Modern Baseball

How Optimal is Price’s Lineup?

We usually toss around platitudes like “It doesn’t matter that much” when discussing lineup construction.  On an almost daily basis during baseball season, many of us (myself firmly included) find nits to pick with the order in which nine names are written on a piece of paper.

Is our nit-picking justified?  How many runs (and wins, perhaps) is Price giving up?  I’ll venture to show that “not many” is the correct answer, and that the platitude is correct.

To be fair, most of this sort of work has been done in The Book, but I like to take principles like those and apply them in a more specific manner.

Here is the lineup of Bryan Price from yesterday’s season opener:

lineup_price

The figures in the chart represent each player’s career slash line against RHP.  For the “Pitcher,” I used the league average from 2016 against RHP for each pitcher.  Boy, isn’t it fun to watch players with a collective .338 OPS bat? (That’s a topic for a different article altogether! 😉 )

Honestly, there’s nothing hugely wrong with it once you get over the fact that you’re giving the most plate appearances to a couple of light-hitting speedsters rather than the superlative Joey Votto (domination by Jeremy Hellickson notwithstanding).

Using a method I have devised (I’m sure someone else has done this, but I haven’t seen it!), we’ll look at the expected run output of this lineup, versus what we’ll call an “optimized” lineup to see how our expectations and complaining natures line up.

Before we do that, I need to introduce the idea of runs created.  Many of you are familiar with wRC+, which is “runs created” normalized and put on a scale where 100 is league average, while also adjusting for the park you play in. Every point above or below 100 is 1% better or worse than league average.  If you removed the scaling and the park factor, you back yourself into simply weighted runs created, or wRC.  More on that topic here.

So, here’s Price’s lineup alone with each player’s career wRC againt right-handed pitchers, plate appearances, and how many runs they create per 100 PA (to make the number prettier).  The final two columns show the relative difference in plate appearances each lineup spot will receive in a season, with the lead-off hitter scaled to 600 PA.

lineup_price2

As we can easily see, the higher a player hits in the lineup, the more PA he will receive in a season.  Pretty easy stuff.

I’ve bolded the wRC per 100PA column for an important reason.  This is a proxy for overall productivity.  It shows how many runs a player creates, in simplest terms.  Wouldn’t it make sense to give players more PA if they create more runs per PA?  Wouldn’t this lead to a maximization of runs scored?  Well, in theory, yes.  It would.  In the real world the answer is a bit more muddy.  wRC has all situational considerations stripped out.   For example, a solo home run counts the same as a 3-run home run in wRC world.  The reason for this is that the player who hits the home run does not control whether or not the person in front of him gets on base, so why should he be rewarded or penalized?  Using wRC as the framework for our analysis, we don’t need to worry about things like “Well, if we bat Votto 1st, he will always have the bases empty in the 1st inning, thus not being able to drive any runs in.”  This is true, but also not the point of this exercise.  The point is to see how many runs Price might be leaving on the table versus a mathematically-optimized, context-neutral lineup.

So, let’s look at that now!

lineup_opt

First think you’ll notice is that I made the lineup in descending order of wRC per 100 PA.  I’ve also shown the difference between the new lineup spot and Price’s lineup spot, as well as how many extra PA that will get a player.  Finally, we see how many extra (or fewer) runs a player would be expected to produce given their change in playing time.  We add them all up and get….

Six runs.

At least by this measure, Price’s lineup is theoretically leaving only six runs on the table over the entire season when compared to an optimized lineup.

Perhaps it’s time for me to stop complaining about lineups… pfft… like I would ever do that…

 

32 thoughts on “How Optimal is Price’s Lineup?

  1. That is vey interesting. I have wondered how Schebler would do at leadoff instead of BHam. Then Peraza at #2, the Votto at #3. Or switch Votto and Peraza around would also be fine. How would this work out in your tables?

    • You are 100% correct, sir. I am toying with an idea for an article like this, but much more rigorous, that would include base running, also!

  2. On the other hand, it would be better to have six more runs. Seems like the Reds should be in the business of optimizing results, even on the margins.

      • The fan base and media believe in traditional lineup construction so fervently that it simply doesn’t make sense for a manager like Price to truly make the batting order optimal in exchange for 6 runs/season. I can see the P-Doc articles now (which I won’t read). I’m happy that he mostly got it correct, although I’m a little worried what he does with Mesoraco once he comes back.

    • Exactly. That’s why I like to complain about lineups. 🙂 It’s easy to get a few more runs, so why not do it?

      First things first, though, we need to get price to realize that Schebler hits righties very, very well and Suarez is sort of average-ish. Schebler should always bat higher than Suarez against RHP until he gives us a reason to think otherwise. Seniority seems to be the only logical reason Price does stuff like this.

  3. Put your two best on-base hitters in front of Votto. The rest is details.

      • I understand wRCs inherent weakness as you explained it. Isn’t it the job of the manager/FO to attempt to make sure two people are on base when Votto hits his HR? His wRC doesn’t change, but the Reds win more games when that happens.

        Your simulated line up was 6 runs better, based on a batting metric with this flaw. Is it possible a couple 3 run Votto HRs negates the benefit altogether?

        • If that’s the case, we should bat the pitcher 7th and have our worst two “real” hitters hit 8th and 9th with Votto leading off.

          Taking away 30-40 PA from Votto for the chance to have a few runners on in the 1st innings (the only time this argument even matters) is a bad thing.

          Also, if Votto were a low-OBP, 45 HR guy, none of this matters. But he walks over 100 times a year and only will hit in the 20s for homers. So any strategy that starts with Votto hitting homers is doomed from the beginning. He’s a unique player and needs to be treated that way, IMO.

  4. I also toyed around with some more exotic lineups that had Votto leading off, with the pitcher 7th, Barnhart 8th, and Hamilton 9th… that way Votto always bats before two hitters in every PA except the 1st inning. Results were about the same as optimal, but slightly less, of course.

  5. I love this stuff Patrick. I think Price has done a really good job with the lineup, especially after what we dealt with in the Dusty era. Hamilton and Peraza hitting 1 and 2 is not optimal, but you want both of those guys to improve on getting on base for the future. Putting them in those spots certainly pushes for that.

    Votto is never going to lead off as much as I want it. When the Reds are competitive, I’d like to see Hamilton/Peraza hit 9th/1st with Votto 2nd. Which ever one proves to be the better on base guy bats 1st, the other 9th. That would be the happy medium and get more PA for the Reds better hitters.

    • I hate the idea of Hamilton or Peraza batting 8th simply because it neutralizes their speed when they get on base with the pitcher up. I’d rather the pitcher bunt Tucker Barnhart over than a guy that can get to second on his own.

      • True. The Reds current personnel lends itself to creativity, which is why I hate the by-the-book bat your best guy 3rd BS.

        From a win expectancy and RE24 perspective, batting Votto 1st actually has a stronger case, because walk with 0 outs is worth more run than a walk with 2 outs.

      • Devil’s advocate here: Wouldn’t it be better to have the pitcher bunt a guy to second who could take 3rd on any sort of mis-play or steal third on his own? Or score from second on hits that would leave Barnhart at 3rd? I expect that this has been analyzed and that I’m wrong, but it makes intuitive sense.

    • I don’t think Price has been horrendous with his lineups, but I think he gets a little too much credit sometimes. Looking at the Opening Day lineup, the only difference between Price and Dusty is you’d probably have to flip flop Cozart and Peraza because SS bats 2nd. Other than that, it’s a pretty conventional lineup.

      That doesn’t mean anything now, of course. The Reds are not going to win a lot of games this year. But if Joey is still Joey in 2019, Winker is young Joey, and Nick Senzel is the kind of hitter we hope he will be, would Price have the nerve to go Senzel/Votto/Winker at the top of the order? I guess it’s unlikely he’ll be around then, so none of it really matters other than depriving me of seeing more Joey Votto PAs.

  6. The lineup you present isn’t bad, except that it seems to ignore the speed factor. How about Hamilton, Votto Schebler, Duvall Paraza Tucker Suarez Cozart and Pitcher?

    • The speed factor is very much over-hyped. Hamilton was the best base runner in the world last year and added 12.8 runs above an average base runner. Votto, as a hitter, added 45.7 runs above average.

      Being a superlative hitter is about 4x more important than being a superlative base runner.

      So, giving a ton of extra PA to the worst hitter on the team (historically) pretty much negates most of Billy’s value to the team.

      • He meant speed force. Using the speed force, Hamilton might be able to go back in time and learn how to hit.

  7. Good stuff. Why did you decide to scale the leadoff hitter to 600 PAs though? Last year 25 players had between 680 and 744 plate appearances, so just about one guy per team had somewhere in the range of 700 plate appreances. Seems like 700 would have been a more realistic number for the leadoff hitter, and would make the differences you’re noting larger. Maybe even enough to account for 1 win.

    Clearly getting better players is more important than how you order your not-very-good players. That said, I think there’s a good reason that fans complain about bad lineups.

    For me, it comes down to feeling like your team gets it. I want the manager of the Reds to show that he understands what really makes a team good, because it gives me confidence that they are going in the right direction. When Dusty was batting guys with terrible OBPs first and second because they didn’t clog the bases, it was a clear indication to me that the Reds were not going to win with him. He didn’t get it.

    Price is better, but not by much. He brought in Chapman for plenty of meaningless saves, and he’s shown very little willingness to adapt his lineups based on what the facts show about scoring runs.

    • When Jesse Winker comes up it will be a great test of whether the Reds “get it” or not. He’s going to bring a really high OBP with some power along with him. He’ll be the guy who should hit leadoff. Wanna bet the Reds keep their speedy guys at the top? Meanwhile the Cubs (Kyle Schwarber) and Cleveland (Carlos Santana) get it, as you say.

      • I’m already mentally preparing myself for Winker batting 6th and 7th all year. It’s what you do with rookies, apparently, until they “prove” something. What they need to prove, I have no idea.

      • I hope that if they keep Hamilton at the top of the order when Winker arrives, it’s because Hamilton has a .350 OBP, but it probably won’t be.

    • Thanks, Jeremy.

      Good question. I did that because that is what the linked article did. I tossed this together quickly after I scrapped my original post, so I was strapped for time. That Chad Dotson is a cruel taskmaster, I tell you!

      Excellent point, though. And you’re right. The difference would be closer to a full win.

    • I agree with you, Jeremy, save for one thing: The Reds did win with Dusty. Not the WS, but they had some good seasons. They had good players, of course, which explains why they won a lot of games, and I expect that you would say that, had Dusty optimized his use of the players, the Reds would have been better in the postseason. Perhaps they would have been, but we’ll never know. We do know that, with Dusty as manager, the Reds had several of their best seasons in a long time.

      • Agree completely with this. Dusty was frustrating, often, but i will always remember him for helping to bring back winning baseball to Cincy, after a very long drought. Maybe it was right place at the right time, but that’s okay. I can’t stand Price, but if he won, maybe i’d be more lenient with him too.

      • They were good years, but my opinion is that with a better manager they could have been great. I will always remember those years as bitter sweet because I feel like so much was left on the table. The Chapman debacle alone…

        As you say, we’ll never know, and 2012 was a really good year, but I’ll stand by my original statement. Dusty showed over and over that not only was he unwilling to use the best available information to the Reds’ advantage, he was openly hostile to people that even suggested it.

        Maybe a manager like that can win a World Series in this era, but it sure seems like doing things the hard way. I’d much rather root for a Reds team that’s less frustrating.

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