Rule Change Friday: Batting Order On the Fly

As you may have heard, the current rules of baseball were not set in stone and brought down the mountain by Abner Doubleday, never to be changed. There have been many changes over the years. Whether those changes made the game better or worse is debatable, but to believe the game exactly as currently played is somehow “sacred” such that any changes would make it something other than baseball is silly.

The idea of Rule Change Friday, as I first tried to implement in a discussion of pickoff throws, is to (hopefull) generate fun discussions about potential rule changes the game better more enjoyable (from a variety of perspectives). In that first post, I discussed a suggestion by Bill James that (as far as I know) has never actually been practiced in professional baseball. For this installment, I would like to explore the idea of moving forward by moving backward by looking at the possibility of in-game establishment of the batting order.

My knowledge of the history of early baseball is even shabbier than my knowledge of baseball history in general. But when I do read about early baseball, I almost always have a good time learning new things. Today’s idea comes from something upon which I stumbled a while back in… The Bill James New Historical Abstract (that guy again?). It was not a suggestion of his this time, however, but simply a short comment he appends in his summary of professional baseball in 1880s. After noting that Cap Anson led that decade in RBI with 967, James notes:

“Early rules did not require the batting order to be announced prior to game time. Before this was changed in the early eighties, Anson would sometimes wait and see if the first two men got on. If they did not, he would bat; if not, he would wait and hit in the next inning.”

The focus of this post in on batting order and rules, so let’s leave aside some of Cap Anson’s less praiseworthy contributions to baseball history (not to mention his role as Potsie on Happy Days) and focus on the tactical aspect of the situation. It makes good sense, doesn’t it? With runners on and less than two outs in the first inning, you probably want your best hitter to hit. However, with none on and two outs, run expectancy for the inning is very low. This is true in any era, but particularly so in a time during which a player could lead the league in home runs with six.

The paragraph above is not clear about this, but it seems that if he did not hit third in the first ining, he would lead off the next inning, thus hitting fourth for the rest of the game. That is more good baseball logic. If he hit fourth, he did not wait any longer to get men on, he was not worried about “wasting” his bat by leading off an inning, since he still had a good chance to get on base, thus increasing the run expectancy for his team. Moreover, it acknowledges that the batting order is going to “come around” again, so he still might have the chance to hit with runners on.

One could go on along these lines, but you get the general idea. This was a sound tactic given the rules at the time, but this piece is not meant to be a celebration of Anson (and without knowing one way or the other, it is reasonable to guess that other teams employed similar tactics), but rather to take a look at the rule. My brief internet research (not much, although I also did a bit of asking around) did not reveal exactly when (all I found was the “early eighties” in the James quote above) and why the rule was changed. Perhaps what Anson was doing was taken to be against the “spirit” of the game. Maybe it was just one more thing for umpires to track. Baseball was still in development at this stage. To name a just one interesting example of differences from today: foul bunts were not yet classified as strikes.

Without knowing all of the details of how this worked and why it was changed, I wonder if it might not be a fun “back to the future” rule change for contemporary baseball. The rule would simply be that the batting order is not “set” prior to the game. I assume the defensive lineup (and the DH for games in which that would apply) would have to be announced before the game, but the batting order would only be set as each spot in the order came up for the first time. On a practical level, there should be no problem. The umpires in conjunction (perhaps with the aid of the official score keeper or someone like that) could keep track of it in the same way they keep track of which bench players have been used.

But for the sake of what I hope will be a discussion in the comments, I think this could lead to a more strategically and aesthetically interesting game. I would guess that the lead-off hitters would remain mostly the same, but managers would have to display more awareness of what sorts of hitters and players are better in particular base/out states. At the moment, there are ways in which most teams could be using more optimal batting orders, and while the difference is not completely insignificant, for the most part “plug-and-play” lineups work pretty well. But if managers could make their batting orders according to the proposed rule change, I think we would have a chance to see some pretty big differences — or at least who is paying attention. If a manager opts to put in high-average/high-on-base hitter without exceptional power up third in the first inning with none on and two outs, we will know that either the manager is not paying attention or really is not familiar with what is going on.

Of course, things are not always that cut-and-dried, and the differences perhaps would not always be that glaring. After all, managers still would not know how things would play out the rest of the game after the batting order is set for the first time in terms of base/out situations confronting each hitter. Without doing any modeling (as if I could, anyway), I would guess that most of the time, the best hitters would still be hitting in the first four or five spots. What would mostly come out is to what extent managers were distinguishing between the particular skills (power, getting on-base, contact, walks, speed) of those players, and how those would likely work out in particular base/out situations. Maybe an analogy with bullpen usage might help. Currently teams can leverage their relievers to match certain situations at the end of the Perhaps one way of looking at the proposed change is that it would give teams a chances to leverage their hitters in accordance with the situations that would come up at the beginning of the game.

This is all for the sake of speculative discussion. The game as it is now is fine, but this might make it more fun in a different way. This is an aesthetic issue rather than a mathematical one. The more I think about is though, the less crazy and radical is seems. What do you think? Let’s use the most scientific of all possible methods: the internet poll. It would be great to hear different viewpoints in the comments as well.

My thanks to a certain undead pitcher for an attempt to answer my request for aid.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

32 Responses to “Rule Change Friday: Batting Order On the Fly”

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  1. Graham says:

    I like the idea, but I fear that as a practical matter, as soon as a star player that was used in the same manner that Anson was in the example went through a “prolonged” slump (I say “prolonged” because I mean something like 0 for 10, which we know is not a good indicator of “slumpiness” but which the mainstream still tends to treat as earth-shattering), he would say somethign along the lines of “well, I’m not used to being used like a pinch hitter.” The idea would fizzle away and managers would set their lineups at 4pm like they do now. From an approach standpoint, that’s what you’re asking the star player to do with this idea, be wholly prepared to hit while not being certain he would hit. Would there be two on-deck circles? Perhaps three? I think it would work swimmingly if everyone on the team was fully bought in from a mental standpoint, but I can also imagine that the uncertainty of the batting order might be a bit mentally taxing over 162 games for some players. Consistency and defined roles are often lauded, for better or worse, in baseball, and I tend to think that they have at least some role in success.

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  2. Dave D says:

    This might also effect where the pitcher bats. For example, in the 2nd inning the #6 & #7 hitters are put out, bringing up the #8 slot. It’s an ideal situation for the defense–the pitcher will likely be leading off the 3rd inning. Instead, the pitcher bats in the #8 slot, giving the offense a slightly greater advantage to start the 3rd.

    One other thing: Umpires do not need lineup cards ahead of time. The homeplate umpire could easily scan the batter as he approaches (a silicon chip implanted by Dr Jobe during elbow surgery could facilitate this) and upload it to his smartphone.

    Still, such a rule would never pass. Tis a pity….

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  3. BJ says:

    I love it. Very cool idea.

    How about something even more radical. The lineup could change every time you go through each batter. In the scenario you laid out in the first inning with 2 outs and nobody on you may trot your catcher out to hit since the probability of scoring is low regardless of who is at bat. After the first 9 hitters go through the lineup, the catcher might end up hitting the equivalent of 5th in the order – again because another low leverage situation presented itself.

    In this scenario you could adjust your lineup to be used in the most efficient manner possible. It would require much more strategy as managers would need to decide when to concede a run vs when to push for offense (by inserting their top producer). It would effectively eliminate specialists in the bullpen as the defensive manager could rarely count on seeing a cluster of the lefty or righty hitters (this is especially true once the lineup turns over – however, near the end of the lineup the defensive manager would know how many right/left handed batters are available).

    Of course, this would never really happen but wow would it add a ton more strategy to the game.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      Or you could go full saber and subtract off a positional adjustment from the runs each time a player takes the plate. pitcher goes up, runs stay the same, DH goes up, you take off 0.25 runs from your score.

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  4. jj says:

    better still why not allow the lineup to change each time through. I think this would add to even more interesting matchups and less pitching around the best hitter as he would have the possibility of being up more often in higher leverage opportunities.

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  5. DavidCEisen says:

    Is the Potsie thing supposed to be a joke? If so, that’s just sad.

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    • ValueArb says:

      Potsies racism was the saddest thing of all.

      Remember the episode when he and Ralph Malph refused to play basketball against “chocolate covered c**ns”? Only when his team was threatened with forfeiting the gate receipts did we see Potsie’s true colors.

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    • JS says:

      I think he was going for a joke. Potsie’s real name was Anson Williams

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    I love both ideas.

    I like setting the lineup for the game via the first time through.

    I also like being able to set the lineup as their lineup spot comes to the plate each time through the lineup.

    Pujols might bat 3rd, 2nd, 5th, etc for the different times through the lineup.

    I love the strategy/situational aspect of it.

    It also likely forces managers to employ relievers that can get LHB and RHB out, since R-LOOGY’s would be likely relegated to 1 batter per game.

    I REALLY like the idea of being able to set the lineup each time through. I think it puts more emphasis on the stars of the game, and puts more of the team’s success on their shoulders.

    Unlike some of the other sports, you can win a baseball game while pretty much avoiding the other team’s best player. Even if you don;t avoid them they are only directly involved in 4 of the 37ish plays.

    Really, interesting.

    I’d expect the run value of a walk to increase dramatically.

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  7. Baltar says:

    This is a bad idea, and the other ideas in the comments are incredibly bad.
    Allowing this flexibility would benefit bad managers, as the lineup decisions would become very obvious. If runners are on, you put up your best available batter (or at least your best RBI man); if not, you hold him back a spot or two.
    Let the worse managers continue to use worse lineups, and the better managers continue to use better lineups.
    Better yet, get rid of the DH, which also benefits bad managers.

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    • O's fan says:

      Why does it matter if it benefits bad managers or not? The question is whether or not it would make the game better. The only plausible reason this would matter is that in the year of the change it would be a hand out to the teams that ill-advisedly hired bad managers (this is allowing that somehow bad managers would be better than good managers at utilizing this rule, which is a pretty suspect claim to begin with). But even that’s flimsy, and really, so what?

      Presumably good managers would be able to take better advantage of this rule than bad managers anyway, just like anything else.

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  8. Craig says:

    It would be interesting to implement the rule for setting the batting order by the first time through in some ST or exhibition games just to see what happens.

    I don’t think managers would do much differently even with the rule change. You are basically committing yourself to a sub-optimal batting order throughout the entire game in order to gain a slight advantage in the first inning or two. Baseball managers tend to be conservative and BOs are designed to provide optimal situations throughout the game to the extent possible.

    And you absolutely could not change the order each time through. That is just patently unfair.

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  9. There have been some “good” managers that have placed a fast, low OBP guy in the leadoff spot, and have even followed him with a high contact guy to “move him over”.

    I think being able to arrange tor lineup each time through, and not just in the 1st 3 innings adds quite a bit of strategy. It also increases the number of times key players can affect scoring.

    In other words good hitters might bat more often with RISP more often which makes for more entertainment.

    I would love to be able to customize a sim like Diamondmind, Our of the Park, etc to reflect this rule change and see what type of affect it might have.

    As of now, much of the game is “out of the manager’s hands” to the point we view their contributions as insignificant for a large portion of the game(s).

    There would be more risk-reward in the decisions as you would have to decide whether to bat Pujols 1st in the 3rd inning with 2 on and no out or save him to bat 3rd, allowing a couple of other hitters the chance to drive them in during high run expectancy situations. A GIDP makes the situation very interesting.

    Do you use your best hitters in the 7th against a medium reliever or hold them back to face the relief ace?

    Likewise do you bring in your closer in the 7th if the team has RISP and are using their best hitters, knowing that the worst hitters will probably bat in the 9th?

    The idea is really intriguing to me.

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  10. Jimbo says:

    Great idea.

    I’d make it slightly more restrictive in one way: you need to ‘declare’ your on-deck hitter. Can always call him back, but then you’re removing him from the game. That’s at least somewhat fair to the opposing manager, who needs to decide when to walk a batter or perhaps play for a double play, etcetera.

    I don’t like the perpetually shifting batting order idea, but might like a version where you get to “start over” any time a new pitcher is brought into the game. Then, when the 8th inning set-up man is brought in? Gets the top of the order. You want to bring your closer in next inning? Same thing.

    That would probably lead to a lot more 2 inning saves eh?

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    • Bip says:

      I don’t like that at all. To me that takes away some of the strategy involved in bullpen management. Also, it could lead to the most effective arms in the pen getting overworked.

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  11. wahooo says:

    Allowing the managers to change each time through could have another effect–it would allow managers to hide good glove/bad bat players in the lineup. I think it would be a good thing for entertainment purposes to have more glove-wizards in the majors.

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  12. It also allows team with great “leadoff hitters” to lead-off an inning 3-4 times a game.

    Imagine Wade Boggs and his .426 OBP starting an inning on base 40% of the time.

    Basically this rule change would make great hitters all that more valuable and the focus of the game. Just like basketball and football can put the ball in the hands of their best player at the most important times, baseball could do the same.

    It would create some unique situations as well. 2-on 2-out in the 8th Pujols batting in the 8 spot. He makes the final out. He gets to bat again in the 9th as the lineup turns over and managers can change their lineup.

    I love it as teams cannot try to win games by avoiding the best hitters.

    The game would feature the best players any time their team gets in the Red Zone. Players would be able to adjust their mindsets and managers could tell players, “Bautista if he gets on, you’re up”. It’s not like players would be at a disadvantage because they weren’t mentally preparing for 4 batters to hit.

    Managers could also decide to use their best PH in any spot by just putting the P in that spot and PH’ing for him.

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    • Dale says:

      Basically this rule change would make great hitters all that more valuable and the focus of the game.
      This is the ultimate argument against the “change order every time through” rule. I could live with the “first time through” rule, but losing the team aspect of baseball is something I would hate. There’s a beautiful symmetry in forcing hitters that don’t want to practice hitting to hit and in forcing fielders that can’t move an inch to field.

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  13. Funny Idea says:

    3rd inning, 1-on, 0 outs. Pitcher comes to bat because he’s the 9th batter. He GIDP, so now we’re 0-on, 2 outs. Very low run expectancy, so the manager sends the pitcher out to bat… again.

    If we are re-customizing each batting order, there has to be some provision that someone on base can’t bat again while they are on-base, right?

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  14. shthar says:

    Why don’t we go back to 8 balls and 5 strikes while we’re at it?

    I know it’s january, but jeez.

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  15. noseeum says:

    I love this idea, but the idea of changing lineups each time through is ridiculous. I mean perhaps you could set it up such that a batter can be switched but the switch must alway push him down the lineup, i.e. there always must be at least 8 batters between a hitter’s at bats and no more than 17 or he is out of the game, but that’s just ridiculous. On the other extreme, if a guy can guy more often than the current setup then you’re giving a pretty extreme unfair advantage to top heavy lineups instead of balanced lineups. Teams would have opposite extremes in their lineups. Murderers row and punch and judy

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  16. noseeum says:

    Oops I hit submit.

    Anyway the second suggestion would decrease the entertainment value IMO. Last thing we need is guys with literally no offensive capabilities to find a place in the lineup and this would make them rosterable because you could hide them.

    The suggestion in the article is very easy to implement and not all that radical. I don’t see how hitters would complain about the chaos. My guess is the typical plan would be that 1 and 2 would be the same no matter what. Your number 3 would go on deck whether 1 got on base or not. If 2 got on base then the default 3 hits. If not you bring in your 5 or 6 guy and number 3 leads off next time. Something like that. You wouldn’t move things too much because you don’t want to miss too many ABs from your best hitters.

    I initially liked the on deck declare rule idea but I think there’s too much conflict with pinch hitters later in the game. I don’t like the idea of having one set of rules for the first time through and one set second time through. AFAIK a pinch hitter is not declared until he walks to the batter’s box. Best for that to be the same throughout.

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  17. TK says:

    I think this looks fun, but I’m against this because it makes star players more important. The NBA and NFL have changed their rules to make superstar players almost essential for ultimate success. I like baseball’s importance on the whole team (as in, starting players) close to equal.

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  18. We all realize that the players would generally get the same # of PAs in a season, right?

    Teams already “hide” their weaker hitters at the bottom of the lineup and put their best hitters at the top, well except Texas and Napoli. Teams do this so their better hitters get more PAs and hit with RISP more often.

    The best teams will still be those with the best overall lineups as they can “play to score” more than just 3 innings per game.

    A team that has one really good hitter is not going to do better than a team that has 3 really good hitters.

    While a lot of focus has been on offense, it might actually make elite pitchers more valuable as opossed to guys that are always putting guys on base. Pitchers that allow a bunch of walks may turn out to be the biggest detriment on the team, and teams with better defenses might do better since a big focus as things like giving extra outs (errors and not getting to BIP they should).

    I don’t think we’d see a team full of DH’s or anything of the sort.

    The big change is that teams would be able to get their better players more PAs with RISP.

    Another big change would be that teams wouldn’t be able to IBB or pitch around star hitters as much.

    We’d also likely see relief aces pitch in high leverage situations against the better hitters rather than just be relegated to the 9th regardless of who is coming up to the plate.

    These are all things that I hear many fans clamour for, and I’ve seen numerous discussions on ways to eliminate or punish IBBs.

    I think the same good teams would still be the good teams and the bad teams would still be bad.

    What we’d see are more “important matchups” with good players at the plate with RISP. We’d see more “Best vs. Best” in important situations.

    There’d still be unsung heroes, there’d still be situations where the lesser hitters need to produce, and things of that nature.

    I like it mostly because it adds continual strategy to the game. At least 3 times per game, the manager has to decide “use Bautista now or save him for next inning”. You wouldn’t necessarily flip the channel until the top of the order rolls around again.

    The concerning aspect to me might be reliever health, there would be times that you’d need two relievers ready based on who the opponent might send to the plate and having a reliever warm up multiple times per game throughout the season might be very bad for them.

    It would also skew statistical history as some star players may get things like 200 RBI or 175 Runs scored, and you might get a SS that only bats with runners on 10% of the time. Baseball is perhaps the only sport where all players “take the same number of shots” so to speak. If that’s an incredibly important part of the game, then the rule change would be bad. If it’s not, then it’s a good change.

    The best teams would still be the ones that score the most runs in innings where there big hitters don’t bat.

    I think the biggest change is that teams would seek OBP players, as having multiple players be able to lead off an inning by getting on base would be incredibly valuable.

    I would love to be able to try this in a baseball sim to see how it might go. It might be great, it might be very confusing. It is the most intriguing rule proposal I have seen. As a coach, I find it very, very interesting. Managerial decisions would be much more important, as opposed to just making the lineup and sitting back and watching the first 6 innings play out before really doing anything.

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  19. In regards to bullpen strategy … there doesn’t seem to be much.

    Each team seems to have a closer, a setup guy, and both roogy’s and loogy’s.

    Managers all seem to use their bullpens in the same fashion with the lead.

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  20. Cornutt says:

    An interesting aspect of this is that it would work somewhat as an advantage for the visiting team. Here’s why: At the start of the game, the only information that the visiting team has to reveal about their lineup is their first hitter. At that point, the home team has no other information about who the visitors will have in their lineup — anyone in the visitor’s dugout could be the second hitter. However, the home team has to take the field to start the game, and by doing so they establish the nine players who will be in their batting order. If they decide, in the bottom half of the first, that they want to bat a player who wasn’t in the field for the top of the first, then they have to make a substitution and lose a player. The visiting team’s starting nine isn’t fully established until they have already batted in the first (unless they bat around).

    If this resulted in home teams winning fewer games, I’m not sure how well that would go over with fans in general. It might be necessary to bring back another 19th-century rule: allowing the home team to choose whether to bat first or last.

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  21. Cornutt says:

    One other thing I thought of: In a game using the DH, a batter hitting as the DH would have to declare himself as the DH the first time he comes to bat. Otherwise, the umpire won’t have a way of knowing which batter is hitting as the DH.

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  22. @ Cornutt

    That’s resolved by having managers turn in a lineup card at the start of the game, only the batting order will vary throughout the game.

    This would also likely need to occur for scoreboard purposes and possible exploits like what you describe.

    I was also thinking in the “paper era”, this would be a nightmare for scorebooks. However, the electronic era allows this to exist while still being able to have all player info ready on the scoreboard and the TV broadcast.

    I’m not sure that such a rule would have been easy to implement before the tech era.

    But to your point/example, without a declared starting, a team could plan to give Utley a day off but then have him hit in the 1st with runners on and then send another 2B in the field. But really it would just be using a PH early in the game rather than later, since Utley would have to go play the field or be done for the game.

    As it is now, such a player could be used as a PH anytime, including batting Utley for the LF in the bottom of the 9th and then either putting in a defensive replacement or double switch (bring an OF in for the 2B and then have them switch fielding positions). Fielding changes can happen as much as a team wants as evident by Oquendo and others playing all 9 positions in a game.

    But really a “starting 9” announced at the start of the game eliminates the situation you’re describing.

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  23. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    why mess with something as nearly perfect a game as baseball? I love the current game and do not need/want this change. Plus, it would become impossible to compare old players to new players.

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