When it comes to sabermetric studies, no single item sees more energy expended with less gain than the analysis of batting orders. 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. It’s also more important to split lefties to avoid LOOGYs than it is to get that perfectly chained lineup.
That doesn’t mean that lineup construction isn’t fun, and I’ve certainly spent my share of time on largely fruitless but enjoyable studies on the batting order. There’s a tool available over at Baseball Musings that seems to make things easier for everybody, spitting out optimal lineups and even run totals for any lineup you can think of. Unfortunately, the numbers it spits out cannot be trusted and are no longer a reflection of reality.
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.
The other problem (a much smaller problem, given we’re already dealing with minutia) is the only inputs are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In The Book, the inputs used are linear weights by each lineup slot. It’s important to realize that different batting slots tend to see different situations – leadoff sees bases empty often, third sees nobody on and two outs quite often, fourth sees most runners, etc. – and therefore a single from a hitter in one slot isn’t necessarily worth the same as a hitter in another. Compared to the issues with the run environment, this is minor, but it can still spit out some odd orders.
Use the lineup analysis tool if you must, but be aware that the run totals it spits out have nothing to do with the context of the current game. You’re much better off simply using The Book‘s final conclusion. Take the best three hitters at #1, #2, and #4 (with power leaning towards #4 and OBP leaning toward #1). The next two go in #3 and #5. Then the worst four go in #6, #7, #8, and #9. This clean and relatively simple lineup analysis will rarely lead you astray.