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Boom, Yosted: Actually Existing Lineup Optimization

On May 18, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost moved Alex Gordon from third to first in the batting. Gordon has hit leadoff every game since then. This was a surprising move, but for those of us in the Nerdosphere who had been calling for this move before the season (I remember advocating it in the 2008-2009 offseason), it was a welcome one. The Royals aren’t exactly known for being on the sabermetric cutting edge, but the move must have caused waves, as the Tampa Bay Rays followed suit about a week later, moving Evan Longoria into their leadoff spot (at least for a few games).

Maybe that was because of a “sabermetric resonance,” or just the Rays’ obvious lust after all things Royals this season: Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, and Joel Peralta (can Mike Jacobs be far behind?). Gordon leading off is a nice change of pace from the batting-order choices managers usually make. This is of particular interest because Yost has claimed to have read The Book, ideas from which form the basis of blog-based “Gordon-to-leadoff” enthusiasm. Given the increasing interest in moving the sabermetric revolution from the front office to the dugout, what can the context of Yost’s decision tell us about the present and future of potential sabermetric managing?

For the sake of this brief post, we don’t need to argue about whether or not Gordon is the best choice for a leadoff hitter. The relative significance of batting order is not the main focus here, either. Of more interest is the thought process behind these sorts of decisions. I doubt that Yost took projections and plugged them into a simulation or Markov model as I did, of course, but The Book does offer a rough guide on what to look for in hitters without going through the simulation process.

Most players, like managers, are hesitant with respect to ideas that go against traditional baseball wisdom. How that might be changed is one question. Managers have to manage egos as much as they do lineups and bullpens, and as silly as that might sometimes seem, that’s the reality of the job. What is striking in this case, however, is that Gordon seems perfectly fine with the moving to the leadoff spot and letting rookie Eric Hosmer hit third. Gordon has hit well this season (he still has the highest wOBA among all the regulars on the team), and based on some accounts of how baseball players react, he might have chafed at being moved out of the “prestigious” third spot for a rookie, even one as heralded as Hosmer. But he didn’t. Maybe that’s because Yost handled it expertly (I don’t know either way), maybe Gordon is putting on a nice front while seething inside, or maybe, just maybe, baseball players are able to adapt to such changes more easily than some people think.

But let’s not crown Yost the New Sabemetrically Ideal Manager just yet. The Kansas City Star story linked above notes that Yost made the move in response to the team going into an “extended funk” on offense. Making changes based on a corporate sample of a few weeks? Not exactly a saber-aware move.

A similar problem occurs on the level of individuals. As of today, Gordon has lead off 18 games, Mike Aviles has lead off 15 times, and Chris Getz still leads the team with 19 times (before Gordon took over, of course). Aviles might make sense against lefties (although Yost hasn’t advanced far enough to have separate orders for right- and left-handed pitchers… baby steps!), but Chris Getz scarcely makes sense as a regular at all based on his bat, much less a regular getting the most plate appearances.

Yost seems to have figured that out after giving Getz 19 chances. That’s nice, but the problematic aspect is that a sample of 19 games of plate appearances for Getz (or any player) isn’t going to tell us anything significantly new about his abilities. Getz projected as a bad hitter before the season, and should never have led off. But if you think he’s can lead off at the start of the season, 19 games of doing a bad job of it shouldn’t be the basis for changing your mind. This is almost as bad as making the decision based on a “hot” or “cold” streak. It’s another illustration of how teams, even sabemetrically-inclined ones (which they Royals are not) still don’t really “get” things like regression and sample size, as Tom Tango noted recently.

A quote from Yost from the Star‘s article nicely shows that there’s both progress and confusion going on:

[Gordon]’s been getting on base. It’s not an ideal situation. I liked him in the three spot, and I can see him in the two spot. But I don’t want to bump a bunch of lefties together…. I’d like to have a guy who can hit .300, have a .350-.360 on-base percentage… A guy who can run, can steal bases, can bunt and create some havoc. We don’t have that guy right now. (Jarrod) Dyson is two for 17 in the minors (since his departure).

Yost is right about not bunching lefties together, and it’s nice to see him acknowledge that the second spot is important. But the notion that it isn’t “ideal” is flawed — not because Gordon is an “ideal” leadoff hitter, but because that idea is meaningless. The ideal leadoff hitter would really be Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. They would also be “ideal” in the second, third, fourth, seventh or ninth spot. More to the point, a player’s “ideal” spot in the batting order is relative to the projected talents of the other players in the lineup, not a set-in-stone set of attributes like running (Gordon is actually a good baserunner), base stealing (maybe, but not if you have power hitters right behind him), or bunting and causing “havoc” (Yost must have turned on auto-cliché at that point in the interview). It’s hard to decide whether the Jarrod Dyson comment is more enjoyable because of the sample size issue in the quote (2 for 17 in the minors!) or the notion that Jarrod Dyson can hit like a major leaguer at all. Keep in mind that this is the manager that had Jason Kendall bat second in 70 games last season. Rewind yourself.

We should not allow a bit of snarky fun get in the way of the larger point. Yost’s problematic thinking on certain points is probably no better or worse than most managers in the league. He should definitely be applauded for putting Gordon in the leadoff spot despite Gordon not having “ideal” leadoff qualities. Simply having read The Book (or, frankly, even knowing it exists) probably puts Yost ahead of a depressing number of his peers. But Yost’s comments and the situation in which the decision was made show that he, probably like most managers, has a long way to go in terms of making these sorts of decisions for the right reasons.