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Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments | SportsLibrary.net
The obsession with lineups

 

By Roger Weber

 

What makes a good #3 hitter? Leadoff hitters are easy, right. They should get on base as often as possible. Some feel speed is important to a leadoff hitter. I suppose there is some excitement from having a player get on base in the first inning and then threaten to steal second base, but truly that doesn't have much impact on performance.

 

But our question is about #3 hitters. Many managers say it should be the team's best five-tool player. I disagree. I think it should be a team's third best player. He should follow the two best players.

           

In baseball today there is an obsession that fans and managers have with batting order. They feel that where certain players are will drastically affect a team's performance. While batting a struggling player behind or in front of a superstar may improve his stats because of the pitching he will receive (Roger Maris, 1961 and Mickey Mantle), but the basis for batting orders – leadoff hitters getting on base and stealing, cleanup hitters driving in the first three batters who have reached base safely and the #5 hitter there to clean up the bases in case the #4 hitter makes out – rarely work out as planned. Usually a team can go a whole year without ever getting the first three players on and setting up a cleanup hitter for a grand slam situation.

 

Nevertheless the obsession with lineup persists. It would make more sense if the batting order started over each inning and the leadoff hitter actually would lead off each inning. Burying poor hitters at the #7 spot would make much more sense that way. Still though, even in that format lineup wouldn't have too much impact on a team's performance because every player within reason, no matter how talented, makes out 50-70% of the time.

 

The truth is the batting order doesn't really matter.

 

Managers don't like to put a power hitter in the #1 spot because he can't drive in RBI there. Well, let's think about that. That is a true statement about the first inning. But what happens in future innings. The #5 batter, whom managers usually like to have as a power hitter who can drive in runs, is most likely to lead off the second inning. So if we started the game in the second inning instead of the first our order would on average leave our best players to the bottom of the order. In the third inning the pitcher may lead off – not many managers would be in favor of that.

 

Scorecards do perpetuate uniformity between teams. Organizations that lack a traditional #1 hitter or a classic cleanup hitter trade for that type of player, sometimes when they aren't really even in need of a player like that.

 

But ideas with lineups, as they do with players' careers, focus on the beginning. People like to focus on players' past success instead of future possibility when considering players, and with lineups they like to consider only the first inning. Most fans fail to realize that the batting order makes little difference because players will, over nine innings, come up in all different situations. Sometimes they will lead off the inning, sometimes they will be the third or fourth batter in the inning. That is based on randomness.

 

Normally teams get base-runners 13.4 times per game, while attaining about 24 (if they don't bat in the bottom of the ninth) or 27 times. Based on these numbers, below is a scorecard-like chart of two "average" games and where the players will bat in each inning's batting order. Each inning four to five players come up on average, so the white columns measure the average as four, the gray as five. Remember, these are averages. Obviously every inning's length differs. In an 8-4 baseball game there are billions of possibilities for the line score, so the possibilities for the batting order are also great. But on average, these are the figures. Sometimes the first inning will go seven batters. Sometimes just three, but on average it goes about four or five batters, usually closer to four. (Reads like a scorecard. Gray columns are one game, white are the other.)

 

 

1

1

2

2

3

3

4

4

5

5

6

6

7

7

8

8

9

9

P1

1

1

 

5

2

 

 

4

3

 

 

3

4

 

 

2

 

 

P2

2

2

 

 

3

1

 

5

4

 

 

4

 

 

1

3

 

 

P3

3

3

 

 

4

2

 

 

 

1

1

5

 

 

2

4

 

 

P4

4

4

 

 

 

3

1

 

 

2

2

 

 

1

3

5

 

 

P5

 

5

1

 

 

4

2

 

 

3

3

 

 

2

4

 

 

1

P6

 

 

2

1

 

5

3

 

 

4

4

 

 

3

 

 

1

2

P7

 

 

3

2

 

 

4

1

 

5

 

 

1

4

 

 

2

3

P8

 

 

4

3

 

 

 

2

1

 

 

1

2

5

 

 

3

4

P9

 

 

 

4

1

 

 

3

2

 

 

2

3

 

 

1

4

5

 

What do we see? Every player bats in each of the 1-4 slots of an inning's batting order an equal number of times. In this average game it makes no difference where in the order the player stands in the starting batting order. Sometimes he will lead off the inning, sometimes he will be in the "cleanup" position.

 

But this is an average game. Any deviation from it means that the players at the bottom of the order come up fewer times. So if the game goes one extra batter, the #1 hitter gets one more plate appearance than all the other players because the order will start over. What can be inferred from this is that the smartest lineup has a simple order of players from best to worst. That way the best players will come up the most times and the worst players the fewest. While that means some innings will have no good batters it also means some will have all good batters. Some managers try to remedy this by spacing the hitters as evenly as possible throughout the lineup. But by organizing that way, it is ensured that good hitters lose at bats. But it also ensures that in the bottom of the ninth at least one good hitter will come to bat.

 

Ultimately, though, all these thoughts are fairly futile. Almost every study done on it has shown that batting order makes almost no difference to a game's or a season's outcome, perhaps a game or two a year at most. The idea that the batting order is important, like the idea that there have to be set relief pitching roles, is truly fairly silly and does not need to be a major point of concern for teams, managers or fans.

 

The only real conclusions about lineup we can draw are:

1)         You can control where a player bats in the first inning, but in no future innings. He will randomly appear at different places in future inning batting orders.

 

2)         The batters at the top of the order get the most plate appearances.

So that's what you have to play with. It doesn't make sense to design a strategy for something you can't really control.

 

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