The 2017 Atlanta Braves – Optimizing the Sub-Optimal
A year ago, I posted an article theorizing how best to optimize the 2016 Braves lineup. Fredi Gonzalez didn’t listen to me. Fredi Gonzalez is no longer employed. I don’t mean to imply causation there, but I’ll take correlation! Brian Snitker, I hope you trust your pal Brent more than your predecessor. We’re all on the same side here.
Before we can determine the batting order, we need to determine the names in it, and that’s way more important. Don’t get lost looking for a leadoff hitter. Look for a shortstop. Look for a catcher. Fill the positions, and then put those in order. Luckily, the front office has made that pretty easy for us. There’s little or no question over the following: Freddie Freeman at 1st, Brandon Phillips at 2nd, Dansby Swanson at SS, and Matt Kemp, Ender Inciarte, and Nick Markakis in the OF. There’s a tiny chance that Rio Ruiz works his way into a platoon at 3rd, but for now, signs point to Adonis Garcia as the full-time starter, so that’s how we’ll treat him. Finally, catcher always turns into a bit of a timeshare, but in Atlanta’s case, Tyler Flowers clearly deserves more of it. While Kurt Suzuki is likely to out-hit Flowers from a batting average perspective, Flowers’ power at the plate negates the newcomer’s advantage, and Flowers’ pitch-framing and defense is vastly superior. There you have it. The 8 are easy to choose. Now it’s time to put them in order.
Let’s start with projected BA/OBP/SLG/OPS splits. I averaged the weighted PECOTA projection with those from Steamer and ZiPS to come up with the following:
Tyler Flowers – .235/.301/.386/.687
Freddie Freeman – .279/.378/.490/.868
Brandon Phillips – .271/.307/.374/.681
Adonis Garcia – .266/.301/.404/.705
Dansby Swanson – .255/.323/.402/.725
Matt Kemp – .264/.315/.453/.768
Ender Inciarte – .282/.332/.382/.714
Nick Markakis – .270/.344/.375/.719
Before we get to the good stuff, I’ll point out that I’m NOT going to optimize this for lefty/righty splits. While I think there might be something to gain from doing so, these are still humans, and I think stability is a good thing for humans. Whoever winds up being the #5 hitter needs to know that’ll be his job when he comes to the ballpark each day, regardless of any changes on the opponents’ mound. It creates comfort.
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.
This is going to be one of Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, or Dansby Swanson. First off, I’m eliminating the rook. While I think Swanson has the makeup of a guy who could handle just about anything you throw at him, for now I’m just going to take a little pressure off because I can. Also, Swanson is projected 3rd among the 3 in OBP. That leaves us Inciarte or Markakis. Neither belongs in the middle of the order, and while Inciarte looks the part in a physical manner, Markakis is still our non-Freeman OBP king. He takes plenty of walks, and walks don’t move runners multiple bases, so the one time walks are as good as singles is when you’re leading things off. Leading off for the optimized 2017 Braves, RF Nick Markakis.
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.
It’s 1B Freddie Freeman. If you’re resistant to the idea, think about it this way – you get to see Freddie Freeman bat more than if you hit him 3rd. Why do you want to see Freddie Freeman bat less?
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.
We’re filling in spots 4 and 5 before finding our 3-hole hitter, so if you want to really follow me along, come back here after reading those.
Welcome back! While Ender Inciarte has an edge in OBP and is a slightly better hitter, there’s something fun about the idea of 3B Adonis Garcia hitting a bunch of first inning solo homers.
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.
It’s LF Matt Kemp. He’s a good hitter because he brings a ton of power into the lineup, and it’s enough to put him into the cleanup spot.
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.
This seems like a nice place for our young star in the making who can do a bit of everything. SS Dansby Swanson can contribute in many different ways, and he can set the table for the second half of the lineup.
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.
A base-stealing threat to bat ahead of the singles hitters? CF Ender Inciarte seems an obvious choice, and he’s the pick. Get him on base and give him a green light, setting up RBI opportunities for someone who cares a bit about RBI opportunities…
I’m going a bit out of order here, going next with the guy most likely to be the team’s worst hitter, 2B Brandon Phillips. The thing is, Phillips seems like a pretty prideful player, and I don’t think he’d take well to batting 8th, and I’d be surprised to see him take to the ideal place for him – 9th. If Phillips were open to the idea, batting 9th would allow him to be a 2nd leadoff man, to start a Phillips-Markakis-Freeman trio beginning with their 2nd plate appearances. However, he likes RBI chances, and he doesn’t care about OBP, so he’s batting 7th. I should point out that being a prideful player isn’t a wholly bad thing. His pride makes him work hard, and it contributes to his success.
I’m a big fan of batting the pitcher 8th, but only when the situation presents itself. Like I said earlier, it would take Phillips embracing the 9th spot to do that. As that’s unlikely, we’ll go traditional and go with C Tyler Flowers here. He’s a guy who can empty bases occasionally, and I think that will work better here than in the 9th spot. When Kurt Suzuki fills in, I would bat him 9th, acting as a minor table-setter for the top of the order.
There you have it, Coach Snit. I’m here to make your job easier, and this ought to help mitigate the issue of not having a great selection of hitters. To do so, here’s your lineup card:
- RF Nick Markakis (L)
- 1B Freddie Freeman (L)
- 3B Adonis Garcia (R)
- LF Matt Kemp (R)
- SS Dansby Swanson (R)
- CF Ender Inciarte (L)
- 2B Brandon Phillips (R)
- C Tyler Flowers (R)
Don’t get hung up on breaking up righties and lefties. Don’t get overwhelmed by historical stereotypes. This will work. Do this.
Or don’t, because, as it turns out, batting order probably isn’t that important.