Optimizing the Braves batting order

Any time teams struggle to score runs, the masses start clamoring for changes.  So far I’ve heard:

  1. Fire the hitting coaches!  They may or may not be contributing to Atlanta’s scoring woes, but they’re not going anywhere.

  2. Fire Dan Uggla!  There’s a worthy debate as to whether or not it’s time to bench Uggla in favor of prospect Tommy LaStella.  This isn’t the post where we’re going to have that debate.  However, the calls to release Uggla or bench him in favor of Ramiro Pena or, worse, Tyler Pastornicky, are desperate and sorely lacking in critical thought.

  3. Shake up the batting order!  For many, this is a kneejerk reaction.  And honestly, it’s a relatively harmless one, as numerous studies have shown that the order in which the players hit is mostly overvalued; the difference between a perfect batting order and the worst one possible is probably in the ballpark of 15 runs a year, and seeing as how no team is leading off with the pitcher, the potential gain from lineup optimization is probably closer to around 5 runs.  But 5 runs are 5 runs, and right now that seems like a lot to Braves fans.  So if Fredi Gonzalez wanted to ‘shake up’ the batting order, what would be the most constructive way for him to do that?

Using the template provided to us by The Book, let’s optimize Atlanta’s lineup:

 

Evan Gattis being led away after a party.
Your new #3 hitter, El Oso Blanco.

 

  1. RF Jason Heyward – Heyward hasn’t had the best start to 2014, but there’s a lot to suggest the bad start won’t last for long.  He is a reasonable bet to be, along with Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, one of Atlanta’s three best offensive players over the remainder of the season.  Of the 3, he’s least likely to put up big power numbers.  Heyward steals some bases, but stolen bases aren’t a must here, given that he’ll be followed by power hitters rather than singles hitters.  Heyward is one of the best baserunners in the game, and that has real value in the leadoff spot.  He has been on 1B 35 times in his career when a double was hit, and he scored 23 of those times.  Heyward sees plenty of pitches, over 4 per at-bat, which is another desirable trait in a leadoff hitter.  No, his batting average isn’t off the charts, and I won’t pretend he’s Rickey Henderson; it’s just important that we understand we can’t make another player into Rickey Henderson either.  We go with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got says Heyward should lead off.

  2. 1B Freddie Freeman – It’s always a little baffling that the #2 spot is reserved for experimentation and/or poor hitters.  This slot sees more plate appearances than the #3 or #4 hitters!  In fact, the #2 spot is on par with #3 and #4 in the order in terms of how important its plate appearances typically are.  And considering that this batter comes to the plate more than the others, this is a good spot for your best hitter, especially if your best hitter has good bat control and contact skills.  It just so happens Atlanta’s best hitter, Freddie Freeman, has exactly those qualities.  Last year the average #2 hitter batted 737 times.  The #3 hitter batted 719 times.  Anything that gets Freddie Freeman to the plate 18 more times is a good thing.

  3. C Evan Gattis – Just as research has shown #2 in the order is more important than previously believed, we have learned #3 is actually a little less important than we previously thought.  It’s still important, so you want one of your better hitters here.  Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman are high OBP guys, which is what you want in front of a big all-or-nothing power threat like Evan Gattis.  Gattis usually puts the ball in the air or strikes out – in 107 career plate appearances in which he could have grounded into a double play, he’s done so just 11 times.  That’s less than the MLB average, which you wouldn’t expect from a catcher.  Gattis isn’t likely to kill the rallies started by the top 2 in the lineup – he’ll typically clear the bases or K, making way for….

  4. LF Justin Upton – A choice that will likely please both the Bill James fans and the Joe Morgans of the world.  He is of similar offensive value to Freeman; Upton will likely have the edge in slugging percentage, while Freeman holds the edge in OBP.  That, along with the contact skills, is why I have Freeman 2nd and Upton 4th.  It’s the 2nd most important spot in the lineup, and it just so happens we have a classic-style cleanup hitter who slots in here.  He’s big power, and as an added bonus, Upton has some rally-starting speed.  Batting 4th and batting after Evan Gattis, he’ll come to the plate with the bases empty now and then, so a few steals here aren’t a bad thing.

  5. 3B Chris Johnson – Another player off to a quietly sluggish start, the starts for Heyward and Uggla have helped take attention away.  From the 5 spot you want someone capable of a little bit of everything, and while Johnson is a bit low on power, he makes up for it with other skills.  He puts the ball in play, gets hits, has some gap power, and is overall probably the 5th best hitter in the lineup.  This is a very important lineup spot, and if Gattis were more well-rounded in terms of on-base ability, he’d be here.  For now, Johnson will do.

  6. SS Andrelton Simmons – If the Braves ever contemplated giving Simba the green light on the basepaths, this is the perfect place in the order for him.  Even if that’s not the case, it’s still a good spot for him.  He’s a better hitter than Dan Uggla or BJ Upton, and he’ll put the ball in play.  His contact skills make you think top-of-the-lineup, but he simply doesn’t get on base enough to justify batting in the top 3.  There’s a chance he will one day, and when that time comes he can move up.  For now, he can be a ‘second leadoff hitter’ of sorts, trying to start rallies for the lower order.  Despite the low OBP, he has speed and pop, a good combo to have 6th in the order.

  7. 2B Dan Uggla – For all the handwringing over whether Dan Uggla should play, this is where he should bat when he does play.  Simmons won’t be on base a lot, but Uggla needs to follow him for the following reason – Simmons doesn’t steal a lot of bases, which means he’ll often be on 1B when he’s on.  With just Uggla and BJ Upton to choose between, we go with Uggla’s plate vision, discipline, and power.  If Uggla returns to his walking ways, this also sets us up with good sacrifice bunt opportunities for the #8 hitter, which happens to be…

  8. Pitcher – I used to be opposed to this idea for obvious reasons – why give more plate appearances to the worst hitter in the lineup?  But baseball is changing, and pitcher usage is evolving.  With starting pitchers averaging fewer innings than they did 10 years ago, they’re averaging fewer plate appearances.  The pitcher may only bat twice in a game, which means the other couple of plate appearances will likely be pinch-hitting position players.  This move doesn’t work in isolation – you need the pitcher spot to work well with #7, and you need #9 to flow to #1.  I’ve already mentioned how Uggla’s plate discipline leads to walks, which could lead to sac bunting opportunities early in games.  Also, Uggla is very much an all-or-nothing hitter – you don’t really need the next batter to extend rallies as often as you might with other hitters.  However, what really works in favor of batting the pitcher 8th is the player we have batting 9th.

  9. CF B.J. Upton –  I don’t know if there’s a stigma to batting 9th for non-pitchers, but there shouldn’t be.  I’m putting Upton here not as some sort of punitive stance against him, but rather because I think the Braves could cleverly utilize his skills here.  Upton has speed to burn and has the look of a traditional leadoff hitter.  By now it’s obvious, however, he doesn’t get on base enough to justify batting leadoff or anywhere in the top half, where he would take ABs away from better hitters.  However, we can have the best of both arguments – incorporating BJ Upton as our “pre-leadoff” hitter of sorts.  What better way to get him back on track than by removing the pressure and having Freddie Freeman just 2 batters away when BJ gets on base, ready to drive him in?

So, if you’re looking to ‘shake up the batting order’, why not do it in an interesting, innovative, and most of all, strategic way?  Rather than banishing players lower in the order for what they can’t do, think about what they can do and construct a lineup that builds on and emphasizes each player’s strengths.  Perhaps this is even a lineup that can work better than ever before.

And if it isn’t? Well, you can say you tried something new. And hell, batting orders aren’t that important anyway.

About Brent Blackwell 139 Articles
Brent Blackwell also writes for College Football By The Numbers at www.cfbtn.com.

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