Friday, June 13, 2014

The Lineup: Does Placement Matter?

After a couple of disappointing games in Denver, the Braves find themselves reeling as they return home to meet the Angels for a three-game weekend series. For a change, Atlanta trails in the NL East and their fan-base is panicking. Can the Braves stop the bleeding or is this flawed team just not capable of beating the media's favorite, the Washington Nationals? Oh, you've heard of them, I'm sure. For a year-and-a-half now, the media was sure the Nationals were not just NL East favorites, but a contender for a ring. While the media has seemed quick to point out the many flaws of the Braves (strikeouts, lack of a "true ace," etc.), they have remained incapable of pointing out the flaws of the Nationals. Clearly, they reasoned, things weren't working, but they had no idea why. It was easy to see observe why last year was full of struggles just like it's easy to see what their issues are this season. But that's a different article. Nevertheless, the Nats lead the Braves by a game so the media is now patting themselves on the back for calling this in 2013.

The Braves lineup has often been criticized by both media blowhards and fans alike. Either because of a lack of a "true leadoff hitter," the strikeouts, the focus on power, or something else entirely, the Braves lineup has issues. But the simple answer is rarely the right one and in this case, that holds true. Last season, the Braves were 4th in the NL in runs scored, largely a product of the sixth best OBP, 2nd best SLG, and 3 best OPS. This season, all of those numbers are below the league average. The team lost Brian McCann, but that can't explain the offensive issues.

Instead, a couple of starters are having down years while the bench, a strength for a good portion of 2013, has been a weakness this year. Nobody on the current bench has an OPS above .630. This puts an increased responsibility on the starting lineup to produce while also making it even more important for the players in the lineup to be placed in the right spots to maximize production. Lineup optimization is a tricky subject. On one hand, its impact is often overstated. On the other hand, the goal of the manager is to put his players in the best position to succeed and therefore, optimizing the lineup is a responsibility of that manager. Last season, it took over half of the season for Fredi Gonzalez to agree that a sub-.300 OBP was miscast in the leadoff spot. We have to hope this season is not similar.

So, out of the goodness of my heart, here is my optimal lineup. Maybe it might help Fredi.

1. Jason Heyward, RF - I get it, I do. He's inconsistent and many will argue his power is wasted in a leadoff spot. I don't necessarily disagree with either observation, but the Braves don't have many options to succeed. For what it's worth, since the first two weeks of the season, Heyward has hit .289/.353/.416 over his last 48 games. Overall, he's third on the team in OBP and his nine steals rank second. Utilizing his skill set would be best served in the leadoff spot on this team.

2. Tommy La Stella, 2B - I'll admit it. I've come around on this guy if only because our previous production at second base was so abysmal. La Stella finally got his first extra base hit yesterday and while I don't expect many, his OBP skills are wasted lower in the order. He has great bat control and with Heyward on in front of him, could get a lot of rallies going by serving the ball into right field with the help of a hole opened up by holding Heyward. In addition, when he leads off an inning, he has the on-base skills to get an inning going as well.

3. Justin Upton, LF - Again, playing the averages here. J-Up is a better on-base/power combo than the next hitter. He also can swipe a base at a high-rate. While you could flip-flop Upton with the next hitter, I'm merely attempting to avoid three straight lefties, plus I do believe Upton is a better all-around hitter at this point than the current #3 and will take more pitches, leading to earlier trips to the shower for the opposing pitcher. In fact, one of the things I love about the first three in the lineup is their penchant for taking pitches. Our goal should be to score a run or see 16 pitches every inning.

4. Freddie Freeman, 1B - Not as much a demotion as a promotion to more run-producing opportunities. Right now, Freeman comes to the plate after a trio of hitters that include Heyward, who is the only really decent one of the group at getting on (and yes, the pitcher is included). That mutes Freeman's production. A spot behind this three could lead to more opportunities. His capable bat will also sustain rallies.

5. Evan Gattis, C - Another guy I've come around on. Gattis hacks more than I'd like, but his power would be a huge advantage behind a bunch of guys getting on base. You'll take the OBP hit here, though Gattis has hit well enough so far to sustain a decent OBP. More, you give Gattis the opportunity to turn a couple of hits in an inning into a crooked number in the run column.

6. B.J. Upton, CF - I know we've heard that he feels more comfortable in the two spot, but this isn't about how comfortable Upton feels. This is about optimizing the run producing situations for the team. His .662 OPS batting behind Heyward may be better than any other place in the lineup, but that's not good enough. The Braves need more and Upton will have to enjoy the opportunity of hitting behind the five best offensive players in the lineup.

7. Chris Johnson, 3B - The BABIP Lord was back in action in Coors Field, though all of his hits were singles. If he can continue to produce, I wouldn't be against flip-flopping him with Upton, but I'll have to see more production first. 2013 Johnson would definitely make this lineup more dynamic.  As it is, CJ just doesn't give the Braves enough to work with.

8. Pitcher - I already see the sighs and eyes rolling. Why bat a pitcher 8th, many might ask. The rationale is pretty simple and it's the same rationale for batting a better hitter 9th in a lineup with the DH while batting your weakest hitter 8th. In addition to getting the guys who make the fewest outs the most at-bats, you should want to give those same hitters the most opportunities with runners on base. While there is a chance of more opportunities where the pitcher spot comes up in "RBI" situations with him batting 8th as opposed to 9th, I sincerely believe, especially in this lineup, the positives are better than the negatives.

9. Andrelton Simmons, SS - While Simmons is hardly an on-base guy, he is a better option to get on base in front of Heyward and Company than the pitcher. This leads to more opportunities to score runs and more runs often leads to more wins. More wins often gives way to a twittersphere not losing their collective shit. If CJ finds his BABIP idol and continues to hit, I would actually put Johnson sixth, Simmons seventh, and bat B.J. Upton ninth.

What do you think of my lineup? Feel free to crucify me in the comment section.

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