Optimizing the Orioles Lineup
With a few new players in tow on offense, it’s almost a guarantee that Buck Showalter’s lineups are going to look a little different on a day-to-day basis in the 2017 season. And while the prevailing theory is that lineup construction doesn’t matter too terribly much, today we’re going to take a look at what might be the best course of action in terms of writing daily lineups this season.
As a brief aside, I think the concept of lineup construction not mattering much assumes some level of proficiency. That is, I don’t think they theory would say a lineup with Manny Machado batting first will score as many runs as one with him batting ninth if it were used all 162 games, for instance. I feel like that theory assumes it doesn’t matter too much if Machado bats anywhere from first to say….fourth, all of which are sensible spots to use him on a daily basis.
I can’t prove that lineup construction matters, but what I can prove regarding my theory is that my independent research found that each batting order spot is worth about plus-15 in the plate appearance department. In other words, if leadoff hitters get 700 plate appearances throughout a full season for the Orioles, No. 2 hitters get roughly 685, No. 3 hitters 670 and so on.
Last year, Orioles leadoff hitters recorded 748 plate appearances while No. 9 hitters checked in with 599. That’s 149 plate appearances divided by nine spots for between 16 and 17 plate appearances per lineup spot. Obviously, 149 plate appearances for a player like Machado would make a big deal, right? It’d be difficult to nail down with a number, 149 plate appearances represents 21.4 percent of Machado’s trips to the plate last season.
Now as we noted, we’re obviously not talking about Machado batting first or ninth, but it does leave some wiggle room that we can explore with, right? So that’s the basis for looking into lineup decisions.
(Chat about this here on the BSL boards!)
Furthermore, Buck was prone to hitting Adam Jones leadoff far too often last season. Jones led off 108 times last season with a .310 OBP. Buck’s other preferred option was Joey Rickard, who wasn’t much better at .319. Now it’s worth noting that it was during Rickard’s hotter stretch of the season, but Rickard didn’t move the needle in that respect as he had just a .297 OBP in 183 plate appearances out of the top spot.
In short, it’ll probably surprise nobody that only two AL teams got less production from their leadoff hitters OBP-wise. Orioles leadoff hitters batted .264/.310/.427 — basically the Adam Jones special, huh? — while the Royals and A’s checked in worse. Much worse, actually; both teams had sub-.300 OBP marks from their leadoff hitters. With that said, keep in mind how terrible the A’s were and how much ridicule Ned Yost gets over his lineup decisions, namely the bunting and also batting Alcides Escobar leadoff.
Buck can do better, but it hasn’t totally been his fault, either.
It’s not as though the Orioles have been equipped with an OBP dynamo in their offense in recent seasons, even as the team has been very good. For instance, the 2015 Orioles only had two (!) regulars with OBPs over .310. They were Chris Davis and Machado — neither of which are really leadoff hitter fodder. So it makes sense that Showalter had to kind of build a lineup on the fly without much regard to contemporary statistical measures.
That’s no longer true, however. Showalter’s hesitance to use Hyun-Soo Kim eventually subsided and in nearly 100 games the outfielder posted an OBP of .382. Boom, you have a ready-made leadoff hitter. Or at least one on the long side of a leadoff platoon, if that’s a thing. You can tell Buck didn’t have much confidence in Kim against lefties as he only allowed him 22 plate appearances against them all last season. You also can’t blame him; Kim went 0-for-17 with four walks for a slash line of .000/.227/.000. So…..yikes.
Still, that solves the issue of leadoff hitter roughly 75 percent of the time. Rickard is going to spell Seth Smith — more on him in a second — in right field against lefties and has a fairly good recent track record against them, not only in the big leagues but also the high minors. Rickard hit .313/.367/.494 against lefties in 90 plate appearances last season, so that’s a ready-made leadoff hitter against lefties. You can argue it’s too small of a sample size — for the record, I’d agree — but we already know Buck is comfortable enough with him to run him out there. It just makes sense.
The newer school of thinking with the No. 2 hitter is that your best hitter goes there. Without question, that’s Machado. Now, if Showalter has some reticence regarding bunching his order up, he has some ways to work around that as well. To rephrase that, some managers prefer to “lengthen” out the lineup to prevent higher spots from being dead spots. For instance, some managers don’t like being awesome from 1-4 and then weak the rest of the way. In some respects, Buck feels a little like that. After all, he batted J.J. Hardy second 150 times in 2012. Hardy hit just .232/.282/.389 that season.
That’s not to say Showalter still subscribes to that theory, but it happened. There’s significant evidence that maybe he doesn’t. For instance, that was Machado’s first year of MLB experience, so he wasn’t exactly the key cog in the lineup that he is right now. Then, in 2013, Machado batted second 154 times when he — or maybe Nick Markakis — was clearly the best or one of the best options in the lineup. In the interim, Showalter hasn’t exactly stuck to a real predominant second hitter, so we’re left not totally sure where he stands on that. Again, that could be due to team OBP — or lack thereof — that he’s been left with.
If Showalter so chooses, he could lengthen out the lineup against righties with Smith in the No. 2 spot. Smith has a solid .344 career OBP and will play almost exclusively against righties, against whom he has a career OBP of .355. It would be hard to find a more ideal lineup lengthener than that. As a result, we’ll go half-and-half with this theory. Against righties, we’ll say Showalter wants to go a little longer with the lineup, but against lefties, we’ll plant Machado in the second spot.
From there it’s pretty clear that Machado slots in next against righties. He’s the team’s best hitter by almost any measure except raw power and could hit anywhere in the lineup and make sense. After that, the next three hitters in some order are Jones, Davis and Mark Trumbo. Jones was awful against lefties last season but does not have a terrible platoon split against them for his career, so he could make some sense in the No. 3 spot if the belief is that’s a one-year aberration. Trumbo also struggled against lefties and Davis is a lefty, so there isn’t really a perfect scenario here. We’re just going to play it straight and let Showalter sort that out if he so desires.
On the surface, it might seem to make sense to have Jones hit in front of the mashers, but he doesn’t get on base and it doesn’t really make sense for him to hit cleanup and push those guys all the way down to fifth and sixth against righties, either. So we’ll go Davis-Trumbo-Jones. Or maybe Davis-Jones-Trumbo? Does it make sense to split up the mashers? I’m not really sure. We’ll go with the first one, but let us know what you think in the forums. Against lefties though we’ll put him in there in front of them.
The rest of the lineup is a little tricky, and not necessarily for good reason. The rest of the lineup is low-OBP thumpers, though there is some flexibility based on platoon stuff. Hardy and Welington Castillo can hit lefties a bit better, while Jonathan Schoop has been better against righties in his career.
The other wild card is who will play left against lefties, as Buck will likely mix and match with Rickard but he also can’t expose Smith against lefties too much.
Ultimately, here’s what I’ve come up with:
- Kim LF
- Smith RF
- Machado 3B
- Davis 1B
- Trumbo DH
- Jones CF
- Schoop 2B
- Castillo C
- Hardy SS
- Rickard RF
- Machado 3B
- Jones CF
- Davis 1B
- Trumbo DH
- Castillo C
- Hardy SS
- Schoop 2B
- Bourn LF
Bourn in left against lefties is purely hypothetical. I know he’s injured and up against the timeline to make it back for opening day, but I also just don’t see Kim being the starter against lefties. The O’s could go with Trumbo in the outfield and let Trey Mancini DH against lefties, too. Mancini posted a .978 OPS against lefties across 151 plate appearances at Triple-A Norfolk and a brief cup of coffee in the big leagues.
Anyway, what do you think? I personally think Mancini at DH and Trumbo in RF against lefties makes a lot of sense, but I don’t quite have the conviction to say that right now.