There’s a mini-outrage going on down in Atlanta right now, as the Braves offense isn’t performing as well as expected, and the natives are getting restless with Fredi Gonzalez’s designated batting order. The main complaint revolves around the fact that Nate McLouth, he of the .228/.328/.373 mark as a Brave, is batting second, while Jason Heyward (.275/.393/.464 career) hits sixth. Heyward is unquestionably a better hitter than McLouth, and by having him lower in the order, Gonzalez is intentionally choosing to have McLouth receive more plate appearances. Generally, you want your worst hitters to get fewer chances – not more.
That said, the amount of virtual ink being spilled over this issue doesn’t commensurate to the outcome it’s having on the Braves chances of winning baseball games. Yes, hitting McLouth second and Heyward sixth is an inefficiency, but in reality, it just doesn’t matter all that much.
ZIPS projects Heyward for a .389 wOBA going forward, an excellent mark that makes him one of the best hitters in baseball. ZIPS projects McLouth for a .337 wOBA over the rest of the season, which makes him roughly an average hitter. I know that seems a little nutty to Braves fans who have watched him flail hopelessly since Atlanta acquired him, but he is 29 years old and has a career .341 wOBA, so ZIPS is picking up on the fact that he’s been a decent hitter for most of his career and is theoretically in his physical prime.
Let’s start with the assumption that ZIPS is correct, and the relative true talent gap between the two right now is 52 points of wOBA. In terms of production, that difference translates into one -twentieth of a run per plate appearance. How many plate appearances are the Braves giving McLouth instead of Heyward by using the current batting order? According to Tom Tango and Mitchel Lichtman’s invaluable “The Book”, a #2 hitter in the NL will bat 4.68 times per game, while a #6 hitter will bat 4.23 times per game.
Essentially, swapping the two would give Heyward just under an extra half of one plate appearance per game. And remember, we’ve estimated the production difference at one-twentieth-of-a-run per plate appearance. Cut that in half to account for the quantity difference in trips to the plate and you have a difference of one-fortieth of a run per game.
In other words, if Fredi Gonzalez stays with this line-up for another month, then we’ll be able to write that his batting order has cost the Braves one full run. If he stays with this line-up for the entire year, then the estimated cost would be a whopping four runs. That is almost half a win, so it’s not fair to say that it’s nothing, but in the grand scheme of things, four runs per season is not a huge number.
Now, maybe you don’t buy into ZIPS projection for McLouth, and you think he’s going to hit worse than it projects, so you think the gap between their talent levels is even bigger than we’re talking about. That could be true – it’s possible that the injuries McLouth has sustained have left him as a less-than-peak version of his prior self, and maybe he’s now a .310 to .320 wOBA guy. If that assumption were correct, than hitting him second would be slightly more damaging than our original estimate, subtracting another run or two over the course of the whole season.
But if McLouth is going to hit like a middle infielder for the rest of 2011, odds are pretty good he’s not going to hit second all year. Gonzalez is not a stupid person, and he’s not going to keep an underperforming McLouth hitting at the top of the order all season. If the pessimistic assessment of his abilities is true, the difference in performance will be larger, but the length of time that this experiment lasts will be shorter.
There are almost no scenarios where a highly productive Heyward hits sixth all year while a struggling McLouth hits second. Either their performances will get closer toward each other, making the batting order not overly important in the grand scheme of things, or Gonzalez will realize the error of his ways and make the switch after costing his team something like one or maybe two runs with an inefficient batting order.
Either way, this issue just doesn’t really matter all that much. As long as a manager is generally putting the right players on the field each day, the order in which they bat is not all that important. There are small gains to be made by optimizing a lineup – especially in terms of taking advantage of platoon advantages when they arise – but overall, batting order is a small part of Gonzalez’s job. If he’s getting most everything else right, but sending out a slightly inefficient batting order, then he’s one of the best managers in baseball.