Baseball lineup theory is ridiculous (and how it relates to the Detroit Tigers)


Recently I had a spirited baseball debate with two of my favorite baseball minds, Joe Devereaux and Matt Gajtka (senior writer and editor of the always well-written Pittsburgh blog City of Champions), about lineup order. In a previous article I said that I’d like to see Prince Fielder bat in front of Cabrera when Miggy comes back from injury in order to boost Fielder’s stats. This opened the floodgate, and before I knew it we were debating managerial tactics and conventional wisdom dating back to the Golden Age of baseball.

August 24, 2013; Flushing,NY,USA; Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland before baseball game against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Basically, one side of the baseball world adheres to conventional wisdom and follows a notion about every spot in every lineup serving a specific purpose and requiring specific players. On the other side is a growing number that thinks batting order should capitalize on hitters in positions that serve an immediate need.

For example, think about a prototypical leadoff man. Fast. Can spray the ball all over the field. Gets on base. Occasional pop. Now, think about this: In 2012 Rays manager Joe Maddon batted Carlos Pena in the leadoff spot in a stretch of nine games in May and June, and Tampa Bay had a 6-3 record with him batting first. The same Carlos Pena that has all the speed of frozen snot. Pena had a great OBP at that time, and Maddon wanted to capitalize on that; A team has a better chance of scoring more runs when it gets a man on with no outs.

Now, think about early Alex Rodriguez on the Mariners. In 1998 he hit 42 home runs, had an OBP of .360, and had an OPS+ of 136. Third hitter, right? Nope. He batted second most of the year, ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. Rodriguez eventually became viewed as a better (and far more juiced) player than Griffey and was eventually slotted third, where he would get fewer plate appearances than a second hitter.

In Fantasyland by Sam Walker, he asks Lou Piniella why he wouldn’t bat rookie BJ Upton as the designated hitter, and Piniella intimated that, “you feel kind of stupid as a manager putting a 20-year-old kid at designated hitter.” A professional manager was afraid of using his young phenom, who was as good a hitter as he was bad a defender, as a DH because he didn’t want to look stupid? A manager should look for any opportunity to get a hot-hitting player into the lineup, and eventually Piniella relented.

The problem with baseball, in my eyes at least, is that too many managers stick with conventional wisdom, which dictates far too many decisions than it should. Any Jonah Keri book can tell you that.

As Gajtka put it on my Facebook page, “Adapt or die.” Managers should be trying to catch the opposing manager off guard, like using a starter instead of a reliever in an important game, or batting the best hitter in the leadoff spot. Guys like Billy Beane and Andrew Friedman take advantage of “conventional wisdom” and put together teams that exploits areas of the game that other teams aren’t. They think outside the box, and it permeates the team culture.

Can the Tigers gain such an edge if Fielder bats before Cabrera? Would they catch an opponent completely flabbergasted if they batted Cabrera second, or even first in a lineup? Doesn’t a manager want his best hitter to get the most plate appearances? To squabble over the archaic notion that every player has to perfectly fit a lineup is an antiquated strategy, and one that any opposing manager can predict and counter.

Teams that do not adhere to rigid lineup expectations can use newfound knowledge and experience to gain the upper hand on opponents, and managers like Piniella and Charlie Manuel, and maybe even Jim Leyland someday, are eventually edged out of the game when it passes them by.