How to set your baseball lineup 101

By Dave Fultz

Have you ever felt like you absolutely knew something to be true only to be told something totally different was true, and not only that, but that it could be proven so with cold, hard facts?

This is exactly what has been happening to old-school baseball men across the sport. Guys like myself who have been evangelized by the teachings of sabermetrics – the science of using statistics and other analytics to explain baseball’s intricacies – have been pointing out the inefficiencies and bad decisions of managers and general managers at a much more frequent rate in recent years.

While much of the criticism falls on the heads of the GMs for questionable personnel decisions, there is often little to be done to fix those mistakes by the time spring training rolls around. One thing that any team can do to improve is to utilize the talent it has on the roster to get the most bang for its buck.

I could certainly go on for a full column about the best uses for pitchers, whether they are starters or relievers, but today we’ll focus on the best way to construct a lineup. The idea for this column was prompted by a section of a book I’m reading (“The Book,” by Tom Tango and others) that I thought was particularly interesting. Tango was recently hired by the Seattle Mariners front office to help overhaul the franchise and install a numbers-savvy mind-set that is becoming more and more prevalent in baseball.

The clever title, “The Book,” is a play on the phrase that says a manager did or did not do something “by the book” and what that means. Basically, doing something “by the book” has meant to do something by the anecdotal consensus that baseball men have come to decide on over the years. Tango and the other authors of this book have tried to redefine the phrase and make it synonymous with playing the percentages to make decisions.

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    In this vein, “The Book” goes through myriad situations and decisions that a manager can make, and – through an exhaustive study of play-by-play data for a half-century of games – lays out the “right” decisions based on statistical analysis.

    Now, when it comes to constructing the perfect lineup, the consensus around baseball has been to have a fast guy at the top, a hitter with good bat control second, your best hitters third and fourth and then you try to set up a righty-lefty mix the rest of the way down the lineup. “The Book” forsakes all of these preconceived notions and preaches context, context and more context when it comes to understanding the different aspects of creating an efficient lineup.

    The most important piece of context is that a baseball lineup is a continuous loop. The manager sets up his lineup one through nine and then the order goes continuously on through the rest of the game. This is important to remember because it lessens the impact of the term “leadoff hitter,” almost making it a misnomer. Sure, the first man in the order leads off the first inning, but more often than not he will not lead off another inning in the game.

    This means that the most important fact about the first man in the order isn’t that he is the “leadoff man,” but that he gets more at-bats than anyone else. By understanding this, you can understand that having an inferior hitter in the first slot – just because he is fast – costs better hitters plate appearances and ultimately runs for your team. It works the same way all the way down the lineup, but other factors must be taken into account. It takes 10 pages (and five tables full of numbers) of “The Book” to fully explain the research that goes behind the rest. By studying the 24 base/out states, the dependency that each batter has on subsequent batters and the expected run values associated with each outcome for each batter, “The Book” is able to come up with four easy-to-follow guidelines for constructing a lineup.

    Here they are, verbatim from “The Book”: Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the No. 1, 2 and 4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth-best hitters should occupy the No. 3 and 5 slots. The No. 1 and 2 slots will have players with more walks than those in the No. 4 and 5 slots. From slots No. 6 through 9, put the players in descending order of quality.

    Tango and the others go on to analyze more specific situations, including whether or not it helps to stick your pitcher in the No. 8 slot in the NL (it does, a bit), and come up with more rules for fielding the most efficient lineups. I heartily recommend this book as a starting place for someone who is interested in sabermetrics.

    It’ll make you think, and that’s never a bad thing.

    Dave Fultz is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]