grichuk .246 .296 .446 102
Kolten Wong .259 .314 .382 92
Aledmys Diaz .271 .314 .424 101
Pitcher .143 .170 .183 -8

One thing to notice is that this a deep lineup. The only "hole" is Kolten Wong and he is not too far from average and with base-running he is essentially average on offense. As far as lineups go based on these projections, this one is pretty good. Using the lineup tool here, this lineup scores 4.313 runs per game.

The lineup tool produces the best 30 lineups. A few notes from those lineups:

  • The optimal lineup (Carpenter, Holliday, Diaz, Piscotty, Moss, Wong, Molina, Grichuk, Pitcher) scores 4.342 runs per game. Over the course of the season, the difference between the above lineup and the optimal lineup is less than five runs total. This is why, in the general scheme of things batting order does not matter much.
  • Aledmys Diaz appears often at third, fifth, and eighth. We often think of the eighth place hitter as a poor hitter, but given how bad pitchers are at hitting generally, it is often incumbent on the eighth place hitter to do something big because if he fails, the pitcher is not likely to help. It is why Diaz, with a decent slugging percentage fits there, and why Randal Grichuk is basically the perfect eighth-place hitter.
  • Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday are very often the first two hitters with Stephen Piscotty the most common at cleanup. As the three best hitters in the lineup, this makes a lot of sense.
A little more on that third bullet point:
The third spot in the lineup has long been a badge of honor for Cardinals hitters dating back to Mark McGwire followed by Albert Pujols and now Matt Holliday. The logic was essentially that you want your best hitter to bat in the first inning and then over the course of the season he gets more plate appearances. That's not exactly terrible logic, but it makes just as much sense, if not more sense from the second spot.

The concern is that you lose RBI opportunities in the second spot, but hitting in the third spot costs a lot of opportunities, too. Without completing rehashing sound arguments Ben Humphrey made based on this piece citing the Book, I will note a few things:
  • At the very beginning of a game, the odds that neither of the first two hitters don't get on (Carpenter/Piscotty) is around 42%. Adding a third batter with a .320 OBP, the odds the fourth hitter comes up with a runner on in the first inning is 71%. Over the course of the season, just when dealing the first inning, moving a hitter from third to fourth will provide 21 more opportunities to hit with a runner on base. The single best way to try and have a batter hit with runners on base is to hit him fourth.
  • When the ninth place hitter leads off the inning, the three-hole hitter will hit with a runner on base 65% of the time (compare to 71% above). When the eighth place hitter leads off (assuming .300 OBP), the third-place hitter comes up just one-third of the time.
Cleanup is a much more important spot than third, and due to the extra at bats plus the extra opportunities to score by having good hitters behind him, second is also important. Which is where we circle back to Diaz. Moving him to seventh or sixth or even fifth isn't really important. He looks like he would fit well in the third or fifth spot right now, but that move is not going to have a real impact on scoring. That means eighth is actually an okay spot in the order to hit him.

What we know about Mike Matheny, hitting Diaz makes little sense at all. Matheny is set in his ways on a few things like Carpenter leading off (which is good) and Holliday hitting third (not so good). When it comes to most of the lineup as well as playing time, Matheny is all about rewards and demotions based on immediate results. Jeremy Hazelbaker knows this all too well.

In his first start, Hazelbaker hit eighth and hit a solo home run. He started 8 of the next ten games from the second spot in the lineup. Then when he had two games without a hit, Hazelbaker could barely find the lineup for two weeks. The same thing happened to Tommy Pham last season. The logic behind "get a hit, play the next day, don't get a hit, get benched" is generally very poor given what we know about just four plate appearances and would also seem to undermine any confidence level in young players, but it has also provided opportunities to players who seem to keep playing well, which is why Diaz in the eighth spot makes no sense.

Using normal logic, the eighth spot is not a terrible place for Diaz. Using Matheny logic, Diaz already should have been a fixture at the top of the lineup. I realize this post is a bit unusual given the Cardinals are about to start three games that include a designated hitter, but a refresher on the importance, or lack thereof, on lineups as well as a response to the growing chorus of complaints about the lineup, Diaz in eighth in particular, seemed necessary.

In sum, Diaz hitting eighth is fine, but Matheny's lack of confidence in Diaz is concerning.