FanPost

A Tango with A's Lineup Optimization

 

105, 100, 91, 79, 91, 76, 72, 91, 78, 107, 106

That is the number of different lineup s the A's have run out since 1998 (not including games w/ pitchers in the lineup), according to baseball-reference.com. It's an interesting pattern for the Beane-era Athletics. Even though the lower numbers correlate well with A's playoff teams bookended by hobbled and/or rebuilding periods, these numbers show that even in the good years the lineups will be fluid throughout the season.

This year, the A's offense is an intriguing and potentially fearsome mix experience and youth, one that should be an improvement on last season's frustratingly ineffective attack. It's also constructed with depth in mind, giving Bob Geren more puzzle pieces than he's had before.

But how would it best fit together?

Taking a cue from Sky Kalkman's awesome work at Beyond the Boxscore—based on the research of Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin presented in The Book—I'm giving the A's lineup a shot. (If you haven't been following this series, check out the Lineup Optimization Hub.)

Both The Book and BtB remind us that while lineup construction is probably overanalyzed, getting the most out of your lineups has value. The research suggests that an optimized lineup is only worth about an extra win vs. a "normal" lineup over the course of 162 games. But that one extra win could be crucial in the AL West in 2009.

For this I'm going with CHONE projections, as most have done so far. Projections for newer A's can be found at FanGraphs.

R150 AVG OBP SLG
Jack Cust 21 0.231 0.384 0.443
Matt Holliday 21 0.286 0.357 0.479
Jason Giambi 20 0.231 0.373 0.450
Eric Chavez 4 0.247 0.331 0.427
Travis Buck 3 0.262 0.343 0.417
Mark Ellis 0 0.257 0.332 0.399
Ryan Sweeney -1 0.276 0.342 0.388
Kurt Suzuki -5 0.261 0.337 0.374
Orlando Cabrera -5 0.274 0.332 0.373

 

I going to present an optimistic optimized Athletics lineup, as well as lineups that will cover a probable platoon situation.

The Basic Premise

Lineups have traditionally gone like this:

1. Speedy guy
2. Bat control, bunting ability, gap power
3. Best high-AVG hitter
4. The big bopper
5. The wannabe big bopper
6-9. The bottom four in decreasing ability and/or in some sort of L/R fashion.

However, The Book states a lineup constructed with the following in mind will turn out to be the most effective:

1. OBP is obviously paramount, and speed is great
2. About as important as #3, but comes up more often. Should be one of your three best hitters, with OBP a plus.
3. Comes to the plate, on average, with fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters. Essentially your fifth best hitter.
4. Your best hitter, provided he has power.
5. Should be filled with the next best hitter after #1, #2, and #4 are filled, provided he's not an all-or-nothing home run hitter.
6-9. Pretty much the same as what's been done traditionally, but there is an advantage to putting base stealers ahead of singles hitters at the bottom of the order.

According to The Book, the Tony LaRussa Philosophy of batting your pitcher 8th is actually worth about two runs over a season. The reason behind this is it allows a better #9 hitter to interact with the top of the lineup. In the AL, however, unless a team is running out a completely pathetic hitter, it's not advantageous to tinker with 8/9.

To sum up, here are the lineup spots in order of importance:

1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9

Now let's build.

The Top "Three"

According to The Book, the #1, #2, and #4 spots should be occupied by your three best hitters. Looking above, it's pretty obvious who those three are. Actually, it's pretty obvious regardless. But how do you separate them and slot them?

1. Cust
2. Giambi
3.
4. Holliday

I know that looks funny, having two sluggish guys at the top of the lineup. But when the top two spots in the order rank 1 and 2 in team plate appearances over a season, it makes sense to populate them with your best hitters. I'm also a bit bullish on Holliday's projections, and I think he's clearly the A's best hitter right now. So while it might be tempting to slot Holliday in the leadoff spot and/or Giambi cleanup, it won't make sense considering what's next.

3, 5 and 6

The Book says that on average, the #3 hitter comes to the plate with fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters. The reason is simply the frequency with which a #3 hitter will come up in the first inning with none on and two outs. Therefore, there is more value to be had in putting your next best hitter fifth rather than third. This is where things get tricky. Chavez or Buck are next in line here, but we're also starting to get our lefties clumped together. In order to avoid three lefties at the top of the lineup, one of righties Ellis, Suzuki or Cabrera should bat third. None of them "feel" like a three hitter, but all of them make contact frequently enough.

1. Cust
2. Giambi
3. Ellis
4. Holliday
5. Chavez
6. Buck

Interestingly, Suzuki already has more career plate appearances in the three hole than Ellis; Cabrera tops both of them combined. Ellis gets the call because he ultimately has a little more power, and I think it helps having the lowest ground ball rate. (The popups will subside.) I do like Suzuki's potential, and he'll also be a lineup mainstay, so I could see him here too.

The Bottom Three

With six spots filled, the rest falls into place with basic R/L/R. Cabrera projected double-digit stolen bases, so slotting him ahead of Sweeney and Suzuki works nicely.

1. L - Cust
2. L - Giambi
3. R - Ellis
4. R - Holliday
5. L - Chavez
6. L - Buck
7. R - Cabrera
8. L - Sweeney
9. R - Suzuki

That's a pretty solid lineup, and a far cry better than last season. Some might not like the fact that two sets of lefty bats hit back-to-back, but when four of your five best hitters are left-handed, it's hard to separate them without spreading them out too much.

Platoon?

Yep, there's a pretty glaring question mark batting fifth. Chavez's status remains up in the proverbial air. He could start on April 6th, or he could be out until after the All-Star break. No one knows for sure, and the only glimmer of optimism is Chavez's atypical optimism. But going forward, he's really not to be counted on. I love Chavez, but unfortunately he's a Macha-ian non-factor.

That's one of the reasons Nomar Garciaparra was brought in. However, based on Nomar's age and injury history, he's also not going to counted on as an everyday player. Jack Hannahan, Chavy's replacement last season, will also be manning the hot corner. Here's how those two project, followed by two lineups:

R150 AVG OBP SLG
Garciaparra 1 0.273 0.329 0.420
Hannahan -8 0.237 0.333 0.367

1. L - Cust
2. L - Giambi
3. R - Garciaparra
4. R - Holliday
5. L - Buck
6. R - Ellis
7. R - Cabrera
8. L - Sweeney
9. R - Suzuki

1. L - Cust
2. L - Giambi
3. R - Ellis
4. R - Holliday
5. L - Buck
6. R - Cabrera
7. L - Sweeney
8. L - Hannahan
9. R - Suzuki

Nomar's clearly the superior hitter, but Hannahan is a superior defender. Depending on how the rotation shakes out, Geren could platoon these two based on the groundball/flyball tendencies of the rotation. In other words, groundballers = Hannahan, flyballers = Nomar.

That's just one idea. There will also be days where Buck sits, or Giambi DHs or rests, or Barton gets called up, or Rajai Davis is in center, etc. There are a bunch of possible lineups. Hopefully Geren doesn't need more than 80.

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