An Optimized Oriole Lineup
Way back in 2007 three baseball analysts published a book titled The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball which took a look at many aspects of the game that could be improved upon through careful analysis and consideration. Among the topics discussed were sacrifice bunts, intentional walks, clutch performance, platooning strategies, and more. The most relevant topic discussed was how to build an optimized batting lineup. Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin analyzed the impact of various lineup spots on the game and developed an ideal setup that would theoretically increase run production.
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Last season the Orioles gave up approximately 15 runs as a result of having a non-optimized lineup. 15 runs translates to roughly a win and a half, meaning that the team hurt its win total by having a non-optimized lineup. From the FanGraphs community research:
Chris Davis started the season out as the Orioles #5 hitter, because no one yet knew he would transform into some sort of robot humanoid. Once the transformation was well underway, Buck Showalter continued batting Davis fifth and a struggling Nick Markakis third, likely because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the idea that moving a hot batter to a different spot in the order could somehow throw him out of his groove. It took the Orioles until the middle of August to move Davis into the three-hole and by then Davis’ low spot in the order relative to his production likely cost them a handful of runs. Given the disparity of his OBP compared to his teammates, he’s even better suited for the two-hole.
With the signing of Nelson Cruz, I decided to take a look at what an optimized Oriole lineup might look like for 2014. I’ll be using Sky Kalkman’s lineup optimization guide as a rough basis for my thoughts, so familiarizing yourself with it might prove helpful in understanding the order I recommend. Without any further ado:
Versus Left-handed Pitchers
From Sky Kalkman’s guide:
The old-school book says to put a speedy guy up top. Power isn’t important, and OBP is nice, but comes second to speed.
The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they’re not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.
Last season Orioles’ leadoff hitters managed an OBP of just .331, which while above the team average of .313 isn’t as good as it could be. My solution would be to bat Nick Markakis first. In 405 plate appearances leading off, Markakis has posted an OBP of .375, and nearly as many walks as strikeouts (30 BB, 32 K). He’s the perfect table setter for this club if he bounces back at all.
Even in a down season last year, Markakis posted a .319/.352/.368 triple slash over 159 plate appearances leading off. Even if he doesn’t bounce back he’d be a solid table setter for the club leading off. I’m also not worried about him batting leadoff against lefties because his OBP was only .005 points worse last year against same handed pitchers.
Leading off: Nick Markakis, RF
According to Kalkman the #2 hitter bats in equally important situations as the #3 hitter, but more frequently. This should also be a high OBP hitter, as it’s important to get runners on base in the situation, similar to the leadoff spot.
I’m inclined to bat Chris Davis here, but I won’t (at least not against lefties). The nod goes to Nelson Cruz who posted a .279/.359/.462 line against left-handed pitchers last season. Cruz actually hits for more power against righties, but he doesn’t get on base nearly as often as he does against lefties. He’s an imperfect fit, but as good as any I could find on the team.
Batting second: Nelson Cruz, DH
This spot is traditionally where teams put their best hitter, but that’s not what the numbers suggest is most advantageous. Ideally this is your third best hitter, especially if the player lives with the long ball more than other players. Typically they come up to bat with fewer base-runners on base than the two hitters behind them.
The hitter who will bat third in my lineup has the following triple slash against left-handed pitchers: .235/.289/.475. That abysmal batting average and on base percentage belongs to MVP candidate Chris Davis, who crushes right-handed pitching but struggles somewhat against lefties.
Fortunately for Davis though, his power is still so strong against lefties that he deserves a spot in the top half of the lineup. Even if he is only the 4th best overall hitter against them.
Batting third: Chris Davis, 1B
From Sky Kalkman:
The Book says the #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots, but is equal in importance to the #2 hole once you consider the #2 guy receives more plate appearances. The cleanup hitter is the best hitter on the team with power.
Well if that’s not Chris Davis, I don’t know what is. Well, actually it’s not against left-handed pitchers. Davis was actually pretty bad against lefties last year in everything except for the power department. The guy I’d go with here is Matt Wieters. Yep. Matt Wieters’ .872 OPS against lefties was actually more than .100 points better than Chris Davis.
Batting cleanup: Matt Wieters, C
My fifth hitter is JJ Hardy who actually has the second best slugging percentage against lefties of anyone on the team. Hardy’s triple slash of .264/.305/.478 shows that he does live and die with the long ball here, but not as much as teammate Chris Davis. His batting average and on base percentage leave a lot to be desired, but the slugging percentage shows his impressive pop. The power is legit, and an argument could be made that he’s one of the best overall hitters on this team against lefties.
Batting fifth: JJ Hardy, SS
There is little impact that comes from the order of your six through nine hitters, but there is some logic here. Generally these hitters will go down in descending order of performance, and I’ve generally stuck to that with my lineup.
Manny Machado has a pretty solid overall line against lefties. In 2013 he hit .292/.323/.439 against left-handed pitching, which would have him in the discussion for a spot in the first five spots if it wasn’t for Chris Davis’ prodigious power. As it is though, Machado makes a very good sixth hitter in this potent offense.
Batting sixth: Manny Machado, 3B
Being the face of the franchise doesn’t get you moved up arbitrarily in my lineup, and I’d be shocked if the team ever hit Adam Jones this low. However his triple slash of .251/.315/.417 is actually pretty decent considering it’s barely below league average. So the seventh spot in the lineup is where the Orioles go from above to below league average. In case you are keeping score at home.
Batting seventh: Adam Jones, CF
The hitter who will take the eighth spot in the lineup is someone who struggles with taking walks. Since Adam Jones and JJ Hardy have already been listed I’m sure some of you are confused, but I’m actually talking about David Lough here. Lough has posted a very good batting average (.022 points better than league average) against lefties, but his on base percentage is actually below league average. His has some power, and a good bat, but he’ll need to take more walks to move up in the lineup.
Batting eighth: David Lough, LF
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but Ryan Flaherty will round out the lineup here as his career triple slash against lefties isn’t anything to write home about. Flaherty will need to improve his batting average (.229) by making more hard contact, and take more walks (.250 OBP) in order to move up. His slugging percentage of .400 is actually good for a nine hitter, and there’s some hope that he could hit for more power if he improved his hit tool a bit.
Batting ninth: Ryan Flaherty, 2B
Versus Right-handed Pitchers
The Orioles have a right-handed heavy lineup, so this is the match-up that will prove to be most difficult for them. In the “everyone except Chris Davis” category Nick Markakis is the team leader in on base percentage against righties with a respectable .330 mark. As such, he’s still my lead-off man.
Leading off: Nick Markakis, RF
A league average weighted runs created (wRC+) is 100, as the stat is an index with all performances below 100 being below average and all above being better than league average. The number above/below is the percentage above/below compared to league average. For example, aplayer with a wRC+ of 108 is 8% better at creating runs than league average.
Chris Davis’ wRC+ against right-handed pitching is 203. Two hundred and three. If that’s not enough, here’s his batting line: .316/.415/.728.
You might be surprised that I have Davis here rather than hitting fourth, but there’s a simple reason for that. The Orioles have two other hitters who hit for decent power against righties (nearly .100 points above average in SLG), and this allows Davis to get at least 50 more at-bats than batting him fourth. In fact, the effect of moving a hitter up in the lineup is pronounced as the more runs you score the more frequently the top of your lineup gets to hit.
Basically by hitting Davis second I’ll be able to bank on him getting on base roughly 40% of the time, and he’ll get a significant bump in plate appearances over a full season. More at bats for Chris Davis is better.
Batting second: Chris Davis, 1B
I genuinely believed, prior to coming up with my lineup, that I would drop this hitter much further against righties. Nope, not the case. Nelson Cruz is my third hitter, as he gets on base at a decent clip and has the third best slugging percentage (.521) against righties on the team. This spot isn’t as important as the one following it or preceding it, which is why he’s bookended by the two best hitters on the team.
Batting third: Nelson Cruz, DH
Your second best hitter against right-handed pitching is actually Adam Jones, owner of a .300/.319/.526 batting line. Jones had a terrific season last year, hitting 30+ home runs (for the second straight season), scoring over 100 runs (also for the second consecutive season), and batting in 100 runs. Ironically, Jones has a reverse platoon split so most of that damage comes against righties, making him an ideal candidate for the cleanup spot against right-handed pitching.
Batting fourth: Adam Jones, CF
This is the spot where the Orioles lineup would drop below league average, as the fifth hitter performs worse against right-handed pitching despite moving up in the lineup. Manny Machado’s line of .279/.310/.429 is slightly below league average (.259/.314/.435 vs. RHP) but still respectable considering we’re on the back half of the lineup at this point. There’s also reason to believe Manny will improve this season making that line look just a little bit better.
Batting fifth: Manny Machado, 3B
This spot and the seventh are interchangeable to me, but I’ll give some logic to why I have them the way I do. This spot in my lineup goes to David Lough, who has hit .277/.307/.393 against right-handed pitching. My hope is that Lough is able to improve his OBP and power against righties given his high batting average and contact rate. That’s why he gets the nod over my seventh hitter…
Batting sixth: David Lough, LF
JJ Hardy is my seventh hitter against right-handed pitching, and his line is very close to Lough’s. Hardy hit .262/.306/.414 against righties in 2013, which is actually a little better than his career line against same handed pitchers. Hardy is what he is at this point so there’s unlikely to be room for major improvement. As such I’ll defer to Lough’s upside in the sixth spot, and keep Hardy hitting seventh.
Batting seventh: JJ Hardy, SS
This spot and the ninth are also interchangeable, but I’ve gone with (limited) upside yet again. My eighth hitter posted a .214/.270/.358 line against right-handed pitching in 2013, but his career line is a little bit better: .244/.310/.393 so there’s the potential to bounce back there. Additionally, this hitter could give up switch hitting, and maybe he’d perform at an even better rate.
This hitter is of course Matt wieters, catcher extraordinaire. 2013 was a rough year for Wieters, but there’s plenty of reason to believe he’d improve over last season.
Batting eighth: Matt Wieters, C
As I mentioned above, this player could be moved up to eighth but I have them ninth because they don’t have the immediate upside for improvement like Wieters. Ryan Flaherty would bring up the rear on my right-handed pitcher lineup as well, and his triple slash of .220/.282/.376 is all you need to know to understand why.
Batting ninth: Ryan Flaherty, 2B
Below is a simple (and pretty ugly) graphic that shows the movement of players from my lineup against lefties to my lineup against righties. As you can clearly see, the first and ninth hitters are consistent, but everything in between is a jumbled mess. Gotta love platoon splits.