2/26/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Tradition not always order of day in building lineups
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Mike Scioscia used to play a game with reporters from time to time. They'd ask the Angels manager about the logic that went into his seemingly always-in-flux batting order, and he'd ask them what they would do if they were in his spikes. The sessions would usually end in laughter.
But for all 30 Major League managers, batting order is a serious matter, and it is one that doesn't lack for its share of old-school-vs.-new-school debate.
In the classic corner, the time-tested virtues of hard-boiled baseball men would have you believe what you've been hearing for decades: that the leadoff spot should be reserved for a quick guy with a good on-base percentage and the ability to steal. The two-hole should feature a player who can handle the bat and get the leadoff guy over, often by hit-and-run or sacrifice. The third spot should be occupied by the team's best hitter because ... well, because the cleanup spot is for power. And pure hitting talent rules after that.
But enough managers have scrapped that theory by now. Realities of roster construction and injuries have left clubs bereft of the perfect mix of skill sets. You've got to make the most of what you have, and sometimes it won't be pretty.
That's when age-old tenets such as protection and left-right matchup optimization become luxuries and thinking too much about who should bat where can become cumbersome and even counterproductive.
So where to start? Well, how about with what works best for you?
Mariners manager Eric Wedge, for example, didn't have a lot to work with in 2012. He had a rookie, Jesus Montero, as one of his main projected power sources. Wedge had a second-year player, Dustin Ackley, expected to be one of his best all-around hitters. He had a veteran, Ichiro Suzuki, who had led off for his whole career but whose batting average appeared to be in decline. Wedge had youth all over the diamond and not a lot of pop or average to position around those guys.
So Seattle's skipper did what he could. Wedge moved Suzuki lower in the lineup and took his chances with the young guys. It didn't work well, but he didn't have much of a choice.
"We've had a very young team here the last couple years, and that makes [devising the best lineup] all the more difficult," Wedge said. "Because when you know you have to put a young kid in the middle of your lineup and you know he's not ready for it, but somebody's gotta hit third, somebody's gotta hit fourth, you know it's mentally either going to help him or hurt him.
"And when you talk about working one hitter off another, it's important. If you've got somebody in the two-hole, you have to consider what the one-hole guy and the three-hole guy means for him, and then vice versa. You have to work your lineup."
Most people would agree with that -- even sabermetrician types and proponents of analytics over traditions.
In a nutshell, the statistical set's main argument for lineup construction -- which is expressed in the most cohesive, researched manner by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin in "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball" -- is that your best hitters should hit at the top of the lineup and your worst hitters should be at the bottom. It's simple. There will be more plate appearances for the top half of your order, so get the best bats up there. No one seems to be arguing with that.
But stats guys will argue the notion that the No. 3 hitter should be the best hitter, because No. 3 hitters often come to the plate with the bases empty and two outs. Therefore, the logic would be that your Nos. 1, 2 and 4 hitters should be your best offensive players. And after that, not a lot matters.
"The thing teams most often do wrong is putting a bad hitter at No. 2 because they make contact," said Dave Cameron, the managing editor of the influential stats site FanGraphs. "The logic is to bat a low-strikeout guy there, thinking it gives you a strategic advantage with the hit-and-run with the leadoff guy, or that they like having flexibility in that position to do a number of things. But we can show that this is almost demonstrably wrong."
Cameron says some teams are adapting to the numbers. Tango, for example, will use these numerical findings in making suggestions for the Cubs, who recently hired him as a statistical consultant.
And Nationals skipper Davey Johnson batted Jayson Werth first and Bryce Harper second for a good portion of the very successful 2012 season.
"You'd think that a team wouldn't want to put a high-strikeout 19-year-old with some power into the two-hole," Cameron said. "But Bryce Harper's pretty good."
Other examples abound from recent years of tailoring a lineup to the personnel of a team. Rays manager Joe Maddon had catcher John Jaso lead off. The Red Sox did the same with beefy on-base maven Kevin Youkilis.
"I personally ascribe to the thought that you have your best hitters hit most often," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I mean, that's generally the best way. I think you can drive yourselves crazy talking about different lineups. You only lead off once, so let 'em hit. We led off Youkilis. That was fantastic. He never stole a base, but he hit a lot more often and he was on base for the guys in the middle of the lineup."
As far as the notion of protection goes, most baseball people agree that it's a very real thing. If you have good hitters in front of and behind your best hitter, it will be tougher for the opposition to pitch around your marquee bat.
"It was a lot easier pitching around Miguel Cabrera when Prince [Fielder] wasn't there [in Detroit]," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "There were times you could take Miguel Cabrera totally out of the equation. We try to protect Billy Butler in our lineup that same way, so, yeah, there's something to be said for protecting your hitters."
Yost added that there's something to be said for getting the right lineup and sticking with it, so players don't have to worry about being moved down after an 0-for-4 night and can have faith in consistency and continuity.
Wedge agreed but said no matter what the numbers say, you're not going to succeed with no nuance behind a "best hitter first" approach.
"If you're going to put your best hitter first, then you're saying the collective nine -- it doesn't matter what order you put them in," Wedge said. "You're not going to go best hitter, second best, third best. It doesn't make any sense.
"Then you're not working off each other. So you have to have it one way or the other."