You might know that one of the big topics among those of us in MBG* is how much baseball lineups really matter. That is to say, people who study the game have spent a lot of time trying to devise what the optimum baseball lineup really looks like, and also how much it actually matters.
*Mother’s Basement Geeks. I am hoping to have membership cards made.
You know what the ideal conventional-wisdom lineup looks like.
Leadoff hitter: Fast
Second: Can handle bat
Third: Best overall hitter on team
Cleanup: RBI man
Fifth: Can hit home runs and not much else.
Sixth: Can hit a few home runs.
Seventh: Scrappy hitter*
Eighth: Gritty hitter*
Ninth: Pitcher in NL (except in St. Louis)/Second leadoff hitter in AL.
*”Scrappy” and “gritty” being euphemisms for “lousy.”
This has been the ideal baseball lineup for as long as I can remember. Then, smart people started to look at it and they realized two related things:
1. That is probably NOT the ideal lineup, if your “ideal” involves scoring the most runs possible.
2. It probably doesn’t matter as much as we want to believe.
You can read many studies and stories on lineups if you want to do a Google search, though I would say the Magna Carta on the subject is the wonderful chapter in The Book by Friend of Blog Tom Tango et al. I don’t want to get into too much detail here because if you want to know more about baseball you should read The Book right now (instead of this), but three key takeaways from their research: (1) The No. 3 spot in the lineup is wildly overrated for various reasons involving outs and runners on base (The Book recommends putting your three best hitters in the first, second and fourth spot), (2) walks are most valuable in the leadoff spot (because with the bases empty, a walk and a single have pretty much identical value), and (3) any and all lineup shifts have a tiny effect on runs scored.
Here’s Tom writing about the last takeaway for Baseball Prospectus: “Even doing something drastically incompetent, like putting the pitcher in the cleanup spot, costs you only 0.1 runs per game. … Why is there so little gain (or at least, less than one might presume)? Because everyone eventually bats. It’s like deferring your taxes: you can save only so much.”
I have nothing new to add to this subject, as should be obvious by now. I do believe that lineup construction is not as important as we baseball fans tend to believe, and that the millions of hours spent on talk radio and Internet chat boards griping about where the Yankees hit Derek Jeter and so on are much ado about decimal points. I also believe (as Tom and most other members of MBG do) that winning baseball often comes down to decimal points. If a baseball manager can squeeze a few runs or a couple of extra wins a year out of an optimum lineup, well, that’s a HUGE opportunity for them. Baseball managers, as we know, don’t have much control over the game action. They don’t design plays. They have limited substitutions. They can’t have their quarterback take a knee or their point guard dribble out the clock.
And, perhaps most of all, managers can’t lean on their best players in the most important situations. In just about every other team sport, you can do this. Down in the final minutes, you have Montana throw to Rice, you put the ball in the hands of Kobe, you try whatever you can to get the ball or puck to Messi or Ovechkin. But if Albert Pujols ain’t coming up in the ninth, Albert Pujols ain’t coming up in the ninth and there’s nothing you can do about it. Lineup construction matters in this: You want to get your best players up there in the most opportune times as often as possible.
I bring all this up because I saw an amazing fact on Baseball Prospectus the other day. Well, anyway, I thought it was amazing. Do you know which two players on the Kansas City Royals has come up with runners on base most often in 2011? Of course you don’t know. Why would you know?
Answer: Jeff Francoeur (273) and Alcides Escobar (243).
This absolutely blows my mind. Now, admittedly, the Royals lineup is a work in progress. But there are good hitters there. Alex Gordon is having a superb season. Billy Butler can really hit. Eric Hosmer hasn’t been up the whole year, but he’s going to be a spectacular hitter. Even Melky Cabrera, who I thought was a dreadful signing, has hit quite well this year. And the Royals have had their lineup set up all year so the guys who have come up most often with runners on base have been Frenchy and Escobar. This seems to me an epic fail*.
*You know, as the kids say … or at least as they said in 2005.
Frenchy at least is easy enough to explain — Royals management has long loved the guy with almost irrational intensity. And then he got off to a white hot start, which obviously inspired the Royals to move him to the cleanup spot for an astonishingly long time (his last 53 games — even with a recent resurgence — Francoeur has hit .238/.279/.354). But Escobar? How is that happening? Even the Royals know he can’t hit. He has a 74 OPS+ … and that is only after a monumental couple of weeks when he seemed to get two hits every game. For this reason, the Royals have almost always batted him eighth or ninth, which is exactly where the conventional wisdom lineup would have him bat. But somehow, because of the way Ned Yost sets up his lineup, he is 23rd in baseball in runners on base.
His percentage for driving in those runners, according to BP, is an abysmal 10.7% — the second-worst for anyone who has come up with 225 or more runners on base. Only Omar Infante is worse at 10.6% … and, for that matter, how in the hell is OMAR INFANTE coming up with that many runners on base?
It’s only half a season. But I thought it might be fun to look and see how managers are doing when it comes to getting their best hitters to the plate with DOP (Ducks on Pond). And so, here you go:
American League East:
Boston Red Sox
Top 2 DOP: Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis (David Ortiz is in Top 10 also).
Comment: Well, those are the two you would want. I think Tito is a terrific manager because things just seem to work out when he’s managing games. He has an exorbitantly talented team that got off to a terrible start. He has a couple of high-priced players (John Lackey and Carl Crawford) who have been huge disappointments so far. But when you get Gonzalez, Youkilis and Papi to the plate with runners on base, over time, it should all work out just fine.
New York Yankees
Top 2 DOP: Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson.
Comment: Believe it or not, no Yankees player is in the TOP THIRTY in this category. The Royals have three players who have come to the plate with at least as many runners as Cano. And yes, I know who you are blaming.* … How about Cano in the Home Run Derby? That event is about as worn out as anything in sports, but even so it was unquestionably cool at the end watching Cano crush home run after home run while his father Jose grooved pitches. Cano is such a gifted hitter.
*Which reminds me: How about this week’s Sports Illustrated Cover?
Tampa Bay Rays
Top 2 DOP: B.J. Upton and Johnny Damon
Comment: Ugh. Obviously Evan Longoria — who you would want at the top of this category — has been hurt. Still: The Rays don’t have a player in the Top 65 in this category.
Toronto Blue Jays
Top 2 DOP: Jose Bautista and Adam Lind.
Comment: That’s who you would want and expect for John Farrell. Bautista drives in a fairly low percentage of other runners (14.5%) but this is in large part because nobody pitches to him in those situations any more. Fourteen of his baseball-leading 74 walks are intentional, and several more are unintentionally intentional.
Top 2 DOP: Adam Jones and Nick Markakis
Comment: This has nothing to do with runners on base, but I think that the next big defensive cat-fight will be over Adam Jones. As you probably know, the defensive cat-fight the last few years has been over Derek Jeter — with some people whipping up numbers that show him to be a dreadful shortstop and others throwing Gold Gloves at him the way women used to throw underwear at Tom Jones. And there was a mini-fight over Torii Hunter, who was beloved by the eye but not so much by the stats.
Now, we have Adam Jones. I spent the other day at the MLB Fan Cave where two guys are watching every single baseball game all year. They seem like good guys. And they LOVE Adam Jones. I mean that with all capital letters. They believe him to be the “best looking young center fielder since Ken Griffey” and “probably the best defensive center fielder in the American League.” And, as mentioned, they watch every game.
The stats tell a very different story. Jones’ defensive WAR this year is -2.1 (Baseball Reference). His Ultimate Zone Rating is minus-10.1 (Fangraphs … and it has been negative for three years). His Dewan Plus/Minus says that this year he has made 20 fewer plays — TWENTY — than the average center fielder, which is 35th in baseball, an astonishing feat since there are only 30 teams. Obviously, defensive stats are not black and white, and there’s a small sample size going with his defensive WAR, and so on. Still, they point in the direction of “lousy.” And, in this case, there are a couple of scouts I have talked with who agree (though they say it’s about his “instincts.”).
I don’t want to take sides in the matter … it’s bad enough being an Orioles fan these days without having one of your few positive vibes shattered by bloodless and vaguely incomprehensible stats. But the conflict is worth watching. Interesting side note: In the very game we saw together, Jones made one running catch and had another ball go over his head. In the narrative of the Adam Jones’ lover, the first was a great play and the second was an impossible catch anyway. But it’s not out of the question that in reality the first play was made harder than necessary by a bad route and that he should have caught the second. Defensive quality is not easy to lasso.
American League Central:
Top 2 DOP: Miggy Cabrera and Brennan Boesch
Comment: Miggy is 11th overall with 260 runners on base when he comes to the plate, which is exactly what the Tigers want. Boesch is having a very nice year. Victor Martinez and is also in the Top 50 DOP in baseball.
Top 2 DOP: Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera
Comment: The Tribe would certainly like to get Travis Hafner up there more often with runners on base — at age 34 he’s hitting like the Hafner of old — but he’s just not healthy enough to play every day. After Hafner, these are the right two guys.
Chicago White Sox
Top 2 DOP: Paul Konerko and Alexei Ramirez
Comment: Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre have come up with a combined 424 runners on base. They each are driving in those runners only 11% of the time. That’s probably a reason why the White Sox are ninth in the league in runs scored.
Top 2 DOP: Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer
Comment: The Valencia thing is a problem (though his runs batted in percentage is a more than tolerable 16.5%). But with Mauer, Morneau, Thome and Kubel all missing significant time, Ron Gardenhire just kind of has to do as much as they can with spit and ducktape. The Twins are only 6 1/2 games out of first place, by the way, after playing .315 baseball the first two months of the season.
Kansas City Royals
Top 2 DOP: Jeff Francoeur and Alcides Escobar
American League West:
Top 2 DOP: Adrian Beltre and Michael Young
Comment: More or less what you would expect with Josh Hamilton missing some time.
California Angels of Anaheim Near Los Angeles
Top 2 DOP: Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu
Comment: With the way things are going for the older guys, the Angels might be better off getting younger players Howie Kendrick and Mark Trumbo up there a bit more often with runners on base.
Top 2 DOP: Justin Smoak and Brendan Ryan
Comment: The Mariners don’t get many on base — they are dead last in the league in on-base percentage and don’t have anyone in the Top 75 on the list. That said, Smoak is the right guy for them to have up here. After that … there are no right answers at the moment — Dustin Ackley certainly has a chance to be very good. I do wonder if at some point the Mariners might consider moving Ichiro down in the lineup and see if in his later years he can adapt to a slightly different role.
Top 2 DOP: Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui
Comment: The A’s do not have a player in the Top 80 … and only Willingham is in the Top 100. With this team there are exactly zero right answers. Of the Top 13 players in plate appearances for Oakland, exactly one — Willingham — has an OPS+ of better than 100, and Willingham is only at 103. This isn’t the best year for Moneyball to come out.
National League East:
Top 2 DOP: Ryan Howard and Placido Polanco.
Comment: Howard leads all of baseball with 296 runners on base. He had an amazing 60 game-stretch recently when he hit .223 … and he still drove in 47 RBIs in those 60 games. You can say he is a run producer. You can say he’s just in a situation where there are ALWAYS runners on base. Either way, the man will get paid $145 million total from now until 2017.
Top 2 DOP: Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman
Comment: The Braves are 14th in the National League in on-base percentage so they really need to make the most of their opportunities. With Dan Uggla their Top DOP guy, um, no, they’re not doing that. Uggla is driving in runners an astonishingly low 8.5% of the time. Frankly, he’s killing their offense. But you already knew that. The shame of it is, do you know who lead all of baseball in highest percentage of driving in runners? Yep: The amazing Chipper Jones (22.2%).
New York Mets
Top 2 DOP: Carlos Beltran and Daniel Murphy
Comment: In a year when some of the biggest names are having down years, the most exciting award race might be for the National League comeback player of the year award. Beltran really is having a sensational season. He leads the league in doubles and is third in extra base hits. He’s just about on pace to score and drive in 100 runs for the eighth time in his career. And though he can’t run anymore, he’s maintaining his untouchable stolen base percentage — he’s three-for-three this year. It’s a certain comeback player of the year season almost any year. At the moment, though, it’s hard to see how you can give the award to anyone except St. Louis’ Lance Berkman.
Top 2 DOP: Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa
Comment: Well, you would have THOUGHT that Werth was the guy the Nationals managers would want coming up. It hasn’t worked out too well so far. A healthy Ryan Zimmerman would certainly be someone you would want at the top of this list.
Top 2 DOP: Gaby Sanchez and Omar Infante
Comment: The Omar Infante thing might be even more baffling than the Alcides Escobar thing. Mike Stanton is third on this list and gaining fast; you would hope that Jack McKeon would find ways to get Infante out of these situations best he can and Stanton in.*
*Look, the Home Run Derby is supposed to be fun, right? I mean, that’s the only point of the thing. So why don’t they loosen things up, invite a few exciting young kids like Stanton to participate? How much fun would the Derby be if you had Stanton and Eric Hosmer and Jason Heyward (struggling or not) and Logan Morrison and some other younger guys with big potential competing? I actually have about 10 ways to improve the Derby and the All-Star Game … maybe I’ll write that someday.
National League Central:
Top 2 DOP: Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee.
Comment: Come on Ron, you gotta get Ryan Braun up there buddy. Casey McGehee? Yikes. I should say that it warms my heart to see that Yuni Betancourt is in the Top 80 — he’s come up with 208 runners on base.
St. Louis Cardinals
Top 2 DOP: Colby Rasmus and Albert Pujols
Comment: With Lance Berkman not far behind … say what you will about La Russa but he does seem to construct his lineup to get his best players up there in the right times as often as anybody else. Pujols has been in the Top 10 of this category each of the last three years.
Top 2 DOP: Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen
Comment: It’s good to see McCutchen at the All-Star Game. Brilliant reader Cyril wrote in to offer a very sensible explanation for why McCutchen was so absurdly overlooked (he wasn’t even included in Final Vote) … an explanation that has nothing to do with the baseball small market that is Pittsburgh. His thinking is that McCutchen’s two greatest selling points are his on-base percentage and his defensive value as expressed by the stats … and that neither of those is widely celebrated within baseball. And he makes the good point that McCutchen got off to a sluggish start, which meant that nobody was really talking about him for most of the season (unlike Jay Bruce who had a near-legendary May). Good points all. And it’s good to see, however it happened, that McCutchen is at the game now.
Top 2 DOP: Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips/Joey Votto.
Comment: Phillips and Votto are tied with 234 runners on base. You know, Jay Bruce could have been in the Home Run Derby too … the National League team that Prince Fielder chose was just plain weird. Rickie Weeks? Matt Holliday? Let the fans choose this, for crying out loud.
Top 2 DOP: Starlin Castro and Aramis Ramirez.
Comment: I have to admit that I don’t quite get why so many people are jumping the gun and preparing Starlin Castro for the Hall of Fame. I mean, he certainly could develop into an amazing player. He’s only 21. And he smokes line drives. No question. But everybody knows that he CAN develop into an amazing player. My question is: Will he? I’m not sure. Right now: He doesn’t walk. He doesn’t hit home runs. He’s not especially fast. And there are questions about him as a defensive shortstop. He’s so young and he hits with such line-drive authority that the smart money might be on him developing big-time power and becoming a superstar. That absolutely can happen, and I am not saying it won’t happen. But the other day I heard announcers comparing him to Ernie Banks. Can we hold off for at least a few minutes?
Top 2 DOP: Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence
Comment: I wish I had something to say that might make Astros fans feel a little bit better about their team. But, um, nope, nothing is coming to mind. The Astros have hit 50 homers all year … and allowed 107. Brett Myers has allowed more home runs (23) than Lee and Pence combined (18). And so on.
National League West:
San Francisco Giants
Top 2 DOP: Aubrey Huff and Miguel Tejada
Comment: The Giants are a wonder. Huff is having a dreadful year — and he’s the only guy in the Top 120 in runners on base. Tejada, who is 125th on the list, has been all but unplayable. They are 15th in the league in runs scored. And yet, yep, they’re in first place again. The Giants have become the sort of team where Ryan Vogelsong, after years of evidence to the contrary, becomes unhittable.
Top 2 DOP: Chris Young and Stephen Drew
Comment: The Diamondbacks have five guys in their everyday lineup who have a better-than-110 OPS+. They lead the National League in slugging percentage. They are third in runs scored. Can any of that last? I don’t see how … but the National League West is a weird division.
Top 2 DOP: Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez
Comment: Well, those are the right guys to come up … though have you seen the year that Todd Helton his having? He’s hitting .321/.400/.494 at age 37. I guess you can include him in the epic comeback player of the year race too.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Top 2 DOP: Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier
Comment: Kemp is third in baseball in runners on base, which tells me Don Mattingly is doing whatever he can to set up that mostly dreadful lineup around him. I love Mattingly. I’ve been meaning to get to LA to do a story on him off a brilliant reader suggestion. Imagine a life where a guy plays extremely well for the legendary New York Yankees for more than a decade and doesn’t even get CLOSE to the World Series. And then, in the same life, he gets to manage the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers — a team so stable they had two managers from 1955 to 1995 — and the team declares bankruptcy. Bankruptcy! What are the odds of that? And for it to happen to Donnie Baseball of all people …
San Diego Padres
Top 2 DOP: Ryan Ludwick and Chase Headley
Comment: Sometimes, when I’m kind of bored, I go back and look at the offensive stats of the 2010 Seattle Mariners. It really is quite incredible. That team had a .298 on base percentage and slugged .339. That team scored 100 fewer runs than any team in the American League.
This Padres team is not quite that bad. Headley is having a nice year, actually. I’ve long been a Cameron Maybin fan — he was my Starling Castro can’t miss prospect two years ago — and maybe he’s figuring things out at 24. But in general this is a pretty depressing offense to watch play. Dead last in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Dead last in home runs. Dead last in doubles. They are last in the National League in runs scored, of course, but they lead the National League in steals which, in a weird way, makes them LESS exciting to watch because it all feels so futile.