Optimizing the Detroit Tigers’ Lineup With The Bill James Projections


The 2013 version of the Detroit Tigers isn’t yet set. There’s uncertainty surrounding the future of Rick Porcello with the club, there’s the possibility of “getting more athletic” at shortstop, and there’s the potential for adding another right-handed hitting outfielder, but we’re pretty sure who will be in the batting lineup most days given the current roster.

October 03, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers batter Prince Fielder (28) singles against the Kansas City Royals during the second inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Barring a major shakeup, Austin Jackson is going to hit leadoff, with Miguel Cabrera hitting third, Prince Fielder fourth, and Victor Martinez fifth behind him. We’re guessing that Torii Hunter will slide into the second spot, and that six through nine will consist of Andy Dirks, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, and Omar Infante. Not necessarily in that order, but probably. This is – more or less – the lineup they used down the stretch last season (excepting the addition of Hunter). But is it the best possible lineup? Probably not.

Using the Bill James Handbook Projections (freely available on the FanGraphs player pages) in conjunction with Baseball Musing’s Lineup Analysis tool, we can compare this “standard” lineup order to other permutations to see what arrangement might be optimal.

First off, this method has constraints. The lineup analysis tool only inputs on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It is agnostic with respect to player speed, handedness, ground ball rate, etc. A perfect analysis would include many more factors – and give a more “accurate” answer – but OBP and SLG will get you most of the way there. Tweak it a little bit to take advantage of platoonability and base running, sure, but that can come later.

The likely lineup of (1) Jackson, (2) Hunter, (3) Cabrera, (4) Fielder, (5) Martinez, (6) Dirks, (7) Peralta, (8) Avila, and (9) Infante are projected (using their Bill James projection OBP and SLG) to score 5.676 runs per game. That’s 919 runs over the course of a 162 game season (the Bill James projections are notoriously optimistic at the individual level, so temper those expectations). These players will not play 162 games together, of course, but this is an easy way of thinking about it.

The optimized lineup, according to the aforementioned lineup analysis tool, would yield 5.816 runs per game. That’s 942 runs in a 162 game season – an increase of 23 runs (two wins) over the likely lineup order. The optimized lineup:

(1) Avila, (2) Fielder, (3) Hunter, (4) Cabrera, (5) Martinez, (6) Peralta, (7) Dirks, (8) Infante, (9) Jackson.

Swapping Dirks and Peralta in the six-seven spots yields the same result. The key here is that OBP is king at the top of the lineup. Stringing together guys that get on base at a high clip is the best way to score runs (that’s why Jackson’s ninth – to get on base when the lineup turns over).

Now Alex Avila simply isn’t going to hit leadoff – Jackson is, and that’s final – so let’s look only at those lineups. The optimized batting lineup with Jackson hitting leadoff is pretty good, and it’s not all that crazy. It would be projected to score 5.810 runs per game, which is 941 over a season – still two wins better than the “standard version” and actually less than a full run worse than optimum. Not bad. This lineup is:

(1) Jackson, (2) Fielder, (3) Hunter, (4) Cabrera, (5) Martinez, (6) Peralta, (7) Dirks, (8) Infante, (9) Avila.

Again, swapping Peralta and Dirks makes no difference here. The only difference we see here is that Jackson and Avila trade places at the book end spots. If we could get past the notion of Fielder “not being the prototypical number two hitter” (a notion that has no business being conventional wisdom), then this is an entirely plausible lineup. It is really just moving Fielder up two spots. The only “problem” with this lineup is that Hunter and Cabrera make two righties in a row, but there has to be two righties in a row at some point given these nine names.

Prince Fielder in the two spot looks funny, but, although he is quite slow, he actually doesn’t ground into all that many double plays – just 11% for his career (that’s dead even with major league average). Compare that to Hunter at 15%.

Just for fun, the worst lineup possible is:

(1) Peralta, (2) Infante, (3) Dirks, (4) Jackson, (5) Hunter, (6) Avila, (7) Martinez, (8) Fielder, (9) Cabrera.

This lineup would be projected to score 5.456 runs per game, or 883 in a season (35 less than the standard version). It’s interesting that if the Tigers went this route, they’d only probably lose three or four extra games in an entire season.

I think the single biggest takeaway here is that, although we complain about Jim Leyland’s order seemingly every day, the difference between the best and worst possible lineups (given a reasonable set of players) is only something like 0.36 runs. Obviously, yeah, we’d love everything to be optimized all the time, but we could see Infante hit cleanup and Cabrera bat last for a game and probably not notice a difference on the scoreboard.