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Building a Better Lineup: How the Padres can Optimize their Batting Order

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Is there a way to increase the Padres’ offense, without overhauling the roster? Let’s find out.

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San Diego Padres v Chicago Cubs
View of bats in a Wrigley Field bat rack during a game between the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres, 20 July 2019.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For much of the last several years, the Padres have had an offense problem. Statistically, they’ve been one of the worst hitting teams in baseball since at least 2014, ranking somewhere in the bottom-5 teams in terms of any substantive offensive category. That’s not exactly surprising; the Padres have been involved in a major roster and farm system rebuild since then; production at the MLB level really only improves once sufficient talent and ability progress to the MLB roster, or gets acquired. With that said, I’ve always had this niggling feeling that the team has left runs off the board, a by-product of their lineup construction. Simply, I’ve felt the team habitually used a lineup construction that didn’t maximize their available talents, while a more data-informed line-up, one focused on maximizing available opportunities based on batting talent, would lead to more runs and wins. Add in a read of Sky Kalkman’s excellent piece over at Beyond the Boxscore, entitled “Optimizing Your Lineup By The Book,” and I was off.

Here’s my basic question: was there a lineup construction that better optimizes the Padres lineup going forward, and what would that lineup look like? For this exercise, I used data provided by Baseball Reference, and MLB’s Baseball Savant Statcast site, in order to make a recommended lineup based on a traditional construction, vs. a more sabermetric-informed, optimized lineup advocated in The Book, by Tom Tango, Mitchell G. Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin. When in doubt, I utilized the ZiPS projections listed on FanGraphs to help inform where a player should slot into my possible 2020 batting order. Like my initial take on the Padres’ Opening Day roster last week, this is more for discussion. Lineup optimization is, by nature, a complex topic, with a range of differing opinions (the biggest reason why, though, is down at the end of this article).

So why optimize a batting order?

The basic idea goes like this: the higher in the order you hit, the more opportunities you’ll have to come to bat in a game. So, according to The Book, a team should put its best hitters in the most optimal positions to get on base and score runs, since they are going to get more opportunities over the course of a season. Obviously, how you do that provides the biggest differences in lineups based on traditional constructs, and the one The Book advocates. So, I’ll also explore what a traditional lineup recommends for each spot in a batting order, vs. The Book’s recommendation, then see who (in my estimation) on the Padres best fits each construct’s take. Obviously, this is all subject to interpretation, so feel free to fire away with your changes down in the comments.

Enough chatter, let’s get to it!

#1 - The Lead-off Man.

Traditional Take: The speedy guy who can also swipe some bases. The guy who can get into scoring position by hitting a single or walking then stealing a bag or 2; everything else is secondary.

The Book’s Take: The lead-off hitter should be one of the best three hitters on the team, maybe the best pure hitter, but lacks homerun power. Speed is nice, but it’s only useful if you can get on-base, so On-base Percentage rules for this spot. The lead-off hitter comes to the plate the most per game, so the basic thought is, why give away outs? Since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, speed is not as important here.

Traditional Construct’s Recommendation: Fernando Tatis, JR, SS. FTJ led the team in sprint speed in 2019, and finished tied for 2nd on the team in stolen bases with 16 despite only playing in 84 games (Wil Myers also had 16 steals, but did that over 155 games). Add in the fact that he had a good batting average, a solid OBP, and has some power, and you’ve got an almost prototypical traditional lead-off hitter.

The Book’s Recommendation: Tommy Pham, LF. Pham’s historically provided solid OBP rates every year, and that’s expected to continue in 2020. His .360+ OBP for 2020 projects to lead the team, the key criteria for a lead-off man, according to The Book. even has solid power with 21 HRs projected in 2020. Add in a good whiff rate (20.2% in 2019, good for #40 out of 156 qualifying batters, which was lower than FTJ’s whiff rate), and you’re looking at a guy who will maximize every at-bat he gets to get on base. Added bonus: he’s even better at getting on-base against lefties. A .467 OBP in 159 ABs in 2019 against LHP? Yes, please!

#2 - The 2-Spot.

Traditional Take: The traditional take is to put a bat-control guy here. Not a great hitter, but someone who can move the lead-off hitter over for one of the next two hitters to drive in. A guy who puts bat to ball consistently, even if it doesn’t always result in hits. Should also be a speedy guy, if possible.

The Book’s Take: Again, one of your best 3 hitters on the team, but because he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player himself. Add in the fact that he comes up more often than the #3 hitter, ideally, the #2 hitter should be a better hitter than the #3 guy.

Traditional Construct’s Recommendation: Eric Hosmer, 1B. Despite a high swing and miss rate in 2019, Hosmer still led the team in batting average (among qualifying batters). His “ability” to put the ball in play, even if on the ground, fits the traditional mentality of moving the lead-off man along and into scoring position. Add in the fact that he’s a lefty bat, and he fills just about every criteria a traditionalist would look for in his #2 hitter, minus some speed.

The Book’s Recommendation: Fernando Tatis, JR, SS. Despite playing in only 84 games in 2019, FTJ would’ve posted the highest batting average, OBP, and SLG percentage on the team, if he had enough qualifying at bats. Even if we account for regression in 2020 (which I am), FTJ still projects to slash .281/.346/.512 in 2020, according to ZiPS. Simply, FTJ is likely the team’s 2nd or 3rd best hitter overall, possessing a potent blend of power, contact-ability, and speed, ideal for the #2 spot in an optimized lineup.

#3 - The 3-Hole.

Traditional Take: This is where your best high-average hitter takes his cuts (hence why Tony Gwynn took the majority of his at-bats here). Ideally, the lead-off hitter is already in scoring position by the time the #3 man comes to the plate, and should only need a solid hit to drive him in. By that logic, it makes sense to slot in the guy most likely to record a hit.

The Book’s Take: The Book says the #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters, and so should likely be a worse hitter than those behind him. So why focus on putting a guy who can knock in runs in the #3 spot, when the 2 spots after him can benefit from it more? When possible, he should still be a solid OBP guy, to give the #4 hitter someone to drive in.

Traditional Construct’s Recommendation: Tommy Pham, LF. Pham had a .273 batting average in 2019, which would have led the Padres in 2019 (among qualifying batters). Add in his decent speed and a low whiff rate, and he’s a solid pick for a traditional 3rd spot, especially with FTJ batting lead-off ahead of him.

The Book’s Recommendation: Francisco Mejia, C. Obviously, I’m seeing Mejia as more the hitter he was in the 2nd half of 2019, rather than the 1st half. If he is, he becomes the 3rd Padre batter in a row that can reach base at a .340 or better clip. Even if he only reaches at his projected .299 OBP, his ability to hit just about anything thrown at him makes him likely the team’s 5th best hitter, and therefore suited for the #3 spot, according to The Book.

#4 - The Cleanup Hitter.

Traditional Take: This is your big power bat, the guy with a low batting average but who can smash any ball thrown into the next county.

The Book’s Take: The #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots, but is equal in importance to the #2 hole once you consider the #2 guy receives more plate appearances. The cleanup hitter is the best hitter on the team, with power.

Traditional Construct’s Recommendation: Wil Myers, RF. Despite Wil’s high swing and miss rate, he still ranked 3rd on the team in barrel rate in 2019, behind now former Padres Franmil Reyes and Hunter Renfroe. By the traditional view, he’s ideal for this spot in the lineup: a guy with big swing ability that can send any pitch out of the park at any time.

The Book’s Recommendation: Manny Machado, 3B. Despite a slight downturn in offensive production in 2019, Machado still remains a dangerous hitter. Manny also had the highest xwOBA (a stat that measures a batter’s overall skill instead of production) on the Padres in 2019 among qualifying batters, and projects to rebound nicely in 2020 with a .270/.337/.490 slash with around 30 HRs and 100 RBI. While FTJ projects to be even better by slash-line, I’m giving Manny the edge based on his history, and his higher projected power.

#5 - The “Back-up” Cleanup Hitter.

Traditional Take: Traditionally, the almost-cleanup hitter. Ideally, a batter that opposing pitchers fear/respect, just a little less than the cleanup batter. You want a batter that “protects” the cleanup hitter by being a “tough” out, thereby forcing the pitcher to throw strikes to the cleanup hitter instead of walking him.

The Book’s Take: The #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homers. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

Traditional Construct’s Recommendation: Manny Machado, 3B. Machado is not the pure power hitter Myers is, but his ability to work counts and drive a ball makes him an ideal #5 hitter in a traditional view, forcing the pitcher to throw to the clean-up batter.

The Book’s Recommendation: Trent Grisham, CF. You know I’m high on Grisham. I think his skillset is exactly what the Padres need on offense, in that he gets on-base at a solid clip, and has the hit launch angle and speed to turn singles into doubles, and doubles into triples (but not necessarily live and die on homers, based on exit velocity). This is exactly the kind of batter The Book calls for in the 5th spot, a position where, according to the math, you want the 4th best batter in your lineup. Grisham’s projected 2020 slash backs that up: .240/.342/.430 with 76 BBs and 20 HRs.

#6-9 - Everybody else.

Traditional Take: The rest of the lineup goes based on decreasing talent/slugging ability. Hitting ninth is reserved for your worst hitter (hence why the pitcher in the National League generally bats 9th).

The Book’s Take: The Book basically agrees with the traditional take, with a caveat. Guys who can steal bases become more valuable ahead of high-contact singles hitters, who are more likely to hit at the bottom of the lineup. So a base-stealing threat who doesn’t deserve a spot higher in the lineup is optimized in the #6 hole, followed by the singles hitters.

Traditional Construct’s Recommendation: #6: Francisco Mejia, C; #7: Trent Grisham, CF; #8: Greg Garcia/Jurickson Profar, 2B; #9: Pitcher.

The Book’s Recommendation: #6: Wil Myers, RF; #7: Greg Garcia/Jurickson Profar, 2B; #8: Eric Hosmer; #9: Pitcher. Here, I placed Wil Myers and his speed ahead of nominal contact hitters Garcia/Profar and Hosmer. Ideally, I’d replace Hosmer at 1B with Josh Naylor, and move Naylor and his solid contact skills to the #7 spot, while I’d replace Myers with Franchy Cordero in the #6 spot, but we all know that ain’t going to happen, at least not until the team realizes that Myers and Hosmer likely represent sunk costs.

To sum up, here’s how each lineup looks:

Traditional:

#1: Fernando Tatis, JR - SS
#2: Eric Hosmer - 1B
#3: Tommy Pham - LF
#4: Wil Myers - RF
#5: Manny Machado - 3B
#6: Francisco Mejia - C
#7: Trent Grisham - CF
#8: Greg Garcia/Jurickson Profar - 2B
#9: Pitcher

The Book:

#1: Tommy Pham - LF
#2: Fernando Tatis, JR - SS
#3: Francisco Mejia - C
#4: Manny Machado - 3B
#5: Trent Grisham - CF
#6: Wil Myers - RF
#7: Greg Garcia/Jurickson Profar - 2B
#8: Eric Hosmer - 1B
#9: Pitcher

Final Thoughts: If you’re looking for a simple take-away according to The Book, here’s how the lineup spots rank in importance in terms of avoiding outs/maximizing opportunities: #1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9.

Based on The Book, your best three hitters hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots, emphasizing OBP over Slugging Percentage when possible. Pure speedsters move down in the lineup, in front of your singles hitters, to maximize their speed on the basepaths. Same goes for power hitters without much contact ability, as you want to limit the chance their K-rate squanders a man on-base.

One thing I noticed is that, in the past, the Padres didn’t strictly adhere to either of these constructs, thereby proving my initial thoughts wrong. Instead, it appears former manager Andy Green placed players where they seemed most comfortable/have historically hit, rather than where their skills best suited them. This matches up with Green’s rep, in that he often deferred to his players, especially as veterans like Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer joined the team.

While it’s too early to say how Jayce Tingler will construct his batting order, here’s hoping that whatever approach he uses, it gets the Padres above .500 ball, and maybe into the playoffs. However, I should caveat all this by saying that the difference in batting orders only provides a minimal benefit. Statistically, an lineup “optimized” like what The Book advocates for likely only produces about about 10-15 more runs than a traditional batting order (which equals roughly 1+ wins more) over the course of a SEASON. It’s obviously worth doing, especially if 1-2 wins is the difference between contending for a playoff spot, or staying home. It’s especially important in a playoff series. However, it’s not something to argue over extensively, as it’s not the make-or-break decision some folks make it out to be.