Optimizing A Batting Order: How Teams Can Score More Runs


When you really get down to it, the only way to win a baseball game is to score runs, and the Diamondbacks weren’t very good at that last year.

According to FanGraphs, the Snakes scored 615 runs in 2014, that’s good for 25th in all of baseball.

The Dbacks are going to have score more than 3.8 runs per game in 2015 to be successful, given how shaky the rotation and bullpen can be. If everybody can stay healthy, the Snakes should have no problem scoring runs.

In today’s game, scoring runs is at a premium. Specialized power relievers, shifts, and hitters are striking out more than ever. Given all of these factors, managers are trying to find new ways to create a more efficient offensive attack, and sabermetrics might have a solution.

Scoring runs in today’s game starts and ends with optimizing the lineup, or making the best or most efficient use of each players offensive capabilities. Unfortunately too many managers ignore this, and there costing their teams runs.

The traditional way of constructing a lineup just doesn’t work anymore. Here is how each spot is viewed in the batting order for most managers:

1st: The leadoff man should have a lot of speed. OBP or wOBA isn’t as important as speed. Power isn’t necessary.

2nd: The two-hole hitter should have good bat control. It shouldn’t be one of the best hitters, but he should be able to move the leadoff hitter over so the #3 and #4 hitters can drive in the runs.

3rd: The old school thought says that the three-hole hitter should be the highest average guy. By that logic, the leadoff hitter should be on base, and the third hitter can drive him in with a hit! It’s that simple everybody! Boom!

4th: The clean-up hitter should have the most power of any hitter on the team. Batting average and on-base percentage aren’t important, so long as he is driving in runs and hitting home runs. (Mark Trumbo when he is healthy).

5th-6th: The number five and six guys have power, but not as much as the clean-up hitter. Some managers try to hide a player with a high K% in this spot, so that guy doesn’t kill a rally. 7th-8th: The seventh and eighth hitters are usually the guys that have more value defensively, and can occasionally get on base via a walk, but aren’t counted on for offensive production.

9th: In the National League this is reserved for the pitcher. This spot is reserved for a likely out. Their only job is to occasionally sacrifice a runner into scoring position with a bunt.

That is how most managers construct their lineup card on a daily basis, but times are changing, and advanced statistics are telling us that the traditional way isn’t working anymore.

Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin wrote “The Book” which brings together run expantancy data based on every situation in a game, and combines that with run expantancy for different positions in the lineup.

For example, a double by the no.2 hitter has a RE (Run Expectancy) of .779 which would result in .779 runs for the batting team in the American League. It’s slightly different in the N.L. Run expectancy numbers are based on the 24 base/out states or all the different base runner and out combinations in a given inning,

Based on this, Sky Kallkman wrote a great article for Beyond the Boxscore in 2009, and concluded that this is order of importance for spots in the lineup based on avoiding outs:

#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9

Now for his explanation:

“So, you want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. Finally, stop talking like the lineup is a make-or-break decision.”

This is what “The Book” and sabermetricans think the roles are for each lineup spot:

1st: The leadoff man should be the highest on-base percentage guy in the lineup. Speed is important, but getting on base is more important.

2nd: The Book’s research proves that the #2 hitter comes up in important situations almost as much as the #3 hitter, but just more often. The #2 hitter should be one of the teams best hitters and should be a great OBP guy. Number 2 hitters get around 4.72 PA/game, and number 3 hitters get 4.61 PA/game. 44% of number 2 hitters plate appearances are with men on, and 48% for number 3 hitters.

3rd: The #3 hitter comes up to the plate with fewer runners on base on average than the #4 and #5 hitters. So why do managers put the run producers in the 3 hole when teams can benefit having them in the #4 and #5 hitters. The third spot isn’t really that important.

4th: The cleanup hitter should still have the highest SLG% just like the traditional lineup.

5th: The book says the number five hitter gets more plate appearances with men on, and can provide more value with extra base hits. After the #1, #2, and #4 slots are written in, the manager should put the next best hitter in the five-hole, not the three-hole.

6th-9th: The 6th hitter should have a high OBP, and he should be a stolen base threat, followed with singles hitters in the 7th and 8th spots. The pitcher usually hits in the 9 hole, and that for the most part won’t change.

What about hitting the pitcher eighth? The one argument against it is your giving a pitcher more plate appearances to get out.

However, if you bat the pitcher eighth, then you can put a high OBP guy  in the 9 hole, so he can get on base and turn the lineup over to the top with a chance to score.

Here is the basic idea with this concept: runs are at a premium, so if you can give your best hitters more plate appearances, and more chances to hit with runners on base, then a manager should do it, and using the traditional lineup construction is costing your team runs.

This is a really interesting concept, and it will continue to get debated. Stay tuned for my next post on this topic where I optimize the Diamondbacks lineup based on “The Book” and Kallkman’s article.

All data via FanGraphs, “The Book”, and Beyond the BoxScore.