Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves have been employing a non-traditional (some might say sabermetric) batting order as of late. When Gonzalez first moved Justin Upton into the #2 spot and started hitting the pitcher 8th, in a radio interview with Braves’ radio announcer Jim Powell, Gonzalez said he got input from coaches and the front office, including the “sabr”/”analytics” guys in the front office.
Before the start of this season, I wrote about the Braves’ batting order from a statistically-oriented approach. A few days ago Mike did an excellent job with arguments for hitting the pitcher eighth that were not necessarily data- and statistics-driven arguments. We all have our ideas about batting orders. People have studied batting orders, not taking for granted that the conventional way to make a lineup is the optimal way. The Braves’ new-look batting order is probably more optimal from a statistical perspective than a more conventional lineup would be. (For a nice summary of probably the most famous batting order study, go here.) So how should we feel about the Braves’ new-look batting order?
Well, the studies suggest that unless a manager does something completely crazy, like batting his worst hitters at the top and his best hitters at the bottom or something, the difference between the most optimal lineup and another decent lineup is only a handful of runs throughout a season. If either side–those who think the non-traditional batting order is goofy or those who think it’s the way to go–tries to convince you that batting order can make much of a difference, don’t believe it.
So why should a manager or a team bother shaking things up, creating a possible distraction and opening themselves up to criticism by going with the non-traditional, non-conventional approach, if it just doesn’t make that big of a difference? A manager and a baseball organization’s job is to squeeze every last possible run out of his offense. If a manager or a team can do something that research suggests could squeeze out even a fraction of an extra run out of the players, why not do it? If it’s not a big deal either way, why not go with the way the research suggests is a little bit more helpful?
That said, players have egos and players might be comfortable in one spot versus another for whatever reason. I think the idea that a major league player can’t be himself and perform if he’s in one situation instead of another is way overblown but I do think there is at least a little something to it. If certain players get that bent out of shape over batting in one spot in the order instead of another, and it might lead to distractions or worse performance, that must be considered. Batting order can’t be all statistics and game theory. But, again, these are major leaguers. If pressed, I don’t know that many of us would place any big bets that a major league hitter’s ego or comfort is going to drastically change in one spot in the order versus another. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, managers and teams should heed the batting order research.