May 02, 2018

Optimizing the Braves Batting Order

On Sunday, Brian Snitker utilized a unique batting order when he hit his pitcher (Brandon McCarthy) 8th, Ender Inciarte 9th, Ozzie Albies leadoff and Ronald Acuna 2nd. Research suggest that the advantage to having a decent hitter hitting 9th and interacting with the top of the order, as opposed to putting the pitcher’s spot 9th so that that spot get the fewest plate appearances, is worth a couple of runs a season.  So, there is merit to having the pitcher 8th.

The Braves have some unique offensive pieces to work with.  Their players are an interesting combination of athleticism and baseball skills.  Also, of course they have a young team so it’s hard to know what they’ve got.  Based on the Steamer projections for the rest of the season (found on Fangraphs) and research from The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin, here’s how I would arrange the Braves’ batting order:

RF Nick Markakis
LF Ronald Acuna
C Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki
1B Freddie Freeman
2B Ozzie Albies
CF Ender Inciarte
SS Dansby Swanson
3B Johan Camargo

Based on the research, you want your best hitters batting 1st, 2nd and 4th, with the high on-base guys higher and the sluggers lower.  You want to put your 4th- and 5th-best hitters in the 3rd and 5th slot with the better all-around hitter hitting 5th and the guy who is more of a power-only guy hitting 3rd.  You then want to fill in the rest of the lineup (6th-9th) with the better hitters hitting higher, with a preference toward high-stolen-base guys in front of singles hitters.  And, as I mentioned, there’s a slight advantage to having the pitcher bat 8th and a decent hitter hitting 9th and interacting with the top of the order instead of the better hitter getting a few more plate appearances than he would hitting 8th.

Of course anyone who discusses optimal batting orders needs to qualify their assertions with the fact that the difference between one halfway decent batting order and another just doesn’t lead to that many more runs in a season.  The lineup that Snitker ran out on Sunday was probably about as good a combination of optimization and keeping players happy and comfortable as you’ll see.  Freddie Freeman remained in the prestigious 3rd spot in the order.  There was speed in addition to on-base ability at the top of the order.  Yet, the pitcher hit 8th.

If I had Snitker’s ear, the couple of changes I would want to see are Markakis hitting leadoff and Freeman hitting 4th.  Markakis hasn’t hit for much power really in his whole career, but is a solid on-base guy.  But while most managers now realize the importance of on-base percentage particularly in the leadoff spot, they still want speed there, for the most part.

And here’s a solid explanation of why Freeman should not be hitting 3rd, according to the research:

In the 1988 Baseball Abstract, Bill James found that teams score the most runs in the first inning and the fewest runs in the second. This makes sense when you think about it, because lineups are structured to score the most when the leadoff batter bats first. But he also found that the overall average of the two innings was less than the average of every other inning. In other words, the typical lineup was overemphasizing the first inning at the expense of the second inning.

One of the problems is that teams often put their highest OBP batter in the third position, but the #3 spot is the one LEAST likely to lead off the second inning. James said it, others agreed, and The Book confirms it. In addition, The Book found that the #3 hitter has more plate appearances with two out and nobody on. So the run value of every hit (except the home run) is lower in the third position than in any other of the top five positions. That’s why they recommend putting your fifth-best hitter in the three spot.

But, again, baseball in real life if more than game theory.  Batting order doesn’t make a huge difference and, while it’s difficult to prove, having players comfortable and not having to deal with distracting questions about why you’re doing something unconventional might be worth the few extra runs a team gains by going with the statistically-optimal batting order.  That said, I trust that players are professional enough to handle hitting at different spots in the order.  I don’t think Freddie Freeman is going to make a huge deal about hitting 4th instead of 3rd, just like Inciarte is probably not making a huge fuss about hitting 9th and being another leadoff hitter for the top of the order (if it’s framed that way to him).  And these days, with Joe Maddon and others coming up with crazy lineups, I don’t think a manager is going to get questioned all that much about his batting order machinations.



2 Responses to “Optimizing the Braves Batting Order”

  1. 1
    Eddie Cook Says:

    Very interesting perspective. On the surface I could see many issues, primarily from fans. Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy, and Chipper Jones all hit in “three hole”, so that spot is generally thought of as the “star player hole”. Even with the current youth movement, I think Freddie Freeman will continue to be the face of the franchise for the next few years. Some fans will probably bristle at moving Freddie from the “three hole” even though as your logic shows it should benefit the team in the long run. I like your proposal, and even I have some reluctance to the proposed changes. I also find your logic for moving Nick Markakis into the leadoff spot interesting. Until it’s explained the way you explained it, the average fan would say, “WHAT”!?, but it makes sense to have someone with a great on base percentage in that spot despite their speed or lack thereof. The only issue I could possibly see with having a slower baserunner lead off is the way it might inhibit the baserunning ability of a faster baserunner in the “two hole”. I just thought of something else. I can’t think of the number of times that Freddie has come to bat with a fast baserunner on first who seems less likely to try and steal a base and possibly take the bat out of Freddie’s hands. I see this as another reason to have the fifth best hitter batting in the “three hole”, giving a speedster an opportunity to steal a base. I realize I just jumped from one thought (Nick followed by a faster baserunner (Acuna, Inciarte, Swanson, or Alvie’s) to another thought (batting Freddie fourth to give a faster baserunner (Acuna, Inciarte, Swanson, or Albies) an opportunity to steal a base before Freddie bats, but I think you get what I’m saying. So, to summarize, I like your proposal, but I think it would need to explained the way you explained it in order for the average fan to understand the logic. As you know, baseball fans are an indictrined group who are sometimes not easy with such drastic changes unless, of course, they’ve accepted sabermetrics. And by the way, some might wonder why I included Dansby Swanson as a faster baserunner. According to Braves broadcasters (specifically Pail Byrd), Dansby is surprisingly faster than Ozzie Albies.

  2. 2
    Anonymous Says:

    You suck. Your pretentious voice is impossible to take serious, which pairs well with your obnoxious opinions regarding the braves.

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