We can talk about batting order a lot, but the difference it makes over the course of a season is not that big. Far more important than the order of the hitters in the lineup is choosing the group of players to make up the lineup. If a hitter bats third instead of eighth, that means he might get one more plate appearances in the game, but the difference between the bench and the lineup is a difference of three-to-five plate appearances. Mike Matheny recently revealed some of his process to Jenifer Langosch at MLB.com and it provides information we do not always see.
As for when he maps out his starting lineup, he generally does it before the start of a series. The Langosch piece deals specifically with Sunday's lineup:
The rough draft of Sunday's lineup is produced before the team's three-game series in Los Angeles even starts. With an off-day coming on Monday, Matheny likes the option of getting veteran catcher Yadier Molina consecutive days off. He pencils this in as a start for Eric Fryer and alerts Molina to the likelihood that he'll sit on Sunday.
This seemingly flies in the face of one of the more recent criticisms of Matheny's lineups, that he simply looks at how a player did the previous day and bases his lineup on those outcomes. Planning a lineup in advance of a series is a very good idea. I think planning Yadier Molina's days off is probably something that could be done weeks in advance. Creating a plan in advance helps remove bias and prevents simply going to a comfortable lineup.
As part of the process, Matheny solicits outside help:
Still a few days out, Matheny then watches video of lefty Alex Wood, Sunday's scheduled starter. He looks for tendencies and studies pitch repertoire to determine potential favorable matchups. He'll also solicit feedback from the Cards' baseball operations staff, which provides Matheny with pages of data.
This was probably my favorite part of the piece. This attempt to converge scouting with statistics is exactly how an organization would work. Obviously, we don't know what data Matheny is given and how he interprets it. If he just looks at individual pitcher-hitter matchups, then the information is worthless, perhaps even detrimaental, but looking at how a pitcher pitches and then trying to match that information with statistics is a very positive development.
The next step is also generally positive, but falls apart at the end:
From that, Matheny jots down his first attempt, which he then circulates to the coaching staff for additional input. He welcomes their feedback and often adjusts his rough draft accordingly. Rarely, however, does that first sketch of the lineup stick. And this is no exception.
Getting input from the coaching staff and adjusting accordingly is a good thing to do. That's the whole point of the coaching staff. At this point, Matheny has sifted through a ton of information and opinions from both baseball operations and his staff, looked at the opposition and how they match up with his team. We might quibble here and there with some of the process--he could maybe start earlier--but overall this seems like a good way to do things. Even if you disagree with the result, the process is understandable.
That last sentence above is where many of the frustrations with Matheny's lineups begin.
While watching the first two games of the series play out, Matheny had his decision to sit Molina reaffirmed, but individual performances led him to change course in other ways.
Matheny decides that he doesn't want Kolten Wong to sit on both Saturday and Sunday, not after Wong's two-triple game on Friday. Though his first draft had Jedd Gyorko drawing the start at second base, Matheny writes down another option that would include an unorthodox left-on-left matchup in an effort to help Wong sustain some positive momentum.
Going into the series, Matheny had originally decided to have Gyorko hit on Saturday and Sunday against two lefties and gain the platoon advantage. Wong hit two triples, changing Matheny's perception and altering a reasoned plan. Playing Wong in one of the two games over the weekend is a defensible decision for a young player who has struggled. Showing confidence in him is part of a manager's job. However, this decision ignored the scouting and the data Matheny had just looked at in making his choice.
The Cardinals faced two lefties over the weekend in Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood. Kazmir does not have big platoon splits, which means that lefties and righties fare roughly evenly against him. Alex Wood, whose delivery Matheny had just watched, is a rather funky one and over the course of his career, Wood's FIP against lefties was a small 2.45 while his FIP against righties was a much more average 3.70. If Wong was going to start one of the weekend games, shouldn't it have come Saturday. Jedd Gyorko, who got a hit Saturday, was not rewarded for his efforts, but did that hit come into the decision-making process?
Jeremy Hazelbaker also benefited from pinch-hitting a home run against a gassed Kazmir on Sunday by getting the start on Sunday. While without Tommy Pham, the Cardinals do not have another right-handed option, going with Hazelbaker over presumably Moss (has hit lefties decently in his career), who went 0-4 with two strikeouts on Saturday, isn't a bad decision, making a change based on a pinch-hit makes little sense. The best way to sustain positive momentum is to continue to put players in positions with the greatest chance of success, not hope that they go against the logic of the matchup.
There are a lot of really good things going on in this process, but looking at the results of one day and justifying decisions based on those results makes little sense, especially when they fly in the face of well-reasoned choices made just days earlier. We can talk about the hot-hand fallacy, which does not exist in a way that does enough to inform decisions, but this isn't hot hand stuff, we are talking about one at bat.* Understanding Mike Matheny's process for constructing a lineup is interesting and he does a lot of good things, but relying on instinct or misunderstood notions of momentum undoes a lot of the good work he and the rest of the Cardinals' organization create.
*There was a piece last year about the hot hand indicating it might actually exist. Unfortunately, it was more an argument over semantics. Take Aldemys Diaz for example. Heading into the season, he was projected to be a decently below average hitter this season. He had a crazy first few weeks and all of a sudden his projections were average. From that point on, our expectations for Diaz had changed, but going by the hot hand study, he was still supposed to be below average so if he just hit at an average level, it might seem as though he was constantly hot, when in fact, we just know he is a better hitter than we originally though. For more discussion on the subject, go here.