Last week, Reese Kaplan posted an article dissecting the lineup configurations for the 2015 Mets. Within the article, Mr. Kaplan notes inefficiency by Terry Collins both in a lack of bunting use and poor lineup structure. I half agree.
In this piece, I would like to offer my counter to Kaplan's lineup and debunk certain myths about both lineups and bunting.
You can read Kaplan's piece here. After a scathing review of Collins and his lineup decisions (more on that later), Kaplan writes that, "Many sabermetric studies have been done to suggest you want your best contact hitters up in the 1 and 2 slots of the lineup as they are going to come to the plate most often and you want them on base as much as possible to set the table for the RBI guys to follow". Reese suggests Flores and Murphy for the top two spots.
This is mostly true. However, contact-driven OBP or walks-driven OBP matter little here. The conclusion of Murphy and Flores, then is a bit odd. Neither walk at a very good rate and while both hit for average, neither has a great OBP. Also, from batted ball variations from season to season, it is much tougher to rely on BABIP than the more predictable walk rate. Daniel Murphy's career OBP is .333, boosted by a BABIP-driven 2011 season that saw it spike to .362. In his four full seasons, Murphy's OBP has been .313, .332, .319, and .332. While the Mets lack a lot of high-OBP guys, this is not exactly what I have in mind for the top two spots in the order. Keep in mind, Ruben Tejada sported a .342 OBP last year and his career mark is just .005 behind Murphy's.
Flores suffers from the same low-walk approach as Murphy: 173 in 3237 minor league plate appearances for an OBP right around Murphy's major league average. While Flores might hit for a higher average than I think, I do not see many paths to him being a #1 or a #2 hitter. I agree with the expert consensus--Flores is best when he has guys to drive in. Eventually, I like him as a #3 but given his inexperience and the presence of better current options for the 3, 5-7 spots, I agree with Collins that he will and should start the season hitting 8th. (side note: Would Wilmer Flores be baseball's best #8 hitter?)
Next, Kaplan states that "The third spot in the order should go to the best overall hitter in terms of OBP, batting average, RBI production, and power".
This is one of the biggest and least-reported myths in the game of baseball. From leverage situation data and baserunner/ab data, the third spot in the order actually comes up in similar leverage and baserunner situations as the #2 hole, but fewer times.
Beyond the Box Score sums it up well: "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". David Wright in the #3 spot is nostalgia or outdated thinking--not optimization. Not even close.
Next, we all agree Duda is the #4 hitter. This is the spot for one of the team's three best hitters (along with #1 and #2), with an emphasis on power. Duda is the guy.
The #5 hitter is actually your 4th best hitter as he comes to bat more times with runners on that the third spot. Then #3 is 5th important, then #6, then 7-9 but with more interchangeability than other spots in the order.
This chart sums it up well:
|Typical MLB lineup vs. Stats-based optimized lineup, courtesy of beyondtheboxscore.com via "The Book".|
Lastly, one tendency that Reese Kaplan derides Collins for is not bunting. Before I give you my lineup, take a second and read this article that sums up the reality of trading outs. They say it better than I ever could: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-sacrifice-bunt-the-real-rally-killer/
I think I have posted that article in pieces of mine or in the comments before but it goes deep into the ramification of trading outs for bases. This is not a binary discussion either--meaning I do not advocate for bunting whenever the situation seems to call for it nor avoid bunting completely. I believe in a very judicious use of trading outs for bases and it is something Terry Collins does quite well. I think Reese Kaplan is being very unfair to Collins when it comes to bunting.
I also think he is unfair when it comes to Terry's lineup choices as well because, frankly, no MLB manager optimizes lineups. Not a single one. Not one manager has taken the data that their organization's statistics teams have given them and writes a lineup card that gives them the best chance to win. A conservative estimate suggests that proper lineup optimization can give you a win a season. A full win. In today's dual wildcard league, that could be the difference between a shot at the World Series and an October on the couch. A win is also worth between 4 and 5 million dollars...just from writing the lineup card the right way.
That being said, applying the previous chart above is not exactly easy when it comes to the 2015 Mets. While Duda in the #4, d'Arnaud in the #5, and Wright in the #2 slot are givens for me, I have no idea who the best leadoff and #3 hitters should be.
For leadoff, Kalkman writes, "The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases in 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 the homerun power".
I see three options here: Juan Lagares, Daniel Murphy, or Curtis Granderson. While Wright clearly has the best OBP on the team, his OBP/power combo is much better suited for the 2-hole than the leadoff spot. Murphy does not get on base enough for me nor consistently enough. Granderson is not ideal because, as the quotation states, why waste power early in the lineup? The question becomes, which of Murphy or Lagares will get on base more? Personally, and maybe because I am a huge Lagares fan and believe in his bat more than most, I think that is Juan Lagares. That allows Murphy to slot in later in the lineup and provide a threat deep in the order we have not had in years.
The other dilemma I have is Cuddyer, Murphy or Flores for #3. I see them all as essentially the same hitter. Cuddyer probably has more power and OBP but all are high average, high BABIP, solid power guys. However, Collins worked with Duda brilliantly in slowly introducing him to higher leverage situations over the year and Duda blossomed. Keep Flores down towards the #7 or #8 spot for now. Personally, I think Cuddyer is a better hitter than Murphy so he gets third in the lineup. I also like having the veteran that early in the lineup and right next to his buddy Wright. I think that combination at the top could be deadly.
Lastly, if I put Lagares #1 instead of #8, it leaves Flores for the 8-hole which seems like an odd spot for such a good hitter. I think I can concede this to simply saying--I am glad I do not have the job of picking the lineup card every day. You have to take into consideration player ego and comfortability as well. And, while not as important as ability, it is hard to quantify and it is something a good manager knows how to do. If I had to take a stab at the best-optimized Met lineup given the players right now, it is this (Keep in mind, my opinions on a player [ex. high on Lagares and d'Arnaud, lower on Flores and Granderson] have a huge influence on where they hit. Also, keep in mind the chart above):
1.) Juan Lagares
2.) David Wright
3.) Michael Cuddyer
4.) Lucas Duda
5.) Travis d'Arnaud
6.) Curtis Granderson
7.) Daniel Murphy
8.) Wilmer Flores
Before you skip to the comments section and rip me for this, let me put a few conditions on this:
- If Lagares fails to sustain his BABIP from 2014 or does not walk more, he quickly moves to #8. My leash for him as a leadoff hitter is very short and I am going out on a limb here, but I see something in his bat and his progress in 2014 that makes me believe he can take the next step in 2015.
- Against lefties, take Duda out, put d'Arnaud in the cleanup spot, bump everyone up one spot and put Mayberry 8th.
- Terry's lineup has Granderson second, Murphy 6th, TdA 7th, and Cuddyer 5th. I actually do not think he is too far off what I have here. He has what should be two good OBP guys 1-2, messes up on Wright third as every MLB manager would, is with me on Duda and Flores, and has d'Arnaud too low, giving him the Duda treatment. I do not mind his lineup. If he were to put Wright second instead of third, I would be very content.
- When deGrom pitches, bat Flores 9th and deGrom 8th.
- An interesting finding in "The Book" is that speed is a nice quality to have hitting 6th. Because of the power in 4 and 5, 6 can act as a second leadoff hitter for the contact guys at the back of the lineup. Granderson, followed by Murphy and Flores as a backend 1-2-3, so to speak, is awesome and something the Mets have not had in a long time.
After writing this, I realize how much hinges on Juan Lagares developing as a hitter. If he can, our lineup looks very very good. If not, and Flores-Lagares-Pitcher make 7-8-9 a potential OBP black hole at the back of our lineup instead of a deep and productive order.
To conclude, when you think about lineups, remember: The three best hitters on the team should be 1st (OBP), 2nd (OBP) and 4th (power). Then 5th (power), third, then 6 (a bit a speed is nice), 7, 8. If you put two low OBP guys at the top, you are not going to score as many runs. This team needs to score as many runs as possible. Terry's lineup is not optimized, but it is not bad either. If we could just get him to stop batting Wright 3rd.
I look forward to your thoughts.