Earlier in the week, we focused on the top two spots in the Phillies order. Specifically, the revelation that using Jimmy Rollins in the leadoff spot over Placido Polanco would only cost the team about 1.18 baserunners over the course of a season. The commenters pointed out, rightly, that this analysis ignored the slugging aspect of the two batters’ repertoires. Questions were also raised about the lefty-lefty tandem at the heart of the order. So, let’s dive right in and try to get this right by the numbers: A little moron, the Phillies’ batting order.
Remembering back to the LOOGY wonder that was Javier Lopez in the playoffs last year, you might over-rate the “problem” of batting lefties Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back-to-back. Lopez only pitched 4 1/3 innings, but his four strikeouts were memorable, and it seemed that he shut the duo down. But this wasn’t really a year-long problem. Yes, Howard has a nasty platoon split (.424 wOBA vs righties, .324 vs lefties), but Utley doesn’t. His work versus righties (.382 wOBA) is basically indistinguishable from his work against southpaws (.390 wOBA). Opposing managers can bring out their LOOGY for both guys at their own peril.
So, the heart of the order is set. We know that some combination of Rollins, Polanco and Shane Victorino will end up manning the top two spots. The lefty Raul Ibanez has just enough power to be a good fifth hitter – or sixth hitter if you don’t want to put three lefties in a row. Carlos Ruiz has a great OBP, but doesn’t have great footspeed and may have gotten an OBP boost from batting in front of the pitcher all year. Perhaps he can cede that spot to rookie Dominic Brown most days, so that he can work on improving in a low-stress spot.
That seems to handle most of the spots – are we over-thinking this? Especially when we found the difference between Rollins and Polanco to be worth so few baserunners, perhaps this is just one of those things that will work itself out. There isn’t any baseball happening right now, though, so let’s persevere with a remaining tool in our bag.
Baseball Musings has a lineup optimizer tool that we will employ here to ‘check our work.’ Here is the best lineup based on inputting Bill James’ projections into that tool:
Well. So much for our own musings. In fact, of the top thirty lineups by this methodology, only Utley and Ruiz should be leading off – and Ruiz only appears there in the 14th-best lineup. Still, this is the lineup the numbers like.
Just because this lineup won’t ever appear on a lineup card doesn’t mean we can’t take some things away from the optimizer. For one, it agrees with us that Rollins is a good middle-of-the-order guy. Two, perhaps Placido Polanco’s lack of pop should relegate him to the bottom of the order. Three, Bill James’ projections for Domonic Brown are crazy nice (.288/.346/.505 with 26 home runs and 11 stolen bases).
Four, the difference in (likely) lineup construction is not huge. The best hypothetical lineup here averaged 5.213 runs per game and the thirtieth-best lineup 5.205 runs per game. The worst lineup put forth 4.686 runs per game – but that was with Cliff Lee batting leadoff. Our more likely lineup – featuring Rollins at leadoff and Victorino second – was worth 4.942 runs per game. Lead off with Victorino, put Polanco second and Rollins sixth, and you get 4.961 runs per game. So the difference between the two “most likely” lineups is only .019 runs per game, or 3.078 runs per season.
Given Rollins’ demeanor and personality, he may lead off again this year, with Victorino bridging the gap to the two lefty sluggers. But perhaps it would be worth selling him on being a ‘run-producer’ and ‘protecting’ Howard? It might be the best use of his skills. Once again, though, we should be careful not to over-rate the importance of batting order, as evidenced by the small differences made by the most likely different batting orders. If Rollins is the best Rollins, he can be at the top of the order, that might just undo the negative effects of having him there.