How Significant Is Batting Order?

Most sabermetric analyses of batting order find that the most optimal batting order is worth between five and 15 runs over a typical batting order. From this, it is often concluded that batting order isn’t very important. Is that the correct conclusion?

I enjoy thinking about batting order in general and in specific cases such as this. But I don’t want to get into the particulars of methodology today. The Book Blog has plenty of posts and links on the subject. Jack Moore spurred an interesting discussion in his post yesterday, although it was a coincidence that he posted it the day before I did this. This is a different angle on the issue. Is the reported difference — five to 15 runs a season over a typical lineup (which is different than the worst possible lineup), according to The Book — is “significant” or “meaningful.” What are some other examples of five-to-15 run differences?

In recent run environments, five runs is actually closer to one marginal win than to zero. What else would be worth five runs during a season? Imagine that the Chicago White Sox’ projected 2011 right fielder Carlos Quentin gets hurt (it’s a bizarre hypothetical, I know, but try to suspend your belief) and has to miss 40 games, or about 150 plate appearances. Assume those plate appearances go to Mark Teahen. Using their Marcel projected wOBAs (.356 for Quentin, .311 for Teahen), over 150 plate appearances that would cost the White Sox about five runs offensively. Is having Teahen hit for 40 games instead of Quentin significant?

What if a team could gain 10 runs (about one win) by using an optimized rather than their typical batting order? We could pick on Teahen and Quentin again and talk about the difference over 300 plate appearance (about half a season), but let’s look at something else. In 2010, the Kansas City Royals’ stud closer Joakim Soria was worth 2.1 Wins Above Replacement. Among the relievers worth about one win less than Soria according to FanGraphs WAR were the following: Kevin Jepsen (1.1), Jon Rauch (1.1), Nick Masset (1.0), and Kyle Farnsworth (1.0). How significant is the difference in value between those decent relievers and one of the top relievers in the game?

How about 15 runs? Let’s use a different kind of example. We’re assuming the “five to fifteen” figure is basically correct for purposes of this post (and I have no reason to doubt that it is). Tango and MGL have often pointed out (following Pete Palmer, as Tangotiger noted yesterday) that even one of the worst imaginable single lineup moves — having the pitcher hit in the cleanup spot — would cost an average of 16 runs a season (about 0.1 runs a game). When just considering lineups in general, that can be looked at as pointing out how we can overreact to single lineup decisions. However, there’s another way of using that thought. If a team’s typical batting (again, not the same as the worst possible order) is 15 runs worse over a season than an optimized lineup, it’s practically the same as having the pitcher hit cleanup all season. If a manager hit his pitchers cleanup all season, would that be something worth getting worked up over?

While the tone of this post has obviously been to the effect that batting order can be significant, you may have noticed something. The “argument” (if it can even be called that) for batting order’s significance is enthymematic, that is, it is missing a premise: that five to 15 runs is significant. Yes, I gave some examples to that effect, but one could just as well argue based on the examples above that what I have shown is that the effect of injuries, the value of “elite” closers versus middling relievers, and even hitting the pitcher fourth are relatively insignificant. I have some sympathy with all those points.

I won’t offer a detailed argument one way or the other. I will note that teams did seem to think a marginal win was worth about five million dollars when signing free agents during this past offseason, so if they were willing to really go for an optimized batting order over the typical one that would be like getting an extra $2.5 to $7.5 million worth of value. Of course, there are other obstacles to implementing optimal lineups as opposed to dealing with the issues above: the reaction of the fans and media, the unwillingness of front offices to impinge too much on the manager’s traditional duties (especially based on stuff like simulations and Markov models), and the likely response of most players.

On the other hand, wins are wins, and money is money. Teams talk big about doing “whatever it takes.” As the league gets smarter, it gets more difficult to find the new market inefficiency, the Extra 2%, as it were. Just as each better move in improving a batting order only adds a tiny bit but can add up to as many as 15 runs (one or two wins), each one-to-two-win-per-season strategy (batting orders, better bullpen usage, efficient platooning, etc.) can add to possibly four wins, and then we’re in expensive free agent territory in terms of value. Complaining about batting order for one game is kind of silly, but that can be said of lots of singular decisions in baseball. Over a full season, consistently using sub-optimal strategies adds up. Is batting order significant enough to analyze and (as is our right as fans) complain about? I dunno. Let’s reconvene after the next time a team misses the playoffs by one game, or, even better after a team puts the pitchers in the cleanup spot for a whole season.

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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.

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Telo
Guest
Telo

Dang… looks a lot less insignificant when you put it into dollars: 2.5-7.5 mil!

I’m sure it’ll evolve like most other things are evolving in baseball – slowly. You’ll see more and more advanced tactics permeate dugouts, but that will be the last of the old school pillars to topple, for sure.

Telo
Guest
Telo

Or maybe the intentional walk will be the last to fall…

Bronnt
Member
Bronnt

It will continue to remain a legitimate strategy for National League teams when the pitcher is on deck.

Telo
Guest
Telo

Right. Obviously there will always be instances when it’s correct to issue an IBB, but in probably 80-90% of times it’s currently used, it’s better to just pitch to the batter.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

@Telo

Just one more reason for the NL to finally use the DH. There’s nothing exciting or even remotely interesting about watching pitchers struggle to hit .120.

superhans
Member
superhans

@Daniel

Yea… I am certainly biased, but I prefer the brand of baseball the AL serves up. Proponents of the NL/No DH will claim that there is more nuance and strategy, while… I would say that it’s just more time consuming pitching changes, holes in your lineup/useless atbats, and chances for the skipper to screw the pooch. The DH just makes sense to me. But again, definitely biased…

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

The heart of baseball is the duel between the pitcher and batter. I have never been able to grasp why someone would think it’s better for one of those batters to be consistently terrible.

PiratesBreak500
Guest
PiratesBreak500

I dunno- personally I love watching Zambrano or Owings bat. Yes, they’re not typical, but I love seeing a pitcher get a line drive hit after an intentional walk.

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS

I will go to my grave wondering why anyone would prefer the AL style to the NL style if they had watched both types. In the NL strategy matters far more!!! An 8 year old could game manage an AL team. More relievers get used in the NL because in close games yu have to strategize. Far more useful pinch hits and double switches happen. Teams simply have to be MUCH DEEPER in talent to be good than the AL.

RC
Guest
RC

“In the NL strategy matters far more!!! ”

There’s no strategy to the double switch. Everyone in the stadium knows whats going to happen before it does.

In fact, I’d argue that late in a game, there’s less strategy. You know the manager is taking the SP out when it comes to his spot in the lineup. In the AL, theres no guarantee how long the manager will try to get by with the SP.

Jolie
Member
Member
Jolie

Not everyone in the park knows what is going to happen. Too, your argument is contrarian but not correct. NL managers have to make a decision whether to keep in a pitcher who is performing well or make the change as his batting slot comes up. In the AL, managers wait, see signs of fatigue, remove the pitcher. In no world can the AL managers task be more complex–the decision matrix for the NL manager by definition is more complex and requires more manipulation–it will always be the AL managers matrix plus one or more options.