One of the more interesting debates you will hear around this time of year is where certain players should hit in the lineup. Research has showed us that, over 162 games, the way a lineup is constructed only matters on the margins. But, that doesn't stop us all, myself included, from discussing the merits of one lineup structure over another.
The reason, I believe, is contained in the basic idea within a lineup: ranking player value. We all love to argue and debate who is better, indeed it's one of the first things we learn as baseball fans, and lineups offer two points of debate. The first is player value/production what-have-you, and the second is how a team's roster fits into the traditional lineup structure. For anyone unaware, traditional lineup structure looks something like this:
1. The fastest guy
2. The guy with the best contact skills
3. The best overall hitter
4. The second best hitter (probably with a bit more power than the guy hitting third)
5. The powery-est hitter
6-9. Everyone left over ranked by best-itude, with the worst hitter hitting last unless you're Tony La Russa, in which case we're just going to have to agree to disagree.
But that traditional layout isn't always followed or even able to be followed. Sometimes your fastest player is also your best contact hitter, or your only power threat is rotten at getting on base. Sometimes you're the Orioles and don't have any of this. There are real-world concerns for each lineup that make fitting into the prescribed order difficult. But, that's where the debate (i.e. fun) comes in.
OTM's own Marc Normandin wrote a great piece last Friday on Jacoby Ellsbury and where he fits into the Red Sox lineup this coming year. Marc plugged 2012 player projections into a lineup simulator in a few different orders to see which generated the better overall offensive output. The results were, as I said above, pretty similar. Some were slightly better than others, but even hitting Ryan Sweeney lead off, which ain't gonna happen, didn't ruin the behemoth that is the Red Sox offense. So the differences are small, but every run counts, and especially so for a team that just missed the playoffs by a single game last year.
If we know what players are going to do, then we can get pretty close to optimizing the team's offensive output. But the problem is, we don't know what players are going to do. We don't have perfect information. As good as the projection systems are, and I believe they get better every year, they're still only projections. For example, last season in 732 plate appearances, Jacoby Ellsbury was worth 9.4 fWAR. That was the highest in baseball. But, prior to last season, Ellsbury accumulated 1,513 plate appearances over parts of his first four seasons and during that time he had been worth a total of 8.0 fWAR. So, which Ellsbury comes to the plate this year? The All World 2011 version or the meeker decent-but-hardly-great '07-'10 version? Most projections will split the difference, and looking at some scouting information can better inform projections, but in the end we just don't know and that makes optimizing the lineup difficult. And as Marc pointed out, even if we did know, it probably wouldn't make much of a difference in the end anyway.
(So what's my point? I'm getting there, I promise.) The excellent Ian Browne of MLB.com was on WEEI radio on Saturday and was asked about Carl Crawford and his place in the lineup. Mr. Browne said that, were it up to him, he would bat Crawford second in the line up because, "he's more comfortable up there" and that will lead to better production. I've heard this view espoused from other places, possibly the Globe's Peter Abraham (though I'm not sure so don't hold me to that).
So remember these two points:
1. Lineups don't really matter all that much
2. Even if they did, it would be impossible to optimize a lineup because we don't know how players will play until they've already played that way.
Mr. Browne's point is, I think, that if lineups don't matter, then why not put players in the best position to succeed, i.e. where they are the most comfortable? Confidence is very important in, well, everything, which includes baseball, and Crawford's confidence was likely pretty low last year. Using the lineup to up his confidence level could be a successful way to get him out of his doldrums.
The problem with batting Crawford second is that it pushes better hitters farther back in the order. If a lineup is an organizational structure that hands out plate appearances, which it is, then the best hitters must hit higher in the order to maximize (what little difference in) run scoring. (Crawford is going to be paid his $142 million over seven seasons whether he hits first, ninth, or sells cotton candy in section 201, so we can toss what he makes right out the window.)
Carl Crawford, as nice a person as I'm sure he is, and as hard a worker as I know he is, is not one of the five best hitters on the Red Sox. Even if you assume Crawford reverts to the 2010 version of himself, which is generous, who is he better than? Not Gonzalez, Ortiz, Pedroia, Youkilis, or Ellsbury. If he's the 2010 version he's the sixth best hitter on the team. If he's the 2011 version, he's something like the 12th. Either way, you don't bat him second.
To my way of thinking, Crawford should be able to hit as effectively in the seventh hole as in the second. Logically, why isn't that the case? Will he be thinking, 'Man, I wish I was hitting five slots farther up... whoops! Missed that fastball again." That seems unlikely. And yet, I'm willing to admit I could be wrong. I acknowledge the existence of confidence as a vital tool in anyone's arsenal and if Crawford thinks he can hit better in the two hole, maybe he can. I said a moment ago that you can throw out Crawford's contract, and you can as far as lineup structure goes, but the guy is going to be in Boston for six more years. The team and the player will both be much happier, to say nothing of the fans, if the player's time remaining is more productive.
So maybe getting Crawford 'going' as they say, is worth the small hit to overall offensive productivity that hitting him second would cause. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it does. I'd hit him sixth or seventh.
What do you think?