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Why the Rockies’ ‘experiment’ batting Nolan Arenado 2nd matters

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Lineup optimization is less important than player buy-in

Nolan Arenado has been hitting second in the majority of the Rockies’ Spring Training games, and that has brought lineup optimization back into focus. This is a topic I used to think about a lot even though, as I wrote back in 2015, batting order “doesn’t really matter.” A fully optimized lineup maxes out at a dozen or so runs and maybe two wins over the course of a season (if everything breaks just right). The commonly accepted optimal lineup looks like this:

  1. Highest OBP
  2. Best hitter
  3. Fifth best hitter
  4. Best hitter with power
  5. Best hitter after 1, 2, and 4
  6. Best remaining base stealer
  7. Singles hitter
  8. Pitcher
  9. Singles hitter

This is based on maximizing plate appearances with runners on base for the team’s best hitters. Still, an optimal lineup isn’t really much better than a randomly assigned lineup, and lineup optimization isn’t a battle I’ve been interested in fighting for a while now. But there’s a reason teams don’t randomize their lineups: It would seriously screw with the players’ mentality.

The Rockies appear to be making this small change with that in mind. This is evident in the way Arenado and the Rockies are talking about it. Thomas Harding called the move an “experiment,” and in his conversation with Harding, Arenado said: “Whatever helps the team win. . . . It’s taking a little time. I’m still not used to it.”

For analysts who have understood this decade-old basic principle of lineup optimization, the “getting used to it” mentality can almost seem naive. “You’re doing what you should have been doing all along!” one might yell into a void. Really, though, it exposes a basic naivety of analysts who beat the drums of optimal strategy without thinking about the fact that those tactics have to be implemented by human beings accustomed to routine.

The major takeaway for this “experiment” isn’t so much that the Rockies are optimizing their lineup, but that they’re doing it in a deliberate manner in the laboratory of Spring Training so that they can get the buy-in of the players. That should be the most critical component of any new on-field strategy, and I’m glad it’s the path the Rockies are taking.