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The best lineup the 2017 Orioles can use

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Spring training is now less than a month away, so it’s time to start thinking about the best lineup the Orioles can field.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees
If the O’s want to field their best lineup - against righties, anyway - Hyun Soo Kim should lead off.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Modern baseball thinking has two broad thoughts when it comes to constructing a lineup. The first is that there is a particular ideal way to build a team’s lineup. The second is that the difference between an optimal lineup and a different one is small, so it doesn’t matter all that much.

That second point is good news for the Orioles, because they didn’t make the best use of their lineup in the 2016 season. Last season’s leadoff hitter, Adam Jones, performed better than you might have expected in that role, but he still has no business being a leadoff hitter. He simply doesn’t get on base enough.

The Orioles used 125 different batting orders in 162 regular season games, so it’s hard to say that they had one favorite exact lineup, but there were definite trends that repeated, including Jones as the leadoff hitter in the majority of games. The lineup they used most frequently only covered nine games. It still looks fairly typical:

  1. Adam Jones - CF
  2. Hyun Soo Kim - LF
  3. Manny Machado - 3B
  4. Chris Davis - 1B
  5. Mark Trumbo - RF
  6. Pedro Alvarez - DH
  7. Matt Wieters - C
  8. Jonathan Schoop - 2B
  9. J.J. Hardy - SS

Unless something changes unexpectedly between now and the start of the season, Trumbo, Alvarez, and Wieters will all not be back, so there is plenty of room to shake things up. Hopefully, the Orioles will avail themselves of the opportunity to do so.

A lot of the thinking of what is the optimal baseball lineup comes from a book simply called “The Book.” If you’re interested, you can find a longer summary of its thoughts on each lineup spot on Beyond the Box Score. Here is a shorter version still:

Put your best OBP guy in the leadoff spot. Have your best overall hitter bat second. The hitter with the most power should be the cleanup hitter. And in general, put better hitters higher up so they have more opportunities to bat in a game.

It all boils down to getting people on base for the power hitters, so that if they hit a home run, it’s not a solo home run. The 2016 O’s were heavily reliant on power and the 2017 Orioles figure to be the same way. They don’t rely on speed or stolen bases.

This is not a new philosophy for Birdland. As Earl Weaver once said before I was even born - he put it more colorfully - you get the big guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark and you can’t make any mistakes. Even without Trumbo and Alvarez, that’s definitely still the Orioles.

So who should go where? Some choices are easy. Their best OBP player on the 2016 team was, by far, Kim, with a .382 OBP. Their best hitter overall was Manny Machado, so he can bat second. The more times Machado bats, the better that is for the Orioles.

Power for the cleanup spot is pretty easy too. Put Davis there. Although he had a down year at the plate in 2016, perhaps due to the mystery hand injury that he played through for a lot of the year, he still managed to hit 38 home runs. I believe he is capable of better in the upcoming season. It’ll be tough to top 38 home runs, but he should hit for a better average and OBP.

The Book suggests the next-best hitter available should go in the #5 spot, rather than the #3 spot, because the #5 spot is more likely to bat in key situations than the #3 hitter. The exception is if this hitter “lives or dies with the long ball.” Of course, that describes a lot of veteran Orioles.

On the other hand, new Oriole Seth Smith sounds like a good #5 hitter. Jones can then bat third, where his power can be a factor if he bats with Kim or Machado on base ahead of him, or he might get on base himself for Davis to homer him in.

Hardy probably remains the #9 hitter no matter what happens. That leaves us with Welington Castillo, Jonathan Schoop, and a designated hitter who at this moment is probably Trey Mancini.

Who bats where out of that trio doesn’t matter a whole lot. I don’t expect manager Buck Showalter to put Mancini higher than #8 until he has more of a track record. That’s fair enough. For this exercise, I’ll put Castillo ahead of Schoop as he’s less of a boom-or-bust hitter. Which gets us this lineup:

  1. Hyun Soo Kim - LF
  2. Manny Machado - 3B
  3. Adam Jones - CF
  4. Chris Davis - 1B
  5. Seth Smith - RF
  6. Welington Castillo - C
  7. Jonathan Schoop - 2B
  8. Trey Mancini - DH
  9. J.J. Hardy - SS

Showalter might not run out a lineup that looks exactly like this because he seems to value staggering his lefties in the lineup. Davis and Smith are both left-handed batters. I’m less concerned with that because pretty much everybody on the Orioles is bad at hitting against lefties anyway.

That’s probably only the lineup against right-handed pitchers. The O’s seemed determined to have Kim avoid LHP last season. Will that continue this year? Smith is not good against lefties either.

The Orioles roster is simply not constructed to platoon both left field and right field. They would need to either sign someone else, or do something weird that’s probably bad, like have a corner outfield against lefties consisting of Christian Walker and Joey Rickard. Even writing that sentence made me wince.

If Kim does play against lefties, should he lead off? Even if he should, he probably will not. If last year is any indication, the O’s will face a lefty starter in 25-30% of their games. They don’t really have a good “against lefties” lineup configuration.

The good news is that the Orioles didn’t have an optimal against lefties lineup last year and they still went 23-23 in games started by LHP. This despite the absolute worst OPS against lefties in the AL.

That’s not a one year fluke. The Orioles were also the worst by OPS against LHP in 2015 and had a 22-23 record in games where they faced a lefty starter. That’s not great, but it’ll work if the team is crushing righties, which they did last year and hopefully will do again this year.

Of course, all of this assumes that the Orioles don’t make any more signings and that nobody gets hurt. Neither of those assumptions are likely to play out. At least it’s a starting point.