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Where should Tommy La Stella bat in the A’s lineup?

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2nd? 6th? Where are his skills best utilized?

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

You might be aware that I absolutely love the Oakland A’s acquisition of Tommy La Stella. He is exactly the player they needed — not just the type of player, but the actual specific individual who realistically made most sense.

But how can the A’s best utilize his skill set within this specific lineup? First and foremost, he strikes out less than anyone in the league, and that kind of consistent contact is what Oakland has been critically missing in clutch moments with runners in scoring position. That’s been their biggest problem and they’re one of the worst in the bigs at it despite being good overall hitters, and La Stella’s acquisition appeared to be a direct nod toward it by giving them a new dimension to contrast their Three True Outcomes foundation.

Secondarily (and related), he’s good at getting on base, though not great (.350 OBP). Finally, he’s got some power, not as a carrying skill but enough to put him comfortably in the Piscotty/Laureano/Pinder zone.

On Friday, La Stella batted second. I’m here to argue he should be batting sixth. Here’s last night’s lineup:

  1. CF Ramon Laureano (R)
  2. 2B Tommy La Stella (L)
  3. 3B Matt Chapman (R)
  4. DH Mark Canha (R)
  5. 1B Matt Olson (L)
  6. LF Robbie Grossman (S)
  7. RF Stephen Piscotty (R)
  8. SS Vimael Machin (L)
  9. C Sean Murphy (R)

Normally, Marcus Semien would be leading off, with Laureano lower down, probably eighth where Machin was. Ignore that because it’s not relevant to this discussion — I’m good with Semien leading off, and his absence is being directly replaced by Laureano rather than moving everybody around. Pretend it’s Semien first and Laureano eighth if you want.

I’m also good with Murphy ninth. The rookie has his whole career to earn his way up the order, but for now he’s drawing some walks and that will help him get on base for the top of the lineup. (His OBP is only .321 right now, but that’s because his batting average is low, and I expect the latter to recover a bit over time because he’s consistently hitting the ball hard.)

That leaves us with the 2nd-7th spots. I like the Chapman-Canha-Olson heart, in whichever order makes sense that day based on who is hot — right now that means Olson at the bottom, but often he’s cleanup ahead of Canha. Piscotty also makes sense seventh, just by default as the next-best righty, which isn’t an insult in this stacked group.

And so the question comes down to the arrangement of the two remaining lefty swingers, La Stella and switch-hitter Robbie Grossman. One goes second, the other sixth.

The pair are similar in some ways as hitters. Their averages are close, in the .260ish range, and that’s around where you’d expect them to be so we don’t need to adjust for small samples. They both walk a lot, well into the double-digits in percentage of their total plate appearances (league average is around 9%). But there are three key differences:

  • Grossman is hitting for more power this year, and it might be a real sustainable improvement
  • Grossman gets on base significantly more
  • La Stella strikes out significantly less

What exactly are you looking for in a No. 2 hitter? On-base ability, yes, but research suggests this should also be your overall best hitter. That’s Grossman, whose 165 wRC+ is 31 points higher than the runner-up. He gets on base the most by a wide margin, and only Chapman hits for more power. Grossman should be up at the top so that he hits as often as possible.

Even if you disagree with that logic, and/or if you don’t fully believe in Grossman’s breakout yet, and all you want is the highest OBP possible in the table-setter position, that would still be Grossman.

  • Grossman: .416 OBP
  • La Stella: .350 OBP

If your leadoff man gets on base? Grossman and Chapman lead the team in extra-base hits, and Grossman has been one of the team’s better clutch hitters. If the leadoff man doesn’t get on? Then there’s a 42% chance Grossman can start the rally, including a one-in-six chance that he’ll draw a walk. That should be the core of the juggernaut right there.

After those top three, Canha and Olson come up. If the rally is on, they can blast the dagger homer, or if there’s nobody on then they can draw walks to set the table. Or maybe they’ll come up with runners on base and strike out, as Oakland has done so often in such situations this summer.

If the latter happens, that’s when you want La Stella. Grossman and Chapman just got on, but Canha and Olson couldn’t slug them home. Or Chapman got on, but they pitched around Canha and Olson and now the bases are loaded. All they need is a single, or maybe even just some contact, like a sac fly or a routine grounder. Just don’t strike out to let the other team off the hook. Make them make a play.

  • Grossman: 17.7% strikeouts (that’s low!)
  • La Stella: 5.6% strikeouts (that’s three times lower!!!)

Nobody in MLB is better at making the opponent make a play than La Stella. Presumably that’s exactly why he’s here, to help correct this glaring flaw in Oakland’s attack. Where is he more likely to come up with runners on base — after Laureano, Murphy and Semien, or after Grossman, Chapman, Canha, and Olson? Hint: In that latter group, all but Chapman are in the Top 20 in MLB in walk rate, and Grossman and Canha are Top 20 in OBP.

The only possible reason for Grossman to be lower in the lineup is to utilize his power down there, but really that’s best placed higher up, when it will come to the plate more often. And if you insist on having power in the sixth spot, La Stella was on a 30-homer pace last year and is on a 20-homer pace this summer, so he’s got plenty of pop in his own right.

There’s just no reason for La Stella to be second. He’s not the best on-base table-setter, and his specific primary strength makes most sense below the guys who do get on base so he can knock them in. I thought that was the whole point of getting him.

In the end, batting orders aren’t that big of a deal. We’re just scrapping for tiny margins of increased probability, which may never even come to pass in real life. The truly important thing is there are quality hitters up and down the order, in every single spot, especially when Semien comes back. But as long as we’re picking an order, the current one doesn’t make the most sense. Grossman second and La Stella sixth is the way to go.