The Science of Building a Lineup

added 4/20/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Over the last couple of weeks we have heard a lot about the Astros lineup. These things usually happen when clubs are scuffling offensively and the Astros attack is certainly scuffling. Then again, most of us figured they would until Berkman returned to the middle of the lineup. Still, the calls from the masses to change this or that can be heard plainly on the airwaves and in the sports bars.

Most of the attention has been centered on the bottom and top of the Astros lineup. I think most people realize that the combination of Jeff Bagwell, Jason Lane, Morgan Ensberg, and Luke Scott will be anemic at times, but the top and the bottom have positions of intrigue. In particular, the first spot and last spot has been a source of serious controversy.

Before I go too far into theory, I would like to outline my beliefs on lineups. In many instances, I think people read far too much into what is called for from each spot. People rack their brains to describe what a good second place hitter and how that is different from a good third place hitter or leadoff man. In reality, the object of baseball is to score runs. You score runs by getting on base and hitting with power. If you don’t do either you can sacrifice bunt, hit behind the runner, and support a base-stealer all you like to no avail.

We have seen lineups that do one or the other particularly well. The use of so-called small ball is successful in limited situations, but you must get on base. Teams that slug well will slump from time to time unless they get on base consistently. In other words, you still want balance if you can get it. The mistake that a lot of analysts make (and fans too) is that they think that players can alter their game to suit a spot in the batting order. A clear look at history shows this is not the case. Traditionally, numbers stay the same throughout a player’s career.

All of us can think of examples of players that were able to evolve and develop into productive offensive players. For instance, some people could hold out hope for Adam Everett based on the career of Ozzie Smith. Smith came up as a weak hitter, but developed his game and showed a very good ability to get on base late in his career. Everett is a diminutive shortstop with good defensive skills, so maybe he could be another Ozzie Smith right? The problem with this line of thinking is that Ozzie Smith is in the Hall of Fame and many players before Everett have shown similar comparisons. You have to assume the rule and not the exception.

So, it doesn’t make sense to plug someone into a spot based on what they might be able to do. You must honestly access their abilities and put them in the spot that most suits them as they are. Think of it this way. Think of the spots in the batting order like pants. When you go out to buy pants to you arbitrarily pick out a pair of pants? Obviously that would be ludicrous. You cannot change your body size to fit any pair of pants. Picking spots in the batting order is the same way.

The top three: setting the table

Like I said earlier, people look at each position and assume way too much. I like to look at the spots in groups of three. Here you obviously want hitters that can get on base. The first hitter should have the best OBP of the group while the number three hitter should have the best slugging percentage of the group. Obviously, a very good hitter might have the highest in both (Jeff Bagwell did for many years). That player should hit third.

Let’s take a look at our current cast of characters to see how they fare. Since most of these players have a thin track record, I will use career statistics and this year’s to help us out. Fifteen games isn’t much of a track record, but with guys like Luke Scott, Willy Taveras, and Chris Burke it is all we got.

              2005 OBP  2005 SLG  Career OBP  Career SLG
Adam Everett      .286      .255        .314        .360
Craig Biggio      .389      .520        .373        .435
Jeff Bagwell      .333      .429        .408        .542

Adam Everett is clearly miscast as a leadoff hitter. To his credit, he is showing some effort to adapt based on the fact that he leads the team in walks, but as his numbers show, they aren’t helping. Hitters should be patient, but when a hitter has been doing it a certain way for so long they will struggle if they try to do it another way. This is why you want to search for people that are naturally patient. The other two have different issues entirely.

Jeff Bagwell has spent his entire life in the third spot in the order (minus a good portion of last season), but is he really still suited for it? I think we can all agree and hope that his 2005 numbers are not indicative of what he will do this year. Yet, he has been hovering in the 850 range in OPS in the last couple of years. This is a far cry from the 1000 OPS seasons he was putting up in his prime. Simply put, he is no longer the best hitter on the team.

Biggio is getting on base, so he might be suited for the second spot, but he has shown a remarkable ability to slug the ball late in his career. Last season, his SLG eclipsed his career average and he appears to be on that pace again. However, if his last several seasons are any indication, he will drop well below his career OBP rate. Therefore, he might be a better candidate for one of the RBI slots.

The Middle: RBI Buffet

The middle of the order is obviously where most of the RBIs take place. If you hve a good team you will have guys with good OBPs up and down the order, but on most teams you will have a good mixture. This is where you put your high SLG and low OBP guys (if you have them). Obviously, the fourth hitter should have the highest SLG and so forth down the line.

Interestingly enough, this is where teams try to get cute and alternate lefties and righties. This is all well and good, but you must obey the principles first before going into advanced strategy. Teams that alternate risk putting a weaker hitter higher up the lineup for handed purposes. We still should remember that the average starting pitcher goes through the lineup three times, so when you’re worried about situational lefties and tough right handed relievers you are concerning yourself with one out of four or five times through the order. Let’s take a look at the Astros middle of the order.

            2005 OBP  2005 SLG  Career OBP  Career SLG
Jason Lane      .352      .704        .352        .559
Morgan Ensberg  .367      .419        .353        .455
Luke Scott      .270      .242       -----      ------

I’ll bet most of you never really realized how good Jason Lane really is. That’s okay, neither did the Astros. Lane probably should remain in the fourth slot when Lance Berkman returns because Berkman has a better OBP. However, it is looking more and more like Ensberg is not an RBI guy. However, he is very patient at the plate and has gotten on base consistently in his career. I would probably put him in the second spot in the order.

Luke Scott might be overmatched as a hitter, but he also has had the worst regular hitter in the NL hitting behind him all season. If you keep him in the sixth spot and change who is hitting behind him he might improve. Still, he has the look of a guy that will be sent to Round Rock when Lance returns.

The Bottom: Just Pray Hard

The bottom of the order is simple. This is where you put your worst hitters. The order down here is a little more important simply because it bumps into the middle of the order. The Astros have been hitting Ausmus seventh for some inexplicable reason. You should have your best remaining hitter here for two reasons. First, he will get more at bats during a season than the eighth and ninth hitter. Secondly, he will be able to support the sixth hitter.

Think about how many times we have seen Luke Scott get intentionally walked this season with runners on base. Why have these teams been doing that when Scott has struggled? Well, they know he has a good hitting history in the minors and that 33 at bats is never enough time to peg these guys. Brad Ausmus has thousands of at bats to demonstrate his futility. Let’s see what I’m talking about.

            2005 OBP  2005 SLG  Career OBP  Career SLG
Brad Ausmus     .243      .206        .325        .353
Willy Taveras   .354      .429       -----      ------

Now, you see what I plainly talking about. Pitchers have nothing to fear from a hitter with that kind of slugging percentage. The OBP is actually higher than I thought it would be, but it is still below par. Furthermore, he hasn’t seen a .325 OBP in years. He should be hitting eighth at best (ninth when Backe is pitching).

Taveras is another issue entirely. He has no big league track record to go on, but he looks to be the best leadoff hitter of the bunch. He has shown that he can get on base on every level of the minors he has been on. When you watch him you go away under whelmed with his action in the batter’s box, but you look up and he usually has a scratch hit or two and a walk. Plus, he is clearly the most dangerous base runner on the team.

The Best Lineup

                        OBP       SLG
CF Willy Taveras       .354      .429
3B Morgan Ensberg      .367      .419
RF Jason Lane          .352      .704
1B Jeff Bagwell        .333      .429
2B Craig Biggio        .389      .520
LF Luke Scott          .270      .242
SS Adam Everett        .286      .255
C Brad Ausmus          .243      .206

This lineup would be the best until Lance Berkman returns in a couple of weeks. When Berkman comes back you remove Scott from the lineup and plug Berkman into the third spot (everyone else moves down one). It won’t be a great lineup, but it will be the most efficient one the Astros can throw out there.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”