Here, presented without any commentary, are the combined statistics for the nine slots in the Royals’ lineup. Take a minute to look it over and see what stands out to you:
There are a lot of conclusions one can draw from those numbers, but I think it’s safe to say that the first thing most of you will notice is this: the Royals’ worst lineup slot this season has been their leadoff hitter.
Or to put it another way, the guy in the lineup who bats the most has also been the guy in the lineup who hits the worst.
There has been a lot of research done on the optimum way to build a lineup, as well as on just how important it is to have an optimum lineup in the first place. Most analysts agree that the difference between the absolute best possible lineup and a poorly-constructed one is rarely more than 20 or 30 runs. On the other hand, 1) 20 or 30 runs means two or three wins, which can be the difference between first and second place; 2) the majority of the difference can be had by prioritizing a few simple things.
The first thing to prioritize is this: let your best hitters bat more often.
The next thing to prioritize is this: put the hitters who get on base ahead of the hitters who can drive them in.
So far this year, in 41 games, the Royals’ worst hitter has batted most often. More than that, the Royals’ leadoff hitter has reached base less often than every other spot in the lineup. That’s an impressive trick. The Royals’ leadoff hitter has a .281 OBP, which is Yuniesque. The Royals don’t lack for hitters who can drive in runners – indeed, the #2 through #7 spots in the lineup all have higher slugging averages than the AL mean. What they lack is the hitter who gets on base ahead of them.
(Amazingly enough, two AL teams – the Orioles (.279) and Rays (.277) have lower OBPs from the leadoff spot. It’s still nothing to be proud of.)
It’s been a group effort from the leadoff spot. Chris Getz has led off 19 times, and has hit .181/.274/.236. Getz isn’t hitting from any spot in the lineup, and one can only hope that the Royals’ insistence that he’s a major-league caliber second baseman is starting to weaken. Mike Aviles has started 15 times, and while he’s a good hitter, he’s woefully ill-suited for the leadoff spot – he’s hitting .203/.253/.420. (Jarrod Dyson has started six times, and is 3-for-20.)
The one thing that the leadoff hitters have brought collectively is speed – they are a perfect 13-for-13 in steal attempts, while no other lineup spot has more than seven. And if this were 1979, people might even say that it was worth putting up with the low OBP to keep the speed at the top of the lineup. I mean, it worked for Omar Moreno.
We know better now. For one thing, if the ultimate goal of any leadoff hitter is to score runs, we can simply look at the total number of times the leadoff hitter has crossed home plate – and despite all those steals, the Royals’ leadoff hitter has scored just 19 runs in 41 games. That’s a horrific number – the leadoff hitter is on pace to score 75 runs all year, and that’s for a mythical leadoff hitter that plays every inning of every game. And that’s with a well above-average middle of the lineup to drive him in.
Or look at it another way. The only inning in the game where you know exactly who is scheduled to bat is the first inning – a well-constructed lineup should score a higher percentage of its runs in the first inning than in any other inning. In 41 games, the Royals have scored 14 runs in the first inning – 0.34 runs per inning. That’s 35% lower than their average of 0.52 runs per inning. In the second inning – when the middle of the lineup is generally due up – the Royals have scored 24 runs.
By comparison, the Royals’ opponents have scored 36 runs in the first inning. After one inning, the Royals have led just five times, but have trailed 16 times.
Suffice it to say, the Royals have had no success to speak of from the leadoff spot, and this one weakness has led to a dysfunctional offense that has hamstrung the Royals’ ability to score early.
Enter Alex Gordon.
You may recall that when Hosmer was called up, I suggested that he bat leadoff. This led to a discussion with Nate Bukaty and Steven St. John on 810 WHB, with Nate suggesting that for clubhouse reasons it wasn’t practical to lead off with Hosmer, but that you might be able to do it with Gordon. Which was fine with me. At this stage of their careers, Hosmer and Gordon are pretty similar offensive players – left-handed hitters who can hit for a good average, will take a walk, and have power to the gaps if not to the bleachers, and while neither one is a threat for 40 steals, they both have the speed to take the extra base and occasionally catch the opponents napping with a steal.
If anything, from what we’ve seen from Hosmer so far, he probably has more home run power than the re-tooled Gordon. In which case he might be the better candidate for the #3 hole.
Done and done. Tonight’s lineup:
L 7 Gordon
S 8 Cabrera
L 3 Hosmer
R 9 Francoeur
R 0 Butler
S 5 Betemit
R 2 Treanor
L 4 Getz
R 6 Escobar
This isn’t the ideal lineup – any lineup with Getz in it can’t be called “ideal” – but it’s close. In a world without relievers, an ideal lineup would probably have Hosmer batting second – the most controversial finding of lineup analysis, but one I firmly believe, is that you want your best hitter to bat second, not third. But a real lineup has to split up the lefties and righties, and this lineup does that pretty well. I’d flip-flop Betemit and Cabrera – Betemit gets on base more, and if you bat him higher in the lineup, you can get more at-bats out of him before pulling him for defense in the late innings. But otherwise it’s pretty good.
What’s really interesting about the lineup is that Butler has moved down to fifth. I can’t speak to the psychological issues here; if Butler views this as a demotion and pouts, that could be a problem. (Remember, a permanent move to DH combined with a lineup demotion just sparked a huge controversy in New York.) But if Butler is okay with batting fifth, I actually like the move a lot.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, you don’t want a low-OBP slugger in the #5 hole. Why is that? Because the #5 hitter is most likely to lead off the second inning. If Butler doesn’t bat in the first inning, he’s going to bat first or second in the second inning, where his OBP skills come into play. And if he does at in the first inning, it’s likely to be with two outs, which takes his GIDP skills out of play.
This change in the lineup isn’t going to be worth a run a game, or a quarter of a run a game; it might be worth a tenth of a run per game. But every run counts. Teams pay millions of dollars for players who might help them score 10 or 15 runs more per season. Tonight the Royals are getting a similar boost without paying a dime.
So kudos to Ned Yost for doing the unthinkable and listening to the blogs and sports talk radio. (Or coming up with a blog/sports talk radio idea on his own, which would be equally impressive.) Let’s just hope he has the conviction to stick with an unconventional, but more effective, lineup all season.