Facts About MLB Lineup Construction That Might Surprise You

The art of putting together a MLB lineup has molded over time, and there is still no commmonly-accepted formula to ordering hitters from one through nine. However, there are many misconceptions of lineup construction that are still used in baseball today despite sabermetric knowledge that says otherwise.

Primarily through research done by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin in their book titled The Book, these misconceptions have become clear and other key pieces of information have come to light. So, here are a few facts about lineup construction that might surprise you given conventional thoughts.

A player should not hit leadoff because he is fast

A leadoff hitter should be one who gets on base at a high clip, whether they are fast or not. The reasoning behind this is fairly simple. The second through fifth spots in the order are going to be the biggest power hitters on a team, meaning they can more easily drive in a slower runner who cannot move himself up by stealing bases. You would rather have someone in the top spot of the order who can get on base to give the best hitters on the team a chance to drive them in than someone who can swipe an extra bag every now and again but does not get on base as much.

On the other hand, your seventh through ninth hitters are likely going to be the team’s worst hitters, especially in terms of power. Thus, it would make sense batting someone fast at sixth because it is more valuable to have someone who can swipe extra bases when the hitters directly behind them are going to have a tougher time driving them in. Of course, if the fastest player is one of the best hitters, that changes things a bit because you do not want one of your best hitters to hit so low, and it is by no means bad to have a fast hitter in the leadoff.

The number three spot in the order is not as important than you would think

Conventional baseball wisdom says that a team’s best pure hitter, and often their best overall hitter, should hit third. However, this is wrong. In fact, the number two and five spots come up in key situations more often than the number three spot, making them much more important. In the grand scheme of things, the third slot in the order is the fourth or fifth most important spot in the order and should be treated as such. Rather than sticking your highest-contact hitter in this position, that player should hit either second or fifth.

There is actually something to hitting a pitcher 8th

Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa may be one of the most pronounced old-school thinkers in baseball, but his idea of hitting a pitcher eighth actually has sabermetric value to it. There is a trade-off here because the pitcher is receiving more plate appearances, but putting a better hitter ninth can give players at the top of the order more opportunities to drive in runs. According to The Book, hitting the pitcher 8th can make a difference of about two runs a year. That is not anything too crazy, but runs are runs and we have seen playoff races come down to two runs in the past.

The interesting thing to this, however, is that in the American League, you still want to bat your worst hitter ninth. The logic behind that is that, in the AL, your worst hitter is generally not significantly worse than the second-worst hitter, while in the NL the pitcher is generally a much worse hitter than the second-worst hitter. When the second-worst and worst hitter are somewhat close in talent, then it is more beneficial to get the better hitter more at-bats, but when the talent gap is wide, then it is worth trading more at bats to get the better of the two hitters in the ninth spot.

To put things together, here is essentially how sabermetrics says a lineup should be created. The best three hitters on the team are going to hit first, second and fourth, with the player with the best on-base abilities hitting first and the player with the most power hitting fourth. Then, the fifth spot is filled with the next-best hitter, with the exception of that being a guy who is a homer-or-bust type of player, who is better suited for the third slot in the order. The third slot is then filled after the fifth spot.

Then, among the remaining four hitters, you almost always want to put the fastest of the bunch at sixth unless he is a horrendous hitter (i.e. the pitcher is the fastest of the remaining four). The 7th though 9th spots are then filled in descending order of skill level, with the exception being a pitcher should bat 8th.

In the grand scheme of things, lineup construction might be less important than you can think. In fact, the difference between a team using perfectly-optimized lineups and one using average lineups is probably only around one win per year.

Still, though, teams are always looking to gain a competitive edge, and sabermetrics show that managers might have more to learn about making lineups. We have seen a few instances of some of these ideas being used in the past. For example, in 2010, Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays batted catcher John Jaso, who has just 14 career stolen bases in 480 games, at leadoff 45 times. As analytics in baseball continues to gain traction, we could see these ideas and others like it continue to be used more and more commonly across the game.