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What should the Royals lineup look like in 2021?

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Well for one, it should be on a lineup card.

MLB: AUG 09 Twins at Royals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Royals made some upgrades this off-season to a lineup that finished with the third-fewest runs scored in the American League last year, by adding first baseman Carlos Santana and outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Michael Taylor. While all three are very likely to be in the starting lineup, we don’t know how they will fit into the lineup yet.

We know Dayton Moore stressed on-base percentage and adding a left-handed bat to a lineup that was very right-handed heavy last year. Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo indicated Benintendi would hit near the top of the lineup, possibly in the #2 hole, likely after Whit Merrifield. The Royals have some big boppers in Carlos Santana, Jorge Soler, Salvador Perez, and possibly Hunter Dozier if he can bounce back from a late season slump last year. They may also have a dynamic hitter in Adalberto Mondesi, if his late tear in 2020 was any indication of him turning the corner.

What would be the optimal lineup? I used ZIPS projections (keeping in mind that some player projections were done assuming they hit in the home ballpark of their previous team) and plugged in those numbers at the Lineup Analysis at Baseball Musings. Here was their optimal projected lineup:

Best projected Royals lineup

Hitter BA OBA SLG
Hitter BA OBA SLG
1B Carlos Santana (S) .250 .367 .418
DH Jorge Soler (R) .246 .342 .495
LF Andrew Benintendi (L) .253 .347 .415
C Salvador Perez (R) .265 .294 .488
RF Whit Merrifield (R) .286 .331 .435
SS Adalberto Mondesi (S) .254 .289 .431
3B Hunter Dozier (R) .244 .325 .446
CF Michael Taylor (R) .231 .282 .404
2B Nicky Lopez (L) .245 .307 .333

Would the Royals put two slow-footed runners at the top of the lineup? Everyone assumes Whit Merrifield will lead off, and he almost certainly will, but it probably shouldn’t be a given. Merrifield is very good at hitting for average, but the main objective for a leadoff hitter is to get on base, whether it is via a base hit or a walk. Consider that in 2019, when Merrifield hit .302, he posted a lower on-base percentage (.348) than Carlos Santana posted last year (.349) when he hit just .199. Even when Carlos Santana is terrible at getting base hits, he still does a great job at getting on base.

Whit does bring the element of speed to the leadoff spot, but he has also admitted to cutting back on steals a bit to protect his body. Stolen bases have also fallen out of fashion a bit, but even if you want to use the steal, it seems like they are totally wasted in the leadoff spot. If a hitter follows up a Whit Merrifield stolen base with either a walk, double, triple, or home run, it has really devalued that stolen base, that is, the stolen bases added virtually nothing to the likelihood of a run scoring. Having Whit steal only to have Carlos Santana walk (which would have pushed Whit to second anyway) or Salvador Perez double (which would likely score Whit from first) or Jorge Soler homer (which scores everyone) seems like a bit of a waste.

Stolen bases should be used to manufacture a run, when you have weaker hitters at bat who will either hit singles or can manipulate the bat (or who you don’t mind giving up an out) to move a runner over coming up. Overall, Nicky Lopez is considered a below-average hitter, but he is pretty adept at getting singles. Over the last two years, he has hit a single 15.1 percent of the time. Salvador Perez (13.9 percent in 2018-2020), Hunter Dozier (13.6), Andrew Benintendi (13.3), and Carlos Santana (13.0), and Jorge Soler (10.8) all hit singles at a much lesser rate. Only Adalberto Mondesi at 15.7 percent exceeds Nicky Lopez’s rate, which might make Merrifield/Mondesi/Lopez an interesting trio to hit continuously in the lineup, just lower in the order.

On the other hand, there’s the human element. Whit Merrifield has batted leadoff the last few years, and has generally done a very good job of it. To suddenly lose that spot based, not on merit, but analytics, would probably rub him the wrong way. And he’s not a terrible on-base hitter by any stretch. So moving him out of the leadoff spot probably isn’t worth it.

I think if I were assembling the lineup, it would probably look something like:

2B/RF Whit Merrifield

LF Andrew Benintendi

1B Carlos Santana

DH Jorge Soler

3B Hunter Dozier

C Salvador Perez

SS Adalberto Mondesi

2B Nicky Lopez/Hanser Alberto/RF Edward Olivares

CF Michael Taylor

I have Santana ahead of Soler, and Dozier ahead of Salvy to get the higher-on base hitter ahead of the slugger. I might consider flip-flopping Mondesi and Perez simply for lineup protection to get Adalberto going, but it is not very clear that lineup protection really works. Instead, Mondesi may be more suited for the #7 spot with a green light to steal as much as he can to make something happen at the bottom of the lineup.

What do you think the lineup should be?