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Let’s talk about batting orders

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Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

You know something I have never seen or come across in my 22 years of life? A baseball fan who dislikes talking about batting orders. I’m pretty sure those are like unicorns: nobody’s ever seen one, and they probably don’t exist anyway. Who should lead off? Who bats third? Why is the lineup your team’s manager turned in today stupid? These are questions we’ve all asked and answered before, and for this week’s Rockpile, the lineup is going to be the main topic. The idea for this whole thing came to me when I was recently reminded on Twitter that the Tampa Bay Rays had 158 different lineups in 162 games. It blew my mind so much (again) that I thought “how about I take a look at how outlandish that is when compared to other teams?”. And that’s what we’re going to do here today. The topic of the day is variety in batting orders.

First and foremost, here’s a question for you, the fine reader of this piece: how many different batting orders do you think a team throws out there over the course of 162 games? 80? 100? 120? 140?

How did you do? The average MLB team used 140 different batting orders in 2021, more than I thought. You can see the outliers in this chart: the Braves used just 100 different lineups and the Cardinals used 107, both way clear of the rest; the next closest are the Nats at 128. The Rays used the most, of course, with 158 different batting orders, but the D-Backs followed them closely with 157 and five other ballclubs (White Sox, Tigers, Angels, A’s and Pirates) used 150 or more.

There’s a lot of cools things in the data. For example:

  • AL teams used an average of 144.5 lineups compared to the NL’s 136.2, a noticeable difference.
  • The five teams that used the most lineups (Rays, D-Backs, A’s, White Sox, Tigers) averaged a 99 wRC+; the five teams that used the least amount of lineups (Braves, Cardinals, Nationals, Mariners and Blue Jays) averaged a 100 wRC+. This is funny to me, because it’s yet another example of baseball providing many different avenues to get to the same point.
  • Something interesting too: The Mariners had the most consistent top of the order of any team, with J.P. Crawford, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager starting 108, 109 and 110 games in the 1, 2 and 3 spots respectively.
  • The Rockies were essentially average: they employed 143 different lineups last season.

Are we done? Absolutely not! Thanks to the magnificient website that is Baseball Reference, I can tell you how much each teams repeated its lineups, and which lineups were most often used:

Shoutout to Dusty Baker. What that 10 for Houston doesn’t tell you is that the Astros didn’t have one lineup they used 10 times, they had two! Altuve-Brantley-Gurriel-Álvarez-Correa-Tucker-Toro-Straw-Maldonado was written 10 times, just as many as Altuve-Brantley-Bregman-Álvarez-Gurriel-Correa-Tucker-Straw-Maldonado. Leaving aside the incredible fact that Kyle Tucker (he of a 30 HR, 92 RBI, .294/.359/.557 line) was batting sixth and seventh for the ‘Stros, Houston really stands out here, as the only two teams to even reach 8 are the Mariners and Cardinals, and both with one lineup rather than two. The Rockies’ most used batting order? Tapia-Rodgers-Blackmon-Story-Cron-McMahon-Díaz-Hilliard-Pitcher, used in five different games.

We still aren’t done, however. Let’s see which individual players were most entrenched in one particular lineup spot. I’ve done this by team, to make it easier for myself:

Whit Merrifield played all 162 games for the Royals, and he led off in every single one of them. That’s very impressive all by itself, and especially when you consider that the next closest player (the best third baseman in the game, Cleveland’s José Ramírez) managed “only” 151 games batting third for the now Guardians. Cedric Mullins, José Altuve and DJ LeMahieu all led off for 140+ games, and the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds batted third for over 140 games as well. You can see that Raimel was the Rockies’ most automatic lineup spot, as he led off 99 times, although he’s more towards the bottom of this chart. Right at the bottom you see (surprise, surprise) the Rays’ Brandon Lowe (60 times) and the Giants’ Lamonte Wade Jr (58 times), both at the leadoff spot.

And speaking of the leadoff spot:

This was one of the most interesting-but-logical things to me. As you can see, half of the batters who received the most starts at one particular spot were leadoff men, and all but two batted in the first three spots, which makes sense, as teams like to stack their lineups from the very top. Those two batters who hit cleanup and ninth? The cleanup hitter was the Braves’ Austin Riley, who made 98 starts hitting fourth, and the number nine hitter was Twins defensive wiz Andrelton Simmons, who started 91 games batting ninth, more tattooed into a specific spot than any other Twin.

I’m pretty sure that if I were to gather this type of data from, say, the 2001 season, the lineups would be a bit more static and more hitters would be consolidated in the 3 and 4 spots. As lineup construction has evolved, managers have alongside it, and the “new” tactics (best hitter bats second, power first bat hits third, fourth best hitter bats fifth, etc) call for a ton of shuffling around of hitters. Do you like it or dislike it? I think it would drive me insane to see a different order every single day, I’m not going to lie. I need some boring consistency in my life and baseball is great at that. Thanks for reading! If you want to take a look at the data yourself, here is my spreadsheet, and here is the Rockies’ lineup data from Baseball Reference.

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Some fantastic stuff (as usual) from Justin Choi. Pitch usage, batted ball profile... platoon splits go really deep. Groundball rate is one of those details.

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That’s gonna be a no from me, man. I’d rather take a look at someone like Matthew Boyd, to be honest, even though Kikuchi is not a bad pitcher.

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Color me shocked if this accomplishes even the slightest thing. They’re going to wait until the very last second to put the pressure on the players, and we all know it. Sigh.

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