Has the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup been optimized?


The Pittsburgh Pirates started out their 2015 campaign with a painful trio of losses to the division rival Cincinnati Reds. It certainly wasn’t the most dreadful looking sweep, and there’s no real cause for concern, but it did open my eyes to one thing in particular.

Two of the main reasons for the Pirates woes were the likes of Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton, the Reds 1-2 hitters. Hamilton reached based seven times on four hits, stealing six bases and scoring four runs while Votto went 5/14 with a home run and 4 runs batted in right behind him. Todd Frazier‘s four hit, two homer, four RBI performance didn’t help the Pirates either, but the 1-2 punch dynamic is what I want to focus on here.

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While the top of the Reds lineup was feasting on Pirates pitching, the Bucs 1-2 (Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco) couldn’t get a whole lot going. J-Hay went 3/12 with two runs scored while El Coffee collected four hits in his 13 at-bats with a lone run batted in (although he was responsible for another run on a misplay by Zack Cozart in game three that didn’t get marked as an RBI).

Statistically, you can’t draw any conclusions from three games. However, to me it raised this question: Should the Pirates be batting Andrew McCutchen second in the lineup instead of third?

Most people will probably brush off that question, quickly raising the argument that it’s common sense that teams should bat their best hitter in the three or four spot in the lineup, depending on his makeup. The two spot is meant for contact guys who can bunt (I know how much you Pirates fans love bunting) and move runners around, not elite hitters. But what if you were wrong?

Smarter people than I have done studies on lineup optimization. One of the most popular articles on this topic was written by Sky Kalkman in 2009. You can read the full article here, but his main conclusion was this:

"Another way to look at things is to order the batting slots by the leveraged value of the out. In plain English (sort of), we want to know how costly making an out is by each lineup position, based on the base-out situations they most often find themselves in, and then weighted by how often each lineup spot comes to the plate. Here’s how the lineup spots rank in the importance of avoiding outs:#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9So, you want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. Finally, stop talking like the lineup is a make-or-break decision."

I would like to emphasize Sky’s final sentence in that quote. Having an optimal batting order versus having the worst possible batting order won’t make a significant difference over the course of a season. Simulations have shown that the difference between those two is about 15 runs a season (about 1.5 wins), but not everyone agrees with that. Personally I think disagreeing with pure mathematics is the equivalent of believing in the boogie man, but just because I haven’t met the guy doesn’t mean he’s not real, I suppose.

Has Clint Hurdle heard all of the above and thought about it before making his lineups? Chances are he has, and he certainly has a better (and yet, older) baseball mind than I do. The true optimal lineup would include 9 McCutchens, and then all of this would be moot, but that just can’t happen. For right now, the Pirates don’t have another hitter that rivals McCutchen in his all-around ability. That can make it challenging to take him out of that three hole as fear that there is no one else that can bat third arises.  Starling Marte could certainly negate those sentences by year’s end, but he’s not there yet. To fully complete my argument, here’s an example of what a lineup might look like if this change were adopted:

1) Josh Harrison, 3B
2) Andrew McCutchen, CF
3) Gregory Polanco, RF
4) Starling Marte, LF
5) Neil Walker, 2B
6) Pedro Alvarez, 1B
7) Francisco Cervelli, C
8) Jordy Mercer, SS
9) Pitcher

If I were the Pirates manager, I don’t know if I would make any changes. After all, what the Pirates got from their number two spot in 2014 wasn’t so bad (.278/.337/.417 with 16 HR and 78 RBI from that spot in the lineup). However, I wouldn’t miss the frustration that comes with McCutchen batting with two out and nobody on as often as he does.

I’m not suggesting the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup is the wrong one, and I’m definitely not suggesting that it’s really costing them if they are, but it’s something to think about. I’d love to hear some discussion about this, so comment below with your thoughts.

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