Winning ain’t easy. Only 50% of all participating teams even win baseball games. When you have really good teams like the Cubs and Dodgers and Astros and Royals factoring in, that leaves a few teams that will win far fewer than 50%. In 2016, one such team is probably going to be the Atlanta Braves. So, with wins precious to Atlanta, one way to steal a few here and there is by optimizing the lineup.
How do we do that? Well, it depends. If you’re averse to platooning, the process is pretty simple. If you think the same players should play nearly every game, you just pick the 8 best players and organize them in the most optimal order. Let’s do that first.
Catcher: The starter should be Tyler Flowers. By all accounts, Flowers is a superior defender, and by several respected projection systems, Flowers could be a comparably helpful hitter. Baseball Prospectus projects Flowers to be worth .0032 WAR per PA compared to -.0025 WAR/PA for Pierzynski. Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections have them much closer, but Flowers (.0022) still edges out Pierzynski (.0016). Flowers should be the starter if there’s only one.
1st Base: There’s no discussion here. It’s Freddie Freeman.
3rd Base: The three 3rd basemen – Adonis Garcia, Beckham, and Kelly Johnson – may be generally interchangeable. Of the three, I think Beckham is the clear 3rd. As for the others, I have a hunch Johnson may be the better player, but in a bigger sense, the Braves need to see exactly what they have with Garcia. They shouldn’t be hesitant to pull the trigger on a change if things don’t work out, but for now, Garcia is the pick.
Shortstop: 2016 is the year of Erick Aybar. He starts so the youngsters don’t have to.
Left Field: Like Garcia (except with significantly more talent), the Braves need to see what they have with Hector Olivera, and the projection systems seem to agree that he’s the best option.
Center Field: Ender Inciarte is a potential All-Star. He starts.
Right Field: Nick Markakis is the choice thanks to both his play on the field and his hefty contract.
Now, here are the projected BA/OBP/SLG splits, averaging the two projections noted above, for each player:
C Tyler Flowers: .220/.284/.363 (.647)
1B Freddie Freeman: .280/.368/.465 (.833)
2B Jace Peterson: .237/.310/.334 (.644)
3B Adonis Garcia: .259/.289/.391 (.680)
SS Erick Aybar: .269/.307/.368 (.675)
LF Hector Olivera: .253/.310/.387 (.697)
CF Ender Inciarte: .274/.314/.369 (.683)
RF Nick Markakis: .271/.340/.366 (.706)
Now it’s time for optimizing the order. Everyone has their own ideas about how exactly to do that, but one of the best and most statistically sound methods was presented in Tom Tango’s The Book. For a quick review of the method, check out this piece from Beyond the Box Score. Using this method of optimization, here’s what we find.
The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they’re not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.
The good hitter without the home run power? That sounds a lot like Nick Markakis. Markakis doesn’t have ideal speed, but no one with ideal speed has the OBP, and the OBP is far more important here. Markakis leads off.
The Books says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player.
One of the best hitters on the team belongs here, and on Sunday’s opening day, the Pirates employed this strategy by batting Andrew McCutchen 2nd instead of 3rd. If it’s good enough for Pittsburgh’s best hitter, it’s good enough for Atlanta’s. 1B Freddie Freeman gets an extra 30 plate appearances in 2016 by moving to this spot in the order, and more of Freddie Freeman is a very good thing.
The Book says the #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters. So why focus on putting a guy who can knock in runs in the #3 spot, when the two spots after him can benefit from it more? Surprisingly, because he comes to bat so often with two outs and no runners on base, the #3 hitter isn’t nearly as important as we think. This is a spot to fill after more important spots are taken care of.
If you want to follow the process more honestly, skip ahead to #4 or #5 and come back to this. But having already chosen my #4 and #5 hitters, I’m ready to pick the #3 hitter. Luckily, the player coming in here happens to meet all the requirements – 5th best projected hitter with more value coming from home runs. Adonis Garcia bats 3rd.
The Book says the #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots, but is equal in importance to the #2 hole once you consider the #2 guy receives more plate appearances. The cleanup hitter is the best hitter on the team with power.
There’s no clear 3rd best hitter on this team, but Hector Olivera is most likely to have the best combination of OBP and power.
The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.
Having taken Markakis, Freeman, and Olivera out of the mix, the best remaining hitter is probably Ender Inciarte, and seeing as how he doesn’t live and die with the long ball, he’s a fine selection.
The Book basically agrees [to bat the remaining players in descending order of skill], with a caveat. Stolen bases are most valuable ahead of high-contact singles hitters, who are more likely to hit at the bottom of the lineup. So a base-stealing threat who doesn’t deserve a spot higher in the lineup is optimized in the #6 hole, followed by the singles hitters…
The Cardinals and Brewers have hit the pitcher eighth in the past, and it’s actually a smart, albeit insignificant, strategy. Yes, giving an awful hitter more plate appearances by hitting him higher in the lineup is costly, but the benefit of having a better number nine hitter interacting with the top of the lineup is worth the trade-off, by about two runs per season. By putting a decent hitter at the bottom of the order, the top spots in the lineup will have more runners on base to advance with walks and hits and drive in with hits.
The lineup is somewhat hurting for good stolen base threats, but Erick Aybar is not without speed, and he happens to be the next best projected hitter, making him an easy selection for 6th in the order.
The next best hitter is probably Tyler Flowers, so we’ll put him 7th.
Even if batting the pitcher 8th gives us a very small benefit, we’ll take pretty much anything we can get. Right, Braves fans? Pitcher bats 8th.
The team’s worst hitter, Jace Peterson, bats 9th.
I chose the players one at a time, based on The Book’s suggestions for each spot. Now we need to see how they’ll interact with each other.
- RF Nick Markakis (L)
- 1B Freddie Freeman (L)
- 3B Adonis Garcia (R)
- LF Hector Olivera (R)
- CF Ender Inciarte (L)
- SS Erick Aybar (S)
- C Tyler Flowers (R)
- Jace Peterson (L)
First off, there is the issue of Peterson, Markakis, and Freeman batting consecutively. But is it an issue? Well, Peterson hasn’t been very good against southpaws – that’s part of the reason he’s the worst hitter. Markakis, on the other hand, loses a bit of his skill against lefties, but it’s not as drastic. He still carries a career .341 OBP against LHP despite the .305 mark last season. Freeman isn’t a huge concern against any kind of pitcher; you always want him at the plate. I would be tempted to switch Flowers and Peterson, but here’s the catch – Flowers has a reverse platoon split, performing worse for his career against lefties than against righties. So, there’s really not much to be gained by switching Flowers and Peterson in terms of discouraging the bringing in of lefty relievers. There may be another aesthetic, however, but fear of a lefty isn’t it.
Markakis leads off and receives the most plate appearances. He’s an OBP star and a doubles machine, which puts runners consistently into scoring position for our best hitter and best RBI threat, Freddie Freeman. Garcia is a big question mark at third, but he can occasionally unload the bases, and he’ll often have people on base when he does, which makes his homers more valuable. Olivera has value as both a run producer and a leadoff man, and he’ll be doing both frequently in the #4 spot. Following him is Ender Inciarte, who isn’t a prototype middle of the order guy (who else on this team is, really?), but he puts the ball in play, sprays it around, and can keep rallies alive. Aybar, a switch-hitter, gives the second half of the lineup a decent hit-and-run option when the Inciarte is on base, and he himself provides speed on the basepaths for Flowers. Remember: stolen bases are more valuable in front of players who aren’t likely to get lots of hits, because it makes the steal attempt worth the risk – if caught, you’re not leaving the bases empty for an All-Star, just a mediocre hitter. Instead of if they batted ahead of Markakis and Freeman, Inciarte and Aybar can be given a green light in front of Tyler Flowers. Play like the Royals, because they need to be in scoring position on the times he gets a single.
With the pitcher up next, it was tempting to go with Peterson in the 7th spot. After all, it’d be more valuable to bunt over Peterson with the pitcher than it would to do so with Flowers. However, how many times will that really be the case? The starting rotation isn’t likely to carry the rock deep into ballgames. Pitchers may only bat 2 times per game. Such a situation seems remote to alter plans for, not to mention the fact that it carries the assumption the pitcher bunts the ball properly to begin with (a tall order for such young players). Also, by placing Flowers 9th, you’re now requiring Flowers to run ahead of a good singles and doubles hitter, and Flowers might be the only guy on the team that can’t score on a Markakis double. He could, however, occasionally unload the bases, so having some guys on in front of him like Inciarte and Aybar makes more sense than reducing his occasional bombs to the solo shots rendered by having Peterson and a pitcher in front. His role is similar to Adonis Garcia’s, but in a lesser sense. Hit some homers and hope they’re the 2- or 3-run variety. We keep Jace Peterson in the 9th spot, where he serves as something of a “bonus” leadoff man. He has speed, something the old timers will be just fine having batting 2 spots ahead of Freddie Freeman. On opening day 2015, Fredi Gonzalez batted Jace Peterson 2nd, Nick Markakis 3rd, and Freddie Freeman 4th. This keeps that sequence together, but gives Markakis and Freeman (and others) 60 extra plate appearances over a year while giving fewer to a bad hitter. Win-win!
So there you have it: the optimized opening day lineup for the 2016 Atlanta Braves, at least for those of you who prefer static, easy to understand roles instead of opponent-based platooning. There might be value in that sort of continuity, and it may very well help the clubhouse. It’s the easiest smart approach to ordering the 2016 Braves lineup, and I hope it’s a lineup Gonzalez employs in 2016. Even if it doesn’t work, it gets us more Freeman. That’s really enough for me.