Royals position players will report to spring training in four weeks, but with the return of Alex Gordon last week, we already have a good idea of who the nine starters will be. Salvador Perez is set to return from Tommy John surgery last year to resume catching duties after a missed season. Ryan O’Hearn is the favorite to get most of the playing time at first base, although Ryan McBroom could challenge him. Nicky Lopez is likely to get the starting job at second base hoping to improve on his rookie campaign. Adalberto Mondesi returns from a shoulder injury to man shortstop. Free agent Maikel Franco will take over third base. Gordo returns to left, with Whit Merrifield moving to center and Hunter Dozier moving to right. Home run champ Jorge Soler will likely be a fixture at DH.
What we don’t know is what order they’ll hit in the starting lineup. The Royals will have a new man filling out the lineup card this year with Mike Matheny, and he may not bring the same lineup philosophies as Ned Yost did. Although Matheny has said he learned a lot from his experience in St. Louis and may have changed a great deal in some respects, we may be able to tell a bit about his lineup construction from his Cardinals days.
Matheny doesn’t seem wedded to the notion of using a set lineup all the time, or mixing it up all the time. He has used as many as 144 different lineups in 2017, when the team won 83 games and used as few as 89 different starting lineups in 2013, when the team won 97 games.
The former Cardinals manager was reported to have integrated analytics data in his lineup construction, but also at times relied on small sample sizes of what the player had done most recently. He has been willing to buck baseball orthodoxy by having slow-footed hitters like Matt Carpenter frequently hit at the top of the lineup, while often putting top hitters in the #2 hole, but was also known to putting light-hitting infielders who could handle the bat in that spot as well.
The Book, written by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin over a decade ago, is still considered the best analytics tome on lineup construction. Using historical data, the book re-examines all sorts of baseball strategies. On lineup construction, the basic idea is that the best hitters - those that get on base the most - should get as many plate appearances as possible by hitting at the top of the lineup.
The best Royals hitter last year was Jorge Soler, who not only led the team in on-base percentage at .354, but in home runs and slugging as well. But The Book warns against putting top home run hitters in the lead-off spot, since lead-off hitters hit with runners on base less than those hitting in the #2 spot, and thus those home runs won’t be maximized. Instead, it advocates putting the best on-base hitter who is the worst at hitting home runs in the lead-off spot. This would seem to describe Whit Merrifield, who had a .348 on-base percentage with 16 home runs, although you could certainly consider Alex Gordon and his .345 on-base percentage as well, provided you expect him to sustain those results at age 36.
The Book says, “your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2, and #4 slots”, so Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler should hit second and fourth, the only question is in which order. Soler had an edge over Dozier last year, and he has a slightly higher walk rate, so he would seem to be the better option in the #2 spot, which has more opportunities with runners on base, although the two hitters are probably interchangeable between the second and fourth spots. Having the speedy Merrifield hitting in front of Soler could, in theory, give him more fastballs to hit, an idea that has some evidence to support it.
The Book also shows the #3 hitter generally has fewer opportunities to drive in runners than the #2 or #4 spot, but still gets plenty of plate appearances, so it should probably be your next-best available hitter. For the Royals, the options will be among three good-power, low on-base guys in Maikel Franco, Salvador Perez, and Adalberto Mondesi, or low-power, high on-base hitter Alex Gordon if you feel he can repeat his bounce-back 2019 season. Mondesi’s speed could distinguish him, but having him in the #3 spot could lessen the impact of his speed if Soler is hitting in front of him (blocking the bases) or behind him (hitting home runs). I’m not sure there’s a really good answer here, maybe you start with Gordon and let him hit his way out of it, or maybe you bank on Mondesi’s upside. You may also want Salvy to hit lower in the lineup until he can prove he is back from his injury.
The rest of the lineup from the fifth spot on down should probably go in order of quality of hitter, with maybe some accounting for lefty/righty alternating. To begin the season, I would probably go with an order like this;
CF Whit Merrifield (R)
DH Jorge Soler (R)
LF Alex Gordon (L)
RF Hunter Dozier (R)
SS Adalberto Mondesi (S)
3B Maikel Franco (R)
1B Ryan O’Hearn (L)
C Salvador Perez (R)
2B Nicky Lopez (L)
But I think there are a lot of ways you could go. What would be your ideal Royals starting lineup?