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The Rockies’ One Through Eight: the Small Successes and Failures of Lineup Construction

Given the speedy obsolescence of my last blog post, I am left to conclude that Dan O’Dowd and Bill Geivett either don’t read my blog, or they don’t give a shit what an immodest blogger has to say about the Rockies. It’s likely both. Indeed, after the Rockies traded Dexter Fowler and signed Justin Morneau last week, there’s no use rehashing alternatives and possible failures. The task now is to think about what the Rockies can do with the roster that they do have. Last week, I wrote about the construction of the Rockies’ roster in the long-term and on a macro scale. This week, I want to think about what the lineup might—and, yes, should—look like on a micro level. What did the daily lineup look like in 2013? What will the daily lineup look like in 2014? Can it be a recipe for immediate success? What does the structure of the lineup tell us about the organization? Because the pitching staff is the area most likely to go through changes between now and opening day, I’m limiting myself to the position players and their offensive production.

The consensus among those who think about these things is that most managers follow orthodoxies that determine what types of hitters can hit where—speedy guys are lead-off hitters, and power hitters hit in the four or five hole. However, there is evidence that these managerial codes are non-optimal. The big caveat, however, is that research indicates optimizing lineups might only account for a handful of runs a year, and maybe one or two wins. But sometimes one or two wins can be the difference between postseason play and spending October noting the changing leaves. My goal here is not to compare the probable 2014 lineup with a more optimal one and argue that it constitutes the difference between success and failure. Rather, I suggest that a daily glance at the Rockies one through eight in 2014 can illuminate broader directions regarding where the team is going. Or not going, as the case may be.

Here is what I think the Rockies daily lineup will look like come April (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll only consider lineups against right-handed starting pitchers):

1)      Charlie Blackmon, LF

2)      DJ LaMahieu, 2B

3)      Carlos Gonzalez, CF

4)      Troy Tulowitzki, SS

5)      Michael Cuddyer, RF

6)      Wilin Rosario, C

7)      Justin Morneau, 1B

8)      Nolan Arenado, 3B

9)      Pitcher

The immediate result of the Fowler trade is that the Rockies have lost their leadoff hitter. Fowler fit the profile of a conventional choice to lead off games. Namely, he is fast. Still, Fowler was a good fit to hit leadoff, but it was not because of his speed, but because he was among the best on the team in getting on base. This should be the primary metric for a leadoff hitter because guys need to get on base in order to score runs. Despite hitting just .263, Fowler’s 13% walk rate elevated his OBP to .368. For comparison, Rosario hit .292, but his free swinging style and 3% walk rate put his OBP at just .315. Even without the threat to steal (Fowler stole 19 bases in 28 attempts), his ability to get on base made him the best candidate on the team to hit in the one hole. Without Fowler, I think Walk Weiss (or Bill Geivett, or whoever the hell makes these clubhouse decisions) is going to go with Blackmon (and sometimes Corey Dickerson) in the leadoff spot, only because Blackmon fits the profile that values speed first. If we assume that Blackmon splits time with Dickerson in left field as well as leading off games, they collectively project (per Steamer) to get on base at a .325 clip in about 700 plate appearances, hardly enough to justify hitting first.

Whereas the decision to bat Fowler first made sense both by conventional and unconventional thinking, the number-two hitter is where the Rockies really made a mistake. I expect it to be repeated in 2014. Over the course of the year, a mélange of as-of-now below average hitters were placed in the two spot—mostly whoever happened to be playing second base, meaning either Josh Rutledge or LaMahieu. The total slash line of all two hitters for the 2013 Rockies? .256/.290/.341. Aside from the pitcher’s spot, the collective average and OBP of the two hitter was better than only the seven spot, and the slugging percentage was the worst among position players. The Rockies essentially placed their worst hitter between the one and three spot. If the Rockies, as I suspect, go with LaMahieu to hit second, they’re going to repeat the error. The other player I can envision Weiss placing in the two hole is Arenado—who projects to be the only position player with worse offensive numbers than LaMahieu.

What throws this mistaken lineup construction into such stark relief is that research suggests that the two spot is precisely where the team’s best hitter should be placed. Sky Kalkman argues that a team’s three best hitters should be placed in the one, two, and four holes, with high OBP leaning towards the one and two spots and power at the four spot. The next best two should be hitting in the three and five spots, and the worst hitters placed in spots six through eight (in the National League). If the Rockies daily lineup looks like what I think it will, then two of the team’s three worst hitters will regularly hit one and two.

Then what should the lineup look like? Baseball Musing’s lineup analysis allows the interested fan to input a name, OBP, and slugging percentage, and it purports to output the optimal team lineup based on runs per game. The calculus is based on past performance taken from data either from 1959-2004 or the steroid inflated statistics from 1989-2002. As Jack Moore observes, both models are flawed because neither is applicable to the game today and the simulations take place in a vacuum without context. Additionally, the RPG outputs are inflated beyond reason. But regardless of whether or not the RPG outputs can be taken at face value, the tool has some use because it enables you to see RPG differentials among different lineup constructions. Using the more inclusive 1959-2004 model and 2014 Steamer projections, the supposed optimal lineup—the one that ostensibly would produce just over five runs per game—looks like this:

1)      Tulowitzki

2)      Gonzalez

3)      Blackmon

4)      Morneau

5)      Cuddyer

6)      Arenado

7)      LaMahieu

8)      Rosario

9)      Pitcher

This lineup is enticingly unconventional. It provides for the Rockies’s best hitters to have the most opportunities to get on base and score runs. Still, I wouldn’t follow it. For one, the team’s best hitters at getting on base also happen to be the ones with the most pop. So there is no easy way to favor OBP at the one and two spots and power at the four and five spots. I would love to have an OBP Carlos Gonzalez and a home run hitting one, but we have to make do with the fortunate curse that they are the same person—at least we do now, as Fowler reached base about as often as Gonzalez in 2013. This lineup would also be risky because the two through four hitters are all left-handed, which would make it easy for the opposition to marshal its lefty specialist late in a close game. Conversely, I would construct the Rockies daily lineup as follows, this time with projected slash line (again, per Steamer):

1)      Gonzalez – .297/.376/.547

2)      Cuddyer – .281/.343/.474

3)      Rosario – .278/.316/.515

4)      Tulowitzki – .300/.376/.534

5)      Morneau – .276/.345/.461

6)      LaMahieu – .289/.328/.392

7)      Arenado – .277/.318/.446

8)      Blackmon/Dickerson – .276/.326/.455

9)      Pitcher (based on 2013 production) – .140/.176/.165

In my mind, this lineup is the one most likely to produce the most runs for the Rockies. Ideally, I would rather have Gonzalez hitting second rather than first, but the rest of the roster limits this flexibility. The possibility of Gonzalez leading off has been raised, but I don’t think there is much to the talk. Other than Gonzalez’s first half season with the Rockies in 2009, he’s only led off when Jim Tracy thought it could pull him out of a horrid slump. Tulowitzki is certainly a better hitter than Cuddyer, but Tulo’s power coupled with Cuddyer’s ability to get on base (even if he’s in for some serious regression in 2014) make hitting Cuddyer second and Tulo fourth the best play. The three and five spots will produce more outs than the one, two, and four spots, but the upside of Rosario’s power mitigates the risk of those outs, as would Morneau’s relatively higher OBP and ability to hit about one fifth of his balls in play as line drives.

Again, this exercise does not identify the path to success and the path to failure for the Rockies in 2014. The team is unlikely to make the playoffs regardless of how the lineup is structured. But what it should do is serve as a reminder to pay attention to the daily details and to think beyond inherited baseball wisdom. If the daily lineup turns out to replicate past mistakes, then I think it points to a much larger organizational problem of resisting even the simplest and most easily integrated baseball analytics. But if Weiss runs out lineups that defy convention, then it might suggest that the franchise has a baseball plan in addition to a business plan.