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A Note On Lineups

There’s been a consistent interest in lineup talk this spring, despite the fact that the Royals don’t really seem to have the kind of roster composition that would make it a truly meaty subject. Because the Royals don’t really have an elite hitter yet, it doesn’t even really fit to dream about having your DH with a huge OBP hit leadoff or anything like that. No, regarding this cast of likely starters, with their lack of extreme power or patience, the only looming problem of any consequence is the likelihood that one of the killer Gs – Grudzielanek or Gload – will end up wasting our time near the top of the lineup, where their veteran presence and grittiness won’t do much to help their sub-par, batting average based, offensive profiles. (Can you tell I got started on this before Opening Day?) While it still isn’t clear how the Shealy/Gload/Butler logjam will sort itself out, lets take a look at the numbers generated by Pinto’s lineup toy and the mega-projections generated by NyRoyal.

Note, for time purposes I could only get into what appears to be the default scenario: Gload and Butler in the lineup, Buck catching. If anyone wants to play with Gathright, Callaspo and Olivo scenarios, I welcome your help. It seems unlikely Olivo would change much, since he’s basically the same hitter as Buck, perhaps ditto for DeJesus/Gathright. I'm less sure how Callaspo would jumble things, however.

The interesting thing that emerges here is that using the model based on the more modern scoring environment (Pinto offers two choices), a strong case is made for a rather extreme lineup:

1. Teahen- .280/.352/.434 (the numbers listed are the mega-projections)
2. Butler- .290/.358/.462
3. Grudz- .283/.324/.392
4. Guillen- .275/.336/.449
5. Gordon- .267/.340/.450
6. Buck- .240/.309/.411
7. Gload- .292/.335/.425
8. Pena- .264/.292/.357
9. DeJesus- .278/.355/.410

Despite the fact that the computer spits this out as the most productive batting order at 4.865 (788 over the full season) runs per game you can rest assured that Trey Hillman will never send this batting order to the home plate umpire at the beginning of the game. Basically, it’s clear that Teahen is a better overall hitter than DeJesus, and might be a better hypothetical leadoff man, but dropping DDJ all the way to 9th seems strikingly odd. Perhaps it’s the whole "second leadoff man" concept, I suppose. Nearly all of the top lineups generated have Teahen leading off, with DDJ hitting 9th, with some version of Gload/Grudz flipping between the third and seventh slots. An interesting approach in lineup theory is avoiding the totally lost cause inning, and that may be driving the weird decision to hide Grudz in the 3-hole and throwing David at the bottom, and thus avoiding, those magical McEwing-Buck-Gathright sort of affairs. Automatic out-machines are bad, but having two of them back to back can really short-circuit things. One thing is abundantly clear however, Tony Pena Jr., according to this simulator, should always bat eighth. Always. Pena shows up as the eight hitter in nearly every good lineup spit out by the program. With Pena 9th, he's just too close to the better hitters in the lineup.

Pinto’s toy also has a model based on a broader set of data however, a 1959-2004 model, which might be seen as the less extreme one. To tell you the truth, I really have no idea what the real point is, only that one has about forty years more data, much of which is actually irrelevant. This isn't 1960, and Bob Gibson isn't going to walk through that door, throw 250 pitches, and walk out. Nevertheless in this simulator, DeJesus reemerges as the consensus leadoff choice. Here’s the most productive lineup, averaging 4.838 runs per game:

1. DeJesus- .278/.355/.410 (again, all these numbers are the mega-projections)
2. Butler- .290/.358/.462
3. Guillen- .275/.336/.449
4. Teahen- .280/.352/.434
5. Gordon- .267/.340/.450
6. Gload- .292/.335/.425
7. Grudz- .283/.324/.392
8. Buck- .240/.309/.411
9. Pena- .264/.292/.357

Once again, a run of the numbers suggests that Butler should be hitting second, a proposition that again seems unlikely. How does this lineup compare to the one rumored to be favored by Hillman? Trey reportedly wants Grudz hitting 2nd, followed by Gordon, Guillen, Butler, Gload and Teahen. Dropping Teahen to seventh, would likely be a mistake, wasting his OBP in front of Buck and Pena, and having Butler hitting 5th doesn’t seem much better. (On Opening Day, Hillman did just this, though he had Teahen 6th and Gload 7th.) Neverthless, Hillman’s lineup scores 4.802 according to the simulator, only six or seven runs less over the course of the season that the lineup above. As with all these discussions, the most important thing to remember is just that: discounting obviously insane choices (TPJ leadoff!), we are dealing with very small marginal differences when it comes to batting order. Those six or seven lost runs might easily be re-gained if you believe in psychological factors or if L/R ordering can be readjusted a little bit, or perhaps in the occasional instance of another player really and truly getting better pitches because of the guy on deck.

To conclude however, while lineup order is actually many many times more irrelevant than it is commonly made out to be, it is not entirely irrelevant. While running the risk of comparing apples to oranges, I'd hazard to guess that, over the season, smart lineup design is still more valuable than having a good locker room, or having players "know their roles" or how many crunches Hillman made guys do in Spring Training. Moreover, for teams on the very edge of contention, those six or seven runs may very well be the difference between the playoffs and an early off-season. Then again, for teams in that situation, every small detail matters, and its a truism to say so.

Still, it's frustrating that there's less creativity throughout the game regarding lineups, but you can say that about many things going on in baseball, most of which are more important. Particularly, the spreading out your very good and very bad hitters concept, seems at once illogical and intuitively sound. In other activities, we do this naturally and to great effect, although the benefit seems more emotional than quantitative. For whatever reason, baseball doesn't have a Don Nelson or a Bill Walsh, and hasn't in a long time. Someone who sees the same players and does something completely different. In baseball, we have Tony La Russa, who has given us the one-inning, handle with care, only use in one situation closer, and the situational lefty. Why it has worked out this way, I don't know. That remains a topic for another day.