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Musing On The Rangers' Lineup

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How good of an idea is it to hit Elvis Andrus second, and what would the optimal Texas Rangers lineup look like?

I had actually been thinking about this of late already, but with the news out of Rangers camp on  how Ron Washington intends to fill out the Rangers' every-day batting order, I figured today would be the day to actually talk about it. The likely batting order going in to this season seemed to be the same as 2010, just with the name A. Beltre in for V. Guerrero, with Elvis Andrus leading off, and Michael Young hitting at his traditional spot of No. 2.

Jeff Wilson reports from camp, however, that Andrus will be hitting second and Young sixth, with Kinsler leading off. This is not only surprising, it is also a bit questionable. Adam Morris already took on the issue at Lone Star Ball, with some good points, mostly expressing happiness about Kinsler leading off. I am going to add to that and look at the whole thing.

Before delving in to an armchair GM discourse on what the batting order should be, here are three important things to consider:

  1. Batting orders are not actually a hugely impactful decision. The amount of time spent discussing and arguing about them is disproportionate to how much they influence actual games.
  2. The traditional rules of batting orders are mostly silly and misguided.
  3. Batting orders are not a big deal, so do not freak out. This consideration is listed twice because it is important.

Okay, so, even though batting order is not actually a huge deal, it is fun to talk about, right? Tom Tango's The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball did excellent work on batting order theory, and SB Nation's own Beyond the Boxscore covered the issue a couple years ago. You can read that for a more full summary than I give here, and you can get a copy of the book for an even deeper analysis.

Essentially, the biggest issue is how managers treat the two hole. It frequently features someone who is not actually that good of a hitter for some reason having to do with "bat control" or something like that, the idea being that you want someone who can "move over the runner" for the three and four hitters, instead of simply having someone who can simply increase the odds of scoring runs. The problem is, the two spot is likely the most important spot in the lineup, as it tends to have just as good a chance, on average, to produce runs as the fabled third spot, but comes up (obviously) more often.

In other words, the two hole is not where you put a weak hitter, it is probably where you should put your best hitter. Elvis Andrus is an enormous fan favorite, particularly among the hard core Rangers fans who have been following him since he came over in the Teixeira trade, and deservedly so. But he is not one of the Rangers' strongest hitters. Among Rangers likely to get regular playing time in 2010, only Julio Borbon and Matt Treanor had lower weighted On Base Averages than Andrus. That includes Yorvit Torrealba, who hit in Petco Park. By ZiPS, only Treanor projects to hit worse in 2011, with Borbon beating him by .001.

That is really not bad for an early twenties shortstop whose calling card is defensive value. Especially when it is built on strong plate discipline, it is promising, but that is not particularly relevant in batting order. What is relevant is Ron Washington would quite possibly be putting his weakest hitter most days in the most crucial spot of the order for run production. Once again, not a big deal, but also not exactly helpful to the cause of scoring runs.

As for the other spots in the order, the issues are less glaring. Josh Hamilton should probably hit second, but we know a manager is probably never going to take his (perceived) best hitter out of the three spot. Kinsler is probably perfect leading off, where getting on base is supremely important, as this team is currently constructed.

The four spot should probably be Nelson Cruz, the team's second best hitter and a serious power threa. Fifth should probably be the best hitter after one, two, and four are filled, unless he's an all or nothing type hitter. That spot probably belongs to Beltre in the perfect Rangers lineup. So you are looking at Beltre and Cruz merely swapping positions; not a huge deal.

That leaves the third spot for the fifth best hitter or so, which is probably Michael Young among every day players, but he will actually be hitting sixth. Another interesting option is Mitch Moreland, who Adam discusses as a viable candidate for the second spot, and Moreland projects as hitting pretty close to Young (likely better against righties). That said, avoiding having back-to-back lefties is probably even more important than having your best hitters in the optimal spots, so you would probably want to break up Moreland and Hamilton, making Young the better candidate for the fifth spot.

From there, you pretty much just go in declining value. So, with all of this information, and looking at what the ZiPS projection system says about the Rangers' hitters in 2011, the optimal every day batting order probably looks something like this:

  1. Ian Kinsler
  2. Josh Hamilton
  3. Michael Young
  4. Nelson Cruz
  5. Adrian Beltre
  6. Mitch Moreland
  7. Yorvit Torrealba
  8. Julio Borbon
  9. Elvis Andrus

There is a school of thought that your worst hitter should not hit last, allowing for someone with better OBP skills to get on ahead of the top of your order. This is not always true for teams whose worst hitter is better than a pitcher, however, and the Rangers two worst hitters look pretty similar in 2011. Elvis Andrus is probably a better candidate to hit in front of Kinsler and Hamilton than Borbon due to his superior ability to not get out.

Using the lineup analysis tool at Baseball Musings projects this as a 5.3 runs per game lineup (using ZiPS's projections for OBP and SLG). It actually likes swapping Torrealba with Young, and Moreland with Beltre, but only to the tune of about five more runs scored in 100 games.

It is worth noting that none of the 20 best lineups from that tool have Andrus hitting higher than ninth. Most of them, however, agree with Kinsler leading off. The likely line-up Washington has indicated at this point is projected in the same tool projects to score around 5.2 runs per game. So you are talking a pretty small loss, even with the questionable choice of hitting Andrus second. That is much closer to the best line up than it is to the worst (4.9 RPG). And the difference of just .4 runs per game between the absolute worst possible lineup and the best should serve as an indication of just how small a difference batting order makes over the course of a season. I can find it very easy to believe that allowing players to have their established roles, or putting players in positions where pitchers are likely to give them the pitches they want can make up for the on-paper difference.

So, in short, lineups just are not a big deal. This piece alone is more words on the subject than it deserves. Elvis Andrus hitting second is probably not a good idea, but it makes such a tiny difference it is also not worth stressing about.

They are, however, fun to talk about. Hopefully now (if you were not already) you can take the knowledge of how a lineup should probably look (i.e. OBP leads off, best hitters hits second, the third spot is overrated, no lefties back to back) to your future conversations on the topic, armed with a stronger idea of how a lineup should look with the comfort that even if your manager disagrees with you it is not the end of the world.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.