If all the position players come back (save one), what does the optimal lineup for 2018 look like?
It’s what a manager always has to ask himself on gameday.
What does the perfect lineup look like?
The perfect lineup is the one that is optimized to score the most runs, which is fairly obvious. If the manager set his lineup correctly, the one that he trots out there each night would be the one that would score the most runs it possibly can. However, as we have seen over time (and especially in 2017), a manager’s inherent biases can put too much influence over how the lineup probably should be made. Freddy Galvis and the need to bat him second could have been one of the factors that cost Pete Mackanin his job. There was plenty of speculation as to why Galvis was hitting second. Perhaps the coaching staff was more comfortable hitting him there because he could “handle the bat”. Maybe he had shown in the batting practice the best ability to go the opposite way, which would make him the ideal hitter if Pete wanted to implement the hit-and-run. Whatever it was, there really was no excuse to bat a batter second that had an on base percentage under .310.
So, we cycle back to the original question: what does the perfect lineup look like? It’s long been a subject of debate, as different publications have different theories. When Fangraphs looked at the topic a while ago, they referenced “The Book” and found that Tom Tango believed this:
The Book basically opened and shut the door on the issue: the best three hitters should bat first, second, and fourth, but even the most egregious of lineup errors won’t cost a team more than a win.
The Phillies’ roster, as currently constructed, presents several problems with these concepts. First, its best hitter, Rhys Hoskins, the one with the best combined on base and slugging ability, is also their best power hitter, the classic “cleanup hitter”. Incoming manager Gabe Kapler cannot bat him in multiple positions, therefore he needs to choose the better spot in which to put him so as to maximize his talents. That leaves the other spots missing a little something. To put it more succinctly, it’s not a perfect roster and Kapler will just have to make due.
So, how can we judge what the best lineup will be? There aren’t many tools around that can help us. Sure, we can put names where we think they should go, but without facts to support those ideas, they really aren’t valid. So, we go with what we can.
Baseball Musings had developed a process by which they compared scoring across different eras of baseball, used the concepts mentioned by Tango above and created a website where a user can enter different averages to develop a model that predicts the number of runs a certain lineup would score. It sounds fun until you look closer. The eras they have chosen were 1989-2002 and 1959-2004. The problems with these areas can be found here in this article explaining the problems with this website. Particularly, pay attention to this part, again from Fangraphs:
The first tip to how obsolete the tool is comes from the two models the user is allowed to use. One is the 1998-2002 model, which will spit out horrendously large numbers in terms of runs/game due to using data from the offense-inflated days of the steroid era. This results in ridiculous numbers like the Blue Jays scoring nearly 5 runs per game when only two teams managed that number last season. The other option uses numbers from 1959-2004, which smooths things out much more but is still difficult to transplant into the context of 2011 baseball.
After all that explanation of why it’s bad, why will I use it anyway? Simply because it’s all we really have at our disposal. I’m sure that teams have each developed programs that can help a manager decide what lineup works best, but with that being common knowledge, we are left to use what we have.
In order to get to where we want to go, we have to input some averages into the settings. In other words, what would Cesar Hernandez’s on base percentage look like? What do we give as a slugging percentage for Jorge Alfaro? This was the point where I cheated a little bit. Since the Phillies look to have a lineup full of players without a long major league batting record, I relied a lot on what they had done in the minors. For example, I can’t really expect Rhys Hoskins to slug .618 next season, as his otherworldly start was just too unsustainable. However, in the 1,600 at bats he had in the minors, Hoskins slugged .532, which sounds like a perfectly reasonable expectation for 2018, so that’s the number that I used. In other words, for the major leaguers, I used an average of their last 2-3 years to assign them percentages, and for the minor leaguers, I relied on their minor league track record to come up with a total. Here is a table of the numbers I used:
Some of it is cheating, I know. But I feel these are perfectly logical conclusions for what each player is capable of producing like in the coming season. So, now that I know what I think they’ll do, I put it into the fancy thinking machine that does all the number crunching. What does it spit out?
This, to me, was kind of a fairly obvious outcome, once you looked at how others think the modern day lineup should look like. Hoskins is the best hitter on the team, a perfect blend of power and patience, and should therefore be hitting second. The rest of the lineup is probably just as you I would have predicted. If Kapler did bat Hoskins second, the rest of the lineup would fall into place pretty easily. Any jumble of Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams as the #3, #4 and #5 hitters would produce roughly the same number of runs. The rest of the lineup positions are logical and defendable. Franco batting eighth seems to be the one where we can see the most arguments would come from, but his track record suggests that he might just be the worst hitter on the team, therefore justifying that kind of drop.
If you took the number of runs the “best” lineups would be expected to produce and multiplied it by 162, you’d end up with roughly 771 runs scored for the Phillies. That would place them 81 runs ahead of last year’s team, which would also be roughly an 8 win improvement (if you subscribe to the theory that 10 runs = 1 win). This doesn’t account for any one player out- or underperforming his “projection” listed here, but as a guess, it seems like that would be a good place to start when trying to see how 2018 could go. Could we see that much of an improvement next year? According to these numbers, it’s well within their ability to do so.
Now, I’m not saying that this lineup you see is the best. I can almost guarantee that Rhys Hoskins will not be the second hitter in this lineup. I also believe that some of those projections might be a bit bearish. I don’t think that J.P. Crawford will be slugging under .400. He showed a greater ability to drive the ball during the second half of the minor league season and received enough plate appearances to see how major league pitchers will attack him. I still think there is more power in Odubel Herrera that we haven’t seen. But overall, I think that if this is the Opening Day lineup that Kapler uses, I wouldn’t be mad at all.
The real fun begins when you begin to play with the lineup tool and subtitute players in that the Phillies are rumored to be in on. For example, let’s say the a deal for Giancarlo Stanton comes to fruition. You could assume that either Altherr or Williams would be involved in the deal, therefore either would be substituted with Stanton’s numbers. Try it and see what happens, then extrapolate it over an entire 162 game season. Not all the much different huh? What about Joey Votto? What about others? Go ahead, give it a try.
The point here is this: while using an imperfect tool, we can see that the best lineup the team can put out there on the lineup card will have players like Hoskins and Williams and Herrera getting as many at bats as possible. If we see Franco’s name inked into the cleanup position, we at least have some available (though flawed) data that we can argue with. While the math might be fuzzy, the concept isn’t.