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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.