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Should the Royals shake up the lineup based on who is hot?

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Does it make sense to go with a hot bat?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ned Yost was often criticized early on in his tenure for constantly juggling his lineup. Much of that had to do with the fact that at the outset of his Royals tenure, his lineup was filled with has-been and never-weres. The last two years, however, he has settled into a pretty consistent lineup. Last year, the Royals used just 83 different starting lineups, the only American League team with fewer than 100 different lineup combinations.

This year, the team has struggled a bit offensively, averaging 3.67 runs-per-game, ninth in the American League, and scoring just six runs in a three-game series in Los Angeles. These struggles have come after just three weeks of baseball, so juggling the lineup might be seen as a knee jerk reaction to a small sample size. Given his choice, Ned Yost seems to prefer consistency and taking the long-view rather than chasing short-term goals. Despite calls to bump Jarrod Dyson up to the leadoff spot due to a hot start, or demote Lorenzo Cain due to a hitting slump, Ned prefers to keep the same lineup he has used all season.

His consistency in starting lineups is supported by the conventional wisdom in sports psychology on the "hot hand fallacy." While fans want to juggle the lineup based on who's hot and who's not, the "hot hand fallacy", supported by a 1985 study of basketball shooting, suggests that chasing hot streaks based on small sample sizes is a fool's errand.

The belief in the hot hand and the "detection" of streaks in random sequences is attributed to a general misconception of chance according to which even short random sequences are thought to be highly representative of their generating process.

This wisdom is supported by Tom Tango's "The Book", the sabermetric bible on lineup construction theory. The thought is that hot streaks are an illusion of chance, and hitters will soon regress back to career norms. If a roulette wheel has ten reds come up in a row, that does not mean the next roll has a greater chance to be red. Recent performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance.

Or is it?

The hot hand fallacy has recently been debunked for basketball shooters, suggesting that perhaps hot players will tend to make more shots. A more recent study of hot hands in baseball found that while basketball shooters have to deal with the variable of defenses playing differently to a hot hand, hot baseball hitters deal with pitchers challenging hitters differently. Pitchers will tend to avoid throwing good pitches to a hot hitter, which helps increase walks, which actually improves offensive performance. And it is not just walks that increase, the hot hand in baseball can help other offensive categories as well.

Strikingly, we find recent performance is highly significant in predicting performance in all ten statistical categories that we examine (five for batters and five for pitchers). In all cases, being "hot" in a statistic makes one more likely to perform well in the same statistic. Furthermore these effects are of a significant magnitude: for instance, a hot hitter in on-base percentage will exhibit an on-base percentage roughly .028 higher (28 OBP points higher) than when cold after controlling for all other explanatory variables...

Our results have a similar degree of significance across other statistics. For example, a batter who is "hot" in home-runs is 15-25% more likely (0.5-0.75 percentage points or about one half a standard deviation) more likely to hit a home run in his next at bat

There are still numerous questions regarding hot hands such as what constitutes a hot hitter? How long does the hot streak last?

The reasons for bumping Alcides Escobar reach far beyond the small sample size of April, of course. Since Alcides became a Major Leaguer in 2009, no hitter with at least 2,500 plate appearances over that time has a lower on-base percentage than his career .297 OBA. He is literally the worst option the Royals could put in the leadoff spot.

Jarrod Dyson carries a .322 career on-base percentage, above-average compared to the rest of baseball. He brings elite speed to the leadoff spot if that matters to you. His career numbers from the leadoff position aren't great, but he he has still posted a .315 on-base percentage when leading off, an improvement over Escobar. Dyson is off to a hot start, hitting .333/.394/.400, although in just 34 plate appearances.

Alex Gordon and his .348 career on-base percentage probably make the most sense to the promote to the leadoff spot. Even though he is struggling right now, his .325 on-base percentage is third-best on the team. His career numbers hitting leadoff are fantastic with a line of .280/.354/.454, much better than his numbers hitting sixth.

I understand Ned Yost looking at the long-view and preferring the sweet constancy of the same lineup, day-in, and day-out. There is something to be said about the psychological effect of juggling the lineup, something players have always had a dislike for. And I remain a bit dubious at the debunking of the hot hand fallacy, simply because of the reliance on small sample sizes.

However I am not convinced there is enough evidence to say that juggling the lineup would be a bad thing. The Royals will not have a great offense no matter how you cut it, so they must maximize every ounce of offensive performance they can. Moving Alcides Escobar and his .250 on-base percentage this year out of the lead off spot would be a good first start, and moving other hitters around may provide for greater run production.