Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lineup Optimization: Does It Even Matter?

On July 27th, Fredi Gonzalez "succumbed" to...public pressure? Frank Wren? His wife?  After 61 games with Andrelton Simmons as the leadoff hitter, including the six games before the decision was made, Gonzalez wrote a new name in the leadoff spot - Jason Heyward.  On the face of it, it was a confusing choice for some.  Heyward is 6'5" and 240 pounds of a hybrid of a gazelle and Ken Griffey Jr., not a 5'10" spark-plug who resembles gritty, plucky guys like David Eckstein.  Heyward wasn't setting the world on fire, either.  He entered the game .223/.325/.370 for the season and was just 3 for his last 20.

Whatever forced Gonzalez to make the move, the results have been tremendous.  Suddenly, the Braves offense became much more dynamic.  After taking the last two games against the Cardinals to complete a sweep, the Braves offense exploded, peppering the Rockies with 40 runs over a four-game sweep that made the Rockies look like a AAA club playing exhibitions against their major league counterparts.  Justin Upton was inserted behind Heyward in the lineup and he seemed the most comfortable he has been since April.  Upton had spent 89 games in the third spot before the move.  The heart-of-the-order became Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, and Brian McCann.  Gattis has struggled, but Freeman and McCann have excellent this season and McCann has been especially awesome this season.  Originaly, Dan Uggla was slotted as the number-six hitter, but Gonzalez changed that for the Rockies series, hitting Chris Johnson ahead of Uggla.  Finally, Simmons was tapped to hit eighth.

The results have been magical.  The lineup as been optimized.  I would have batted Johnson second and Upton fourth and still think that would help make the lineup even better, but hard to argue with the results.

You might think to yourself...does it really matter how you organized your lineup?  The offensive explosion might be a coincidence.  There is a lot of online chatter about lineup construction.  A good deal of it centers around batting your best hitter second over third in the order.  Let's not get bogged down too much with the studies because I'm not smart enough to conduct those studies myself.  At least not yet.  Instead, I'll look at the raw data.  I just want to note that my formula is not very good.  It's a simple and crude format.

The average NL leadoff hitter averaged 4.63 PA a game last year.  The Braves averaged 4.64.  The difference is not great between 1 and 2 in the order, a difference of 22 at-bats for the Braves.  Over two months, that might mean 3-5 more PA.  But the difference between batting first and eighth, like the change for Simmons, is great.  Per game last year, it's a difference of 0.75 PA/G.  For the full season, it was a difference of 121 PA.  That's roughly 37 or so fewer plate appearances for Simmons.  How big is that?  Discounting the depressing story of B.J. Upton, no regular or semi-regular on the team is worse at avoiding outs than Simmons.  While he has produced better since his demotion to lower in the order, Simmons current offensive profile is best suited lower in the order.

Whatever made Fredi Gonzalez "succumb," the Braves are grateful.  He seems to finally understand one simple point.  Bat your best hitters toward the top of the order.  Screw all of the other beliefs, antiquated (the second hitter needs to hit behind the runner) and new (your best hitter should hit second).  I don't demand that Fredi bat his best five in a particular order, but that he simply bat them before the next four.  Any combination of Heyward, J. Upton, Freeman, McCann, and Johnson is fine by me, to be honest.  Gattis is currently not making that possible, but even that doesn't concern me all that much because at least the Braves are getting their top five in the top six.  That's a major improvement.

Or was that not obvious enough?

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