After an offseason that seemed like it lasted forever, the Orioles are set to start their regular season this afternoon against the Red Sox. Chris Tillman will take the hill in what will be his first opening day start. He is the fifth opening day starter in five years for the O's, following: Jason Hammel (2013), Jake Arrieta (2012), Jeremy Guthrie (2011) and Kevin Millwood (2010). But we're not here to talk about the pitching staff; we'll do that another time. Let's talk about everyone's favorite topic at this time of year: the batting order.
Sabermetric research, has shown that even a perfectly optimized lineup would only result in an extra 15-20 runs or 1.5-2 wins at best. But it's still an interesting discussion, so let's have it.
In The Book by Tom Tango (where most of my lineup theory is rooted) he lays out the optimal order. The teams best hitter should hit 2nd, not 3rd or 4th. The next best hitter should hit 4th, and another good hitter with power should hit 5th. At leadoff, the team should put the batter who gets on base at the highest rate (not just the fastest guy who can steal bases). After that, the next best hitter left should hit 3rd. This is because of all of the times in the first inning that the number three batter will come up to bat with no one on and two outs. The other positions around third in the lineup effect run scoring slightly more.
After the first five spots are figured out, the 6 through 9 batters are generally listed in decreasing order of strength with some consideration given to handedness. If possible, you should try to avoid having two or three of the same handed hitters in a row to avoid the opposing manager being able to exploit the match ups late in the game with relievers. So with that out of the way, let's move on to the optimal Orioles lineup.
The Orioles are likely to run out different lineups versus left handed pitching and versus right handed starters, as they should. There are some players that will never come out of the lineup like Chris Davis and Adam Jones, but there are others who absolutely should be platooned in order to take advantage of the match ups with that day's starting pitcher. Here is the lineup I think the Orioles should use against left handed pitching:
Let's discuss some of the more interesting parts of this lineup. Adam Jones moves up from his typical clean up spot into the two hole. This serves two purposes; it will get him more at bats and it will get him to the plate in a spot where he can greatly impact the offensive output in the first inning of every game. Steve Pearce bats third in this optimized lineup. Not only did Pearce put together a .267/.375/.427 slash line against lefties in 2013, he has a career .349 wOBA against them. His career slash line against southpaws is .266/.351/.455 so his 2013 doesn't look like a fluke.
Chris Davis moves to the clean up spot this season after mostly hitting 5th in 2013. There are some who think he'll hit third this season, but as we discussed in the opening - a team's two best hitters should hit second and fourth, not third. The third place hitter comes up too often with the bases empty and two outs. If he's hitting fourth, he will either lead off the second inning where his on base percentage will help or he will come up with men on base that he can drive in in the first inning .
Nelson Cruz comes next in his perfect spot. The five hole is ideal for a slugger who posts relatively low on base percentages. Cruz fits nicely here to drive in runners who get on base in front of him. You may notice that I have Cruz at DH, even though Showalter said he's going to play left field against lefties. The way I figure it, this is my take on how to optimize the lineup so I'm not holding myself to what Showalter plans to do. Cruz has been a poor defender in right field in Texas, and I wouldn't expect him to get any better playing a new position in a new ballpark as he gets older. I'd prefer Pearce in left field to Cruz. In an ideal world, Cruz is the full time Designated Hitter.
Wieters has a career .360 wOBA versus lefties so he comes next. If Wieters could ever learn to hit righties the same way he hits lefties, he'd be a star. Unfortunately, he hasn't solved that riddle yet. Some analysts have suggested he give up switch hitting and at some point it could be worth a shot. As a natural right handed hitter, he may be able to improve his line against righties. Hardy has a career .349 wOBA versus lefties so he comes next. He has been much better against lefties throughout his career, as you'd expect from a right handed hitter.
In a surprise, Jonathan Schoop has made the final 25 man roster. Since he's on the team he should be playing against left handers. It's likely he's going to struggle against righties somewhat, but he should be able to be effective from the get go against lefties. Lombardozzi bats last in this lineup because he's expected to be the team's weakest hitter. He's only filling in for Machado here, and I wouldn't expect him to keep his spot in the lineup when Machado gets back.
Overall, the Orioles can run out a very strong lineup against left handers with balance and a lot of power. Left handers are going to have a tough time coming into Camden Yards this season.
Here is my lineup against opposing right handed starters:
The top of the lineup against righties is the same as it was against lefties. Nick Markakis and his .360 career OBP should still lead off. He is likely to have the highest OBP on the team outside of Chris Davis, who obviously shouldn't lead off. Adam Jones remains in the two hole. His production doesn't fall off against righties (unless they have a good slider they can start on the outside corner of the plate). He's actually been better against right handers throughout his career. I'm not sure that's actually his true talent, but that's what he's shown. He's less likely to take a walk against a righty but his ISO is about .060 points higher against them.
Cruz is not the ideal number three hitter, but he is the best option the team has. Similar to Adam Jones, he's less likely to draw a walk against a righty but has shown better power numbers against them. Chris Davis stays in the clean up spot; this is really where he should bat in the lineup every day. Davis was incredible all year in 2013, but if you narrow down his season to only facing right handers his numbers turn from great to unbelievable. Against righties last year he hit .316/.415/.728. That equates to a .473 wOBA and a 203 wRC+. Wow.
If you believe in the theory of lineup protection, this is where you may argue with this lineup. Thankfully, I don't think it makes a difference so I don't have to worry about J.J. Hardy batting behind Davis. If teams want to walk Davis, that's fine. He'll still get plenty of opportunities to hit and the walks will help the team. Every study done on lineup protection has found that it's a myth. Until I see a study that proves differently, I'm not going to worry about lineup protection. Hardy struggles somewhat against right handed pitching but he's got good power regardless.
It was tough to find the right spot for David Lough to hit. He hasn't been a great hitter in his major league career so far, as most of his value is accrued on the defensive side of the ball. But based on his minor league numbers, I think there's still a little more production potentially there for him. He can start the season in the sixth spot, but there's certainly potential for him to move up in the lineup.
Wieters has been much worse against right handers throughout his career, culminating in the 65 wRC+ he put up against them in 2013. It could be argued that he should hit even lower in the lineup. All of Steve Clevenger's playing time should come when the opposing starter is a right hander. It just doesn't make sense to remove Wieters' bat from the lineup against lefties. Clevenger is a left handed hitter which would also give him the platoon advantage in these situations.
Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Schoop round out the bottom of the lineup. The two of them are fighting for the second base job when Machado returns to claim third base. If Schoop hits early in the season, you have to think that he'll keep the job and Flaherty will return to his utility role. If Flaherty outhits Schoop by a sizable margin, we could see Flaherty take over the second base job with Schoop heading back to AAA for more seasoning. For now, Flaherty will hit eighth and Schoop ninth to create a left-right-left-right with the bottom of the order rolling over.
This would have been a much easier exercise if I had included Machado in both of the lineups. I probably would've batted him third in both lineups. Pearce would've moved down to seventh against lefties and Cruz would've moved down to fifth against righties. Everyone else would just move down a slot.
Optimizing lineups is always fun to talk about even though it probably wouldn't make a huge difference either way in the standings. As long as J.J. Hardy doesn't bat 2nd, we really don't have too much to gripe about.
What do you think you think of the two lineups I put together? What would your optimal lineup be? We'll see what Buck thinks soon as the Orioles open the season against LHP Jon Lester and the Red Sox. I'll post the lineup in the comments as soon as it's released.