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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 08:  Manager Tony La...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

2011 edition.

With the signing of Nick Punto to a major league contract this past week, the roster is pretty much set going into spring training. I’m sure like many of you, we’ve all monkeyed around with possible lineups. Tony La Russa is the king of using different lineups, he mixes and matches more than your average manager. It can be maddening at times to see names like Aaron Miles sitting atop the batting order, or Colby Rasmus batting 7th (or not at all) based on weird and mostly meaningless platoon splits.

La Russa has done some innovative things with a lineup, like batting the pitcher 8th, or batting a power hitter 2nd, and I applaud him for that. But for the most part, La Russa also pretty much sticks with tradition – like batting his best hitter 3rd, or putting a “bat handler” at lead-off, for instance. And if you’ve ever read the book Three Nights in August, we also learn that La Russa literally will agonize over writing a lineup card. Well, according to saber-nerdery wisdom, this is really all unnecessary. Believe it or not, using a foolish looking lineup over an optimized lineup is only worth about a win over the course of the season, at best. Lineups just don’t really matter that much, so when you do see (and you can bank on it that you will) a goofy lineup that La Russa scratches out, don’t get upset. At least don’t get upset unless he’s regularly sitting Colby Rasmus.

So what would be the best lineup for this team this year? Well, according to Tom Tango and MGL of The Book, there is a better way to go about it than the traditional way. Here are some of their general rules of thumb:

  • Don’t consider the strikeout, or the hitter’s ability to move runners over on outs, when constructing your starting lineup.
  • The second lead-off hitter theory is valid. You can put your pitcher in the eighth slot and gain a couple of extra runs per year.
  • Put your best hitters in the #2 and #4 spots, with the better slugger hitting cleanup. The leadoff hitter should be of similar quality and have high on-base skills, but usually with less power.
  • The #3 hitter should be of a lower quality than the 1, 2, and 4 hitters because he comes up in lower leverage situations on average (ie, he comes up more often with 2 outs and nobody on). In fact, the #5 hitter gets the higher overall run value chances vs the #3 hitter.
  • The #3 hitter faces the most double play situations.
  • Leverage your good baserunners by putting them in front of good hitters, regardless of their power numbers. Ideally, the hitter should be one who puts the ball in play a lot and hits a lot of singles and doubles.

In short, here’s how the lineup spots rank in order of  importance of avoiding outs for NL teams:

#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #9, #8

Here’s how it’s probably going to happen this year, for the most part:

  1. Theriot (yuck)
  2. Rasmus
  3. Pujols
  4. Holliday
  5. Berkman
  6. Freese
  7. Molina
  8. P
  9. Schumaker

And here’s my recommendation. Hopefully, I did this right. Quick explanation on the projections – I regressed the splits to determine true talent versus pitcher handedness.

Rasmus draws the walks and will bring the thump batting lead-off, although maybe Berkman might be a better fit. You could also swap Holliday with Berkman, depending on how you feel about the player’s respective ZiPS projections. Freese batting 3rd? Yeah, I don’t like it either.  Good gravy, Theriot sure is no one’s idea of an ideal lead-off hitter. But after the Big 4, the dwarves are all that is left. Don’t look now, but the lineup against lefties is less than awe-inspiring.

There’s just not a real good choice for lead-off here. David Freese, maybe?

Tyler Greene has a projected .307 wOBA against lefties, but with sample sizes I don’t know how accurate that is. I’m sure he’d hit better than Punto, but Punto has the glove and he’s the gritty vet, so…you know. If you think this team was maddening against soft-tossing lefties in the past, well, just you wait. Hopefully Allen Craig’s lefty mashing ways from his minor league numbers translate. If so, he’d be a better fit here than Fat Elvis.

Overall this is a fun exercise. Let me know if you think I did anything wrong. I doubt we see lineups with Freese batting 3rd or Rasmus leading off any time soon, but remember: Lineups aren’t really worth the irritation that they can seem to cause at times.

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Erik Manning

Erik became addicted to Cardinals baseball as a young lad growing up on the mean streets of O'Fallon, MO. He moved away to Tulsa to attend Bible College, where he met his wife, who talked him into moving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also known as the Bermuda triangle of baseball. His dream is to see the MLB.tv blackouts end, and his other interests are theology and philosophy of religion. He is the parent of two young boys.

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4 Responses to “Optimizing the Cardinal Lineup By the Book”

  1. I like the vs RHP version. That one instills a bit of confidence. The vs LHP one, not so much.

  2. I would lead off w/ Berkman vs. righties and then go Holliday, Freese, Pujols, Rasmus, Schumaker, Theriot, Pitcher, Molina. It seems to me that going w/ Theriot before the pitcher enables us to move runners along better than putting Molina in the 7 hole. Also, I think Holliday will be a better hitter than Berkman even against righties.

    As for lefties, maybe Freese in the leadoff hole is right but I think I might go w/ Rasmus. He can still take a walk and may end up being better than Freese against them b/c of his power and his BB rate. What about Rasmus, Holliday, Freese, Pujols, Craig, Molina, Theriot, Pitcher, and Punto? You could always go w/ Freese first and then either Craig or Rasmus in the 3 or 5 spot and probably not be too much worse.

  3. I hope you guys enjoy the spectacle of Nick Punto playing baseball. If LaRussa loves grit even half as much as Gardie does, you will be treated to 100 games of Punto bunting with no one on and sliding headfirst into first base on safe hits to the outfield.

    Unless you get “good” Nick Punto, and he hits .290 and has an OPS higher than .700!

    I am so glad this guy is your problem now.

  4. [...] than the number three hitter. If this stuff interests you, I recommend reading Erik’s post (Optimizing the Cardinal Lineup By the Book) at GHG for a more detailed [...]

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