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Detroit Tigers Thought Experiment: Free-for-all Batting Order


May 4, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) is congratulated by Torii Hunter (48) as Houston Astros catcher Carlos Corporan (22) watches during the second inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

A quirky never-going-to-happen (but still fun to think about) rule change was suggested for discussion by a Bill James reader (and brought to my attention on the Tangotiger Blog) pertaining to batting order. Here’s the idea:

"I’ve long thought this would be a fun if crazy way to play baseball: No fixed lineup; every turn through the “order” the manager is free to send hitters out in any sequence he wishes, so long as all nine players bat before any one player gets an additional turn. In other words, the scoreboard could feature an indifferently ordered list of nine names that’d be scratched through one-by-one until they were all gone, at which point the scratches would vanish and the skipper would be again free to bat whomever in whatever new order… None on, two outs? Send the pitcher up in the first inning… Man on third, two outs? You could bat your star or save him for a hopefully more lucrative chance down the road… Thoughts?"

Major Leauge Baseball will obviously never consider something like this – the extra decisions and second-guessing would shave years off of managers lives – but it’s an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.

There are more than a few things a rule like this would do to baseball in general – it would render specialist relievers (e.g. LOOGYs) useless as the batting team’s manager could decide to send up a string of opposite-handed batters – but I’m more interested (for now) in how this would play out with the Tigers’ current lineup.Can you imagine using Miguel Cabrera almost exclusively with runners on base? Think of the stress you’d put on the opposing pitcher with the knowlegdge that Cabrera or Prince Fielder could come to bat (almost) any time they allowed a man to reach. It would be fantastic.

I’ve found my mind wandering back to this batting order idea, trying to figure out how this would (or could) play out with Detroit’s batting order. I don’t have all (or even any) of the “right” answers, but here are some of my thoughts:

Put the best hitters in high-leverage situations

I think this idea is the most obvious. In this scenario the Tigers could save Cabrera and Fielder for the most prime of opportunities. There’s no reason to put either of these two in the game with the bases empty (unless you have to), but these two should grab a bat anytime they’re available with multiple guys on base or runners in scoring position.

On-base percentage is king early in innings

The Tigers wouldn’t want to force either Cabrera or Fielder (the two best OBP guys on the team) into the leadoff spot in any inning (you don’t want to “waste” home runs on too many solo shots), but the other top OBP hitters should get most of the opportunities to lead of innings. This means lots of Austin Jackson (probably the first option to leadoff), Victor Martinez, and Alex Avila to start innings. You could go with Torii Hunter or Andy Dirks if none of those three are available, but Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta should almost never lead off an inning.

Send up the worst hitters with two outs and no one on

If, say, Jackson and Hunter went down in order to start the game it would be prudent to send the worst hitter in that day’s lineup up to the plate. On too many days this is Don Kelly, but most often it’s Omar Infante. The idea here is that the team is unlikely to score a run with none on and two outs anyway, so why not use the opportunity to slide one of your poorer hitters through? That way he’s not required to hit later in the game when there might be a rally brewing. If Infante had already hit, then Peralta would be the next option here.

Everything changes late in games

You could probably have a fairly set flow chart to use the first two or three times through the lineup (though there would still be a tremendous number of scenarios and options), but the strategy would change late in a close game. You maybe still wouldn’t want to lead off an inning with Cabrera or Fielder if you were either tied or down a run in the bottom of the ninth, but you would have them both hit in the inning no matter what happens ahead of them. That’s the beauty and the difficulty of this fantasy scenario: that the optimal strategy is contstantly changing based on the inning and score.

Putting it all together

I was going to try to put together a first inning flow chart of every possible scenario that would lead through either three outs or nine batters, but after nearly 70 lines of scenarios pertaining only to what could happen if (and only if) Jackson got out, Hunter got out, and Infante singled, I decided that that particular exercise would take way too long. Instead I’ll leave it to the comments.

What do you think would be interesting about this scenario as it pertains to the Tigers, and how might they best take advantage of it?