Managing Lineups, and the Value of Patient Hitters

With my post of a week back “Managing is About Winning GAMES” , I questioned the idea that a manager’s job was to treat a lineup like a collection of interchangeable parts, instead of the synergistic system it is. And I went further, and was not kind to Alphonso Soriano, and might even have overstated my case a little bit. Wrigleyville23 wasn’t happy.

So I re-read the post, thinking that maybe I wasn’t as clear as I could have been on the real point behind it, or that I overstated it too much. But it still seems pretty clear to me.

By thinking about it some more, though, it did allow me to step back and examine this whole issue again, because there is a lot of controversy about baseball stats these days. Especially around OBP, and how it helps teams win games. So here’s my take on that.

The point of the previous post was this: my contention was that manipulating your lineup in order to maximize one player’s stats will not necessarily lead to more average runs per game for the entire team. What Joe Morgan, and Jon Miller, and Lou Pinniella, and every other defender of Bobby Bonds and Alfonso Soriano are trying to assert, I think, is that, of course it will lead to more average runs per game. And it is therefore, ipso facto, a smart move by the manager. So obvious, so intuitive, so beyond discussion.

I’m here, then, to ask if it is actually true or not.

Maybe it is one of those “yes, sometimes, but …” questions. Which would mean that a manager focused primarily on winning would have to look beyond the question of where a given player produces best in the lineup, and look to see which lineup results in the most runs per game for the team. Or even better, what lineup leads to the biggest run differential per game, in order to appropriately factor in the defense that those 8 players have to supply, as well.

Otherwise, you’re just managing in a fantasy league.

The reason I ask is because lineups are synergistic. It’s easy to lose sight of this when focusing too much on individual stats. A lineup is not just an aggregated bunch of discrete stats, from individual players, that all get added together at the end.

This is easy enough to show. Anybody who knows baseball knows that the hitter gets different pitches to hit depending on the situation in the game. Baseball is a very dynamic game; this is one of the beautiful things about it, of course.

The hitter has many advantages that they can exploit if they are smart about the approach they take. Failure to exploit those advantages swings the odds way over to the pitcher, and should generally lead to fewer runs for the offense. And even more important, the choices made by hitters on any given pitch can greatly influence the next pitch they see, and therefore greatly affect the chances of scoring runs on that next pitch. It actually is that dynamic of a game.

Michael Lewis had a really good breakdown of how this works in “Moneyball”. I’ll make a lame attempt to summarize it from memory here, with my own spin added in. But it really is basic baseball, which has just been obscured a little bit over the years, with blind devotion to individual stats.

The most obvious way to illustrate this point is to examine two scenarios, the simplest scenarios, both with nobody on base, but with two different hitters: say, Fukudome and Soriano.

Soriano, because of his generally impatient, free-swinging ways, tends to get behind 0-2 frequently because he expands his strike zone too much before he gets to two strikes. He treats every swing as if the pitcher has the advantage of already having two strikes on him, and by expanding the zone like that, cedes a large advantage to the pitcher. The pitcher knows Soriano will swing at anything within 6 inches of the zone. So, first of all, why throw it in the zone at all? Throw the first two pitches a little outside or a little high, and watch him spin. Then, since Soriano treats every swing like strike two, he also tries to hit anything in the zone, whether ready for it or not: inside, outside, up, down, breaking pitch, fastball, whatever. This is pretty hard to do, and makes the hitter swing wildly at times, often off-balance. When he does guess right, of course, he hits it hard, and his value during those at-bats is obvious. But he reduces his own effectiveness by his decision-making on strike one and two.

And then when you’re 0-2, and the pitcher knows you chase curve balls routinely, but swing too hard because you try to kill every pitch, and so you can’t hit them … guess what pitch you’re going to get?

It isn’t rocket science. Pitchers and catchers know who chases pitches outside the zone, and who doesn’t. They know who is undisciplined, and who isn’t. They know who can’t hit an outside curve, or a curve in the dirt, and who can. And they take advantage of it, on every pitch. Sometimes, because pitchers aren’t 100% perfect, they make mistakes, and leave a pitch right down the middle that was supposed to be inside (or low), and a player like Soriano will eat his lunch. On that one pitch.

But good pitchers paired with smart catchers will usually outsmart an undisciplined hitter. And therefore, that undisciplined hitter, by refusing to adopt an approach at the plate that increases their odds of getting good pitches to hit, is hurting the team.

Fukudome, on the other hand, rarely swings at either of the first two pitches, and often gets ahead 2-0. By doing this, he quite likely changes the pitch selection he is going to get on each successive pitch in the AB, increasing the likelihood of getting a fastball, which is every hitter’s first choice, in every situation. But even better, he doesn’t overswing, so when he gets a pitch he likes, he almost always makes contact, and does not try to pull outside pitches, often plunking them into left field. And until he gets to two strikes, he can shrink his strike zone down to, say, just the inner half of the plate, especially with a runner on first, and ignore pitches not in that zone.

When you guess “inside”, and you are prepared to hit such a pitch, and then you get one, hitting becomes much easier. If however you guess “inside” but you get an outside pitch, your likelihood of getting a base hit is much, much lower. So until you have two strikes, you do not swing at that pitch. A called strike is better than a weak grounder to short, no?

So by breaking down the strike zone into “mini-strike-zones”, and by waiting until strike two to chase anything that is a strike, you swing all the advantages around to yourself instead of just handing them to the pitcher.

And presto, just by using your brain, and making better decisions, you have made yourself a better hitter, and a better team player.

Of course, Ted Williams taught the same basic system decades ago. He went to the trouble of producing a graphic and a poster with this mapping of his mini-strike zones. Note that the lower right – the “low and away” part for a left-handed hitter – is color coded gray, meaning ‘crappy’. It’s a technical term, I think.

And of course, if you add men on base to the above scenarios, the potential benefits go even higher. Baserunners force the pitcher to throw more fastballs, generally speaking. Which opens up new opportunities for the hitter. And, every extra baserunner not only forces the pitcher to throw more pitches, which then gets them out of the game quicker, it also forces the defense to adjust in ways that can be advantageous to the hitter. And it makes everybody, from the pitcher to the manager, think more, because there are more factors to consider on any given pitch, and this is always to the offense’s advantage.

It all boils down to this: putting as much pressure as possible on the pitching and the defense, pitch by pitch, out by out. It’s what high OBP baseball is all about.

So I guess my take is this: I’m more interested in whether Ted Williams would think Soriano was a good hitter than in what various baseball “experts” of today think. Call me kooky!

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