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March 23, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Nationals sabermetric lineup

Ok … I admit it … I find spring training boring. Sure, there’s baseball being played (of a sort). But the decisions being made are about the fifth starter, the last spot in the bullpen, and the last spot on the bench. You wait all winter for spring training, and then you wait another six weeks for real baseball.

But sportswriters have to keep writing, so this is the time of year when we get the fluff pieces and personality profiles. But, as token analysis, we usually also get an article or two about construction of the Nats’ lineup.

This blog leans toward sabermetrics, and sabermetricians have written a lot about constructing lineups. Actually, the main thing they all agree on is that lineups don’t matter all that much. Poorly designed lineups usually cost, at most, maybe five or ten runs a season. Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to see what research says about lineups, and how far most actual lineups are from the ideal.

I’ll work with the rules from The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by “Tom M Tango” (better known as tangotiger), Mitchel G Lichtman, and Andrew E Dolphin, though I’ve read a number of other articles that reach generally similar conclusions. Here are a couple of their rules:

Rule #1: Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2, and #4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth-best hitters should occupy the #3 and #5 slots. The #1 and #2 slots will have players with more walks than those in the #4 and #5 slots. From slot #6 through #9, put the players in descending order of quality.

Notice that they don’t want you to lead off with the slap hitter who steals a lot of bases. Where do you put the base stealer?

Rule #3: If you need to leverage a basestealer, put him in front of a batter who hits lots of singles and doesn’t strikeout much. The likelihood is that your basestealer will be batting fifth or sixth.

How would I apply these rules to the Nationals lineup? First, I want to focus on projected hitting ability rather than on past hitting ability. Decision making should always be forward looking rather than backwards. We’re interested in how players are likely to hit in 2014, not in how they’ve hit in past seasons. Fortunately, projections are widely available. I’ll use the ones from FanGraphs, which are based on an average of Steamer and Zips projections.

Second, because almost all players have significant platoon splits, I’ve constructed separate lineups for use against right-handed and left-handed pitchers. For the platoon splits, I’ve used common factors, rather than trying to estimate separate platoon factors for each hitter. The factors I used were 9.8% for left-handed hitters (that is, their wOBA, or weighted on-base average, is assumed to be 9.8% higher against right-handed pitchers than against left-handed pitchers), and 6.1% for right-handed hitters, with these numbers taken from a 2013 study by Bojan Koprivica.

I basically followed Rule #1, with one additional rule—I tried to avoid placing left-handed hitters adjacent to each other, to cut down the ability of the opposing team to leverage their left-handed relief pitchers. Here are my suggested lineups, with each player’s projected wOBA adjusted for handedness in parentheses:

Versus right-handed pitchers:

1. Jayson Werth (.349)

2. Adam LaRoche (.339)

3. Wilson Ramos (.326)

4. Bryce Harper (.384)

5. Ryan Zimmerman (.345)

6. Anthony Rendon (.325)

7. Ian Desmond (.321)

8. Denard Span (.319)

Versus left-handed pitchers:

1. Bryce Harper (.350)

2. Ryan Zimmerman (.366)

3. Wilson Ramos (.346)

4. Jayson Werth (.370)

5. Anthony Rendon (.345)

6. Adam LaRoche (.308)

7. Ian Desmond (.341)

8. Denard Span (.291)

These lineups, of course, are not at all similar to what I expect to actually see. First, I show Denard Span, who will almost certainly bat leadoff for the Nats, as the worst hitter in the lineup and better suited for batting 8th. Could this be correct? Absolutely – his wOBAs over the last four seasons have been .307, .308, .325, and .313. While that’s actually not bad for a good defensive center fielder, it’s clearly the worst of any of the Nats’ regulars. Look, back in 2008 and 2009, Span was a fine leadoff hitter. But that was then, and the team needs to evaluate him on what he can do now. Please, I’m not criticizing Span (in fact, last season I was ready to nominate him for the All-Star team), but we need to recognize that he’s valuable for his defense, not as a leadoff hitter.

Now, I admit that neither Werth nor Harper is a classic leadoff hitter. The problem, however, is that there just aren’t that many classic leadoff hitters around. I ran a search for all regulars last season (min. 350 PAs) who had at least a .355 OBP, a 10% walk rate, and an isolated power of less than .180 – thinking that those would be the characteristics of a classic leadoff hitter. Only 12 players fit those criteria, and only three of them actually hit leadoff—Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler. Among the others who fit those criteria were players that no team would actually use as a leadoff hitter—Joe Mauer, Billy Butler, Prince Fielder, Buster Posey, Aramis Ramirez, and Chris Ianetta. There were also a few players who weren’t being used as leadoff hitter, but would fit the role pretty well—Jason Kipnis, Dustin Pedroia, and Andre Ethier. But the fact is, most teams are not going to be able to find a classic leadoff hitter because those skills are exceedingly rare. Both Werth and Harper are pretty good at getting on base and at drawing walks, so I think it would make sense to use them as leadoff hitters.

The other thing that really stood out in this analysis is that LaRoche has reached the point where he really needs to be platooned. His .339 projected wOBA against right-handers is adequate, but the .308 projected against lefties is horrible. Whether it’s with Zimmerman or Tyler Moore, I hope that Matt Williams will see the need to institute a platoon.

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  1. Lineup optimizer? Another look at the Nats’ lineup | Nats Noodles

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