AN Book Club, Topic 5 - The Importance of a Batting Lineup

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Again, bbg astounds us with an eye-opening and important thread. Now, I was one of the ones repeatedly calling for Kendall batting in the leadoff spot last season because in the past, he had a penchant for getting on-base better than most A's in the lineup (with the least power). The truth is that the A's likely don't really have a traditional leadoff hitter, but bbg is right in that Ellis was the best option at the end of the season. I'll put my proposed lineup in the comments. - Blez]

Topic 1 - Are The Playoffs A Crapshoot?

Topic 2 - The Myth of Clutch Hitting
Topic 3 - The Myth of the Importance of Defense
Topic 4 - The Myth of "Smallball" as Sound Baseball

I think the problem I'm running into with this topic is the fact that I'm struggling to see these lineups in action. As evidenced in the last few years, I don't think this is one of Eric Walker's ideas that the A's have chosen to implement, probably because they are lacking the personnel. However, so far, Eric Walker has rang pretty true in his baseball musings, so I thought I'd throw this one out as well, in hopes that AN might have examples of how this might work (or not work, as the case may be).

From The Sinister First Baseman, `Who's Up First':

Another of the standard stigmata of the struggling team manifest itself in the daily line-up. Even when the same names are on it, their order of appearance seems to vary with the manager's horoscope for the day. When the team wins a game, the identical line-up appears the next day, virtually guaranteed; when they lose a game, it's back to the "Shakewell system", also virtually guaranteed. Players are moved into and out of the line-up, and up and down in the order, based on whether they have a "hot bat" or a "cold bat".

If I managed a casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, I would make sure to invite (all travel and living expenses paid) any and every team manager who operates along these lines; I would recoup my costs three times over with their losses at the table, which would certainly parallel their losses on the diamond. Such men are constitutionally unable to select an optimum strategy and stick to it. They allow their judgment to be blown this way and that by each and every short-term run of luck.

Lineup juggling is a nice example of how not to do it right. To appreciate why, you must realize that each slot in the line-up has associated with it quite specific batting requirements: the idea #2 and the ideal #5 hitters will be very different types of batters. Fans frequently fail to appreciate this point, and many trades are misunderstood because of this; why, everyone asks, trade a man who bats .290 with 20 homers a season for one who only bats .270 with 10 homers? The front office gets heat from all quarters, too often including members of the press who should know better. In the case in point, if the new player walks 14 percent of the time, the trade probably made excellent sense, particularly if the team still has a couple of good sluggers left. It was a case of balancing out the line-up.

Just as a team must field a complete defensive unit, so they must field a complete defensive unit. If you have two first basemen but no second baseman, you can't very well resolve your problem by simply playing one of the men out of position at second. Obviously. Less obvious is the problem of two clean-up hitters and no lead-off man--less obvious, but just as real. Run production will suffer in the latter case just as defense would in the former.

I like the part where he gives the press credit for knowing better. Living in Los Angeles, with The Times as the primary newspaper, I personally know three Dodger fans who have cancelled their subscription over the whole McCourt/DePodesta fiasco. Another topic, another time.

So, how do we build a lineup?

The conventional answer is to select #1 and #2 batters whose primary skill is getting on base, and #4 and #5 batters whose primary skill is the RBI hit, usually the extra-base hit. The #3 hitter is chose to have both a high on-base percentage and good power, so he is in effect part of both sections of the line-up; as you might imagine, this will generally mean that he is the best overall hitter on the club. There's more; so far, these are only broad outlines. Let's fill in some detail...

I think that the 2005 A's had a lot of okay hitters, but no designated hitter, which means they would have done fine in the NL, but unfortunately play in the other league. The leadoff hitter has been much debated on AN; Macha (ahem...Beane....if you prefer) started Kotsay in the lead-off spot at the beginning of the season, traded him for Kendall, but somewhere down the line, it clicked that Ellis was actually the best choice for the spot, and finished out the season in the #1 hole. Here's what Eric Walker has to say about the position:

This lead-off man will ideally have the very highest on-base percentage on the team. The converse of getting on base is making out; consequently, the lead-off man is also least likely of all to make an out, and the rest of the line-up is less likely to be operating at a one-out handicap. Further, the lead-off man should be fast on his feet; if he is intended to be batted around the bases, the speedier he is, the more mileage he can get out of the hits of the men behind him. Lead-off men are also supposed to be of the sort who can "make things happen", which is really just another way of saying that they should be competent base stealers (not at all the same as just being fleet of foot). Now I happen to be of the opinion that base stealing is somewhat overvalued skill these days, [editor's note: Ah ha! I knew it!] but that's not germane here; it's not so much whether the man steals or not that's important, it's the fact that he can and might.

Opposing pitchers generally get rather upset with an established base stealer on first, and this works to the offense's advantage in several ways: it divides the pitcher's (and catcher's) attention, it breaks their concentration, and it provides opportunities for throwing the ball away on pickoff attempts. It opens up the right-side hole by keeping the first baseman on the bag, and it can open up the left-side hole if it is the shortstop who moves to cover second base when the runner breaks (or bluffs a break).

So far, so good. But here's Walker's little gem, tucked neatly into this chapter, about what could be possibly be more important than a good batting average.

A high batting average is, by, itself no surety of a player having a good on-base percentage. Walks are an important part of reaching first, especially for a leadoff man, since he generally has no responsibility for advancing any other runner. The "free pass", the base on balls, is surely the most underappreciated offensive statistic in the game. Any pitcher can tell you how vital low walk rates are to defense, and walks are an important part of pitching stats. But in offensive data, they are virtually ignored. Relegated to the status of a "miscellaneous" batting statistic (their official designation in baseball), they rarely appear in newspaper summaries of team batting, though they are really one of the three key offensive numbers in the game (along with batting average and slugging average). If you want to judge a man's on-base performance, take his hits plus walks, and divide that by his at-bats plus walks; for a #1 or #2 hitter, the result should be at least .350. A lot of near .300 batting-average hitters can't make that .350 on-base figure because they are such free swingers.

Eric Walker must be delighted to know that one of his 1982 ideas has caught on; for indeed, the OBP is a figure used more and more in baseball today. Of course, it is also one of the pillars of the original Moneyball concept, by valuing the undervalued.

For the record, Mark Ellis' 2005 OBP was .384. Kendall's was .343. Kotsay's was .325.  To quote Sharon, it's not even close. No one wants to hear that Ellis also had the highest SLG percentage on the team, do you? Yeah, me neither.

The #2 batter ought to be a close approximation to the #1 man, and most of the remarks about the one apply to the other. A few extra points also apply:

-    Patient batter with a good knowledge of the strike zone
-    Someone who will take a few pitches
-    The ideal #2 hitter will be a left-handed batter to interfere with the catcher's view up the line to first base

As previously stated, the #3 batter will be the best all-around batter on the team.

This is a good place to mention another facet of line-up design, which is that each batter's ability to some extent controls the pitching to the men around him in the order.

All men may be created equal, but by the time they become professional baseball players, certain differences have emerged; batters are not all equal in their ability to wreak havoc on incoming pitches. Generally, the better a given batter is, the more he will help the batting averages of the men in front of him.

Consider a team with a really good hitter batting #3; the pitcher is going to be more than ordinarily determined to get the #2 man out, as to restrict the scope of the damage that the #3 man could do with a big hit. When you are in need of an out, you take care to keep your pitches around the strike zone; even if you don't get a strikeout (and it is not a thing you can count on), you have--literally--an infinitely better chance for an out if the ball is hit than you do if you walk the man! The batter in front of a dangerous hitter thus gets a lot more pitches around the strike zone, increasing his opportunities for a hit.

So what about Chavez? Is he the best all-around hitter on the A's? Is there someone else for the position?

Continuing the batting run-down, the #4 and #5 hitters are, as stated before RBI men. This is usually taken to mean home-run power per se, especially at #4, the "clean-up" slot. It need not necessarily be so. A high-average batter who gets a substantial share of his hits as line drives into the alleys may be the best clean-up hitter a given team has. A home-run total alone can be misleading: a batter who naturally gets an exceptionally high number of walks, above and beyond even what a power hitter gets out of respect, can hit a fair number of home runs and still have a relatively low number a total bases per trip to the plate. It is our anti-walks prejudice for relating everything to at-bats (instead of total trips to the plate) that misleads us.

Does any of this sound familiar? High OBP? Valuing walks? It should. But does this matter when deciding where to place hitters in a batting order?

As an example, consider two batters who both bat .250 and hit 20 round-trippers a season. If they stay healthy, they will, as #4 hitters, get in perhaps 700 plate appearances each (of which, we may allow, 9 or so will be miscellaneous things like a sacrifice fly or a hit-by-pitch). If we assume man A walks 9 percent of the time (a plausible power-hitter figure), he will most likely (based on that 20 home-run figure) get 253 total bases, which is a .361 total-bases-per-plate-appearance figure. Man B, meanwhile, gets 91 walks, a 13 percent rate, as he has an exceptionally well-developed instinct for laying off the bad ones; he has, most likely (and still based on that 20-home run figure), only 244 total bases, and thus a lower .359 total-bases-per-plate-appearance, stat. Overall, man B is actually a more valuable contributor as a batsman-but not in the #4 position. (He could, depending on other factors, best be in the #2, #3, or even #6 hitter.)

I think of Dan Johnson every time I read that paragraph. According to Walker, he'll never be the #4 hitter, no matter how much power he develops, because he walks too much, which is a good thing, but not in the #4 hole. He'll never be a #2 or #3 hitter in Walker's eyes (too slow), but maybe he should bat 5th? Not 6th, but 7th also. You decide.

Just as the #2 batter relates to the #1, so does the #5 to the #4: he should be the team's next-best at the key statistics. A strong #5 is also important to the #4 man's ability to do his job, as explained before.

Do the A's even have a #4 or a #5 hitter?

When one gets down to #6, thinking no longer runs on a consecutive-presentation approach, the way the #1-#5 string does; the sixth-place hitter is sometimes called the second lead-off man, and that pretty well encapsulates the situation. Nevertheless, one still wants some hitting (not just walks), to give the #5 man some decent pitches should things so fall out.

By the time one gets to #7 and beyond, our choices are usually running out in short supply. These are the batters whose abilities, regardless of what pattern they fall into, are too low overall to get them higher in the line-up. Number 9 is always the very weakest; in the National League, this infallibly means the pitcher. If the two batters left are noticeably unequal in ability, the better one will be #7, since the higher you are in the line-up, the more total seasonal plate appearances you average; if they are fairly close in ability, the faster man will be placed #8, since should he get on, the #9 man will frequently be asked to bunt him along.

So, in summary:

#1 - High OBP, fast
#2 - High OBP, patient, left-handed
#3 - Best all-around hitter on team
#4 & #5 - RBI men, good power
#6 - second lead-off man
#7 & #8 - if close in ability, faster man will be placed 8th in case of a bunt
#9 - weakest hitter (pitcher in NL)

Here's some actual lineups for the A's this year, from May, August, and September:

Kotsay    (L)    Kendall(R)    Ellis (R)
Kendall (R)    Kotsay (L)    Kendall (R)
Chavez (L)    Crosby (R)    Kotsay (L)
Hatteberg (L)    Chavez (L)    Chavez (L)
Kielty (S)    Johnson (L)    Payton (R)
(Durazo) (L)    Payton (R)    Hatteberg(L)
Ellis (R)    Hatteberg (L)    Johnson (L)
Swisher (S)    Kielty (S)    Swisher (S)
Scutaro (R)    Ellis (R)    Scutaro (R)

Does the lineup matter? Create your own! Discuss!

In conclusion, I want to play poker with Ken Macha.

Next week: A look at offensive power numbers; why the home run should not be used alone in determining a hitter's Power Factor. Plus, fun calculations for everyone! View your favorite player in a whole new way!