Yesterday I compared Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantu in an attempt to objectively use the numbers to determine which player was best for the Marlins to keep talent-wise. I know, it was a meaningless exercise to my normal reader(s), but I figured it would be fun to point out that, unless you really valued your RBI, Cantu stood no chance of being better than Uggla.
Still, around Marlins fans you still hear the word “unclutch” (if it can be called a word, I suppose) surrounding Uggla. After all, just look at the season he just had! With runners in scoring position, Uggla batted just .225/.366/.369! When the bags were empty, Mr. Unclutch batteed .244/.343/.515, how typical! He hit 22 home runs with no one on, how fascist! Those home runs just don’t count!
I know, I know, it doesn’t sound right at all. Of course they count. Never mind the fact that, for his career, Uggla slugs just as well with runners on than with bases empty. Yes, his RISP splits are not as good as his bases empty numbers. Of course, those things would take 10,000 or so PA to determine whether the splits were true talent or just random, but fans have no patience for 10,000 PA. Uggla is a choker, right?
Well, here’s the cool thing about that idea. Even if you believe that Uggla has an inherent problem with men on base or in clutch situations, there’s an easy way to solve that problem: leverage Uggla in the lineup. Let me explain.
The Book is a must-read
For those of you who have not yet gotten a copy of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, authored by Tom Tango, Mitchell Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin, go ahead and purchase a copy. It is an astounding piece of writing on the way we understand baseball. The authors each present cases of managerial decisions that we commonly see, then proceed to use objective analysis to determine whether the decisions commonly used are beneficial or otherwise.
One of these decisions analyzed is the batting order, and that’s the chapter and research to which I will refer in this section.
The Rule(s) (which may not be obvious)
The Book lines up a certain set of rules to follow when setting your lineup. We know the rules most managers use: speedy guy at the top, best hitters third and fourth, and so on. In The Book, the rules are laid out differently. First off, before we do anything, we should consider starting by lining up our best hitters one through nine in the lineup. That’s the assumption that the individual slots don’t matter for anything other PA, or opportunities. As we know, managers and most fans would disagree with that, but making a lineup like that is not a whole lot less optimized than building a optimal lineup. According to The Book, the optimal lineup is on the order of 10 runs better than simply assigning more PA to your best players.
OK, now that we established the baseline, let’s look at Rule #1: Your five best hitters are in your first five slots. Your three best hitters should be in the #1, #2, and #4 slots, depending on their style of hitting.
Really? Yes, really. Basically, those three slots, #1, #2, and #4, are important primarily for two reasons, depending on the slot: 1) they get a large share of PA, and/or 2) they see the most runners on base on average. Your #1 hitter gets the most opportunities, but sees the least number of runners in a game because he bats behind inferior hitters and never sees runners in his first PA. Your #4 hitter sees fewer PA, but gets up with more runners on base on average. Your #2 hitter is between these two situations, but because he receives the second most PA, he occupies an important slot.
What’s it to Uggla?
How does this apply to Uggla? Well, we just discussed the supposed problem of hitting with runners on. We also know that Uggla happens to be the most proficient walker on the team, having led the club in walks the last two seasons. Based on that, where should he bat? The Book has a table of average linear weight values for each lineup slot (based on 1999-2002 run environments, but relative measurements should be similar). What does Uggla do best? Considering his power-patience skillset, the obvious answer is hitting home runs (career HR rate of 4.5% HR/PA) and walk (career 10.1% UIBB%). OK, where are those numbers the most valuable? Well, walks are most valuable from your #1 hitter (0.385 runs above average compared to the norma of around 0.32 runs), while HR are most valuable from the #4 slot (1.472 runs compared to the average of around 1.44). Keep in mind that this is based also on the increased number of PA; the #5 slot actually holds a slightly higher HR value without factoring that the #4 slot receives more PA.
But, we know that the reason why the #4 slot holds more home run value is because of the increase in the number of men on base. If we presume that Uggla has some true problem with hitting with men on base, we would expect the value of his home runs to decrease compared to the average value at that slot, perhaps enough to make it a non-ideal slot. Given his ability to maximize his walks, we would want to see an optimal area between one of these three important slots (because it is clear that Uggla is one of the three best hitters on the team) where walks and home runs are most optimized, even after accounting for a deficit in Uggla’s ability with men on base.
That slot could very well be the #2 position. The value of the walk is second highest at the #2 slot, at 0.366 runs. The home run’s value is third highest, at 1.45 runs. There are fewer runners on average for the #2 hitter (on the order of 2.8 runners per game vs. 3.2 for the #4 slot), so we can minimize Uggla’s supposed problem while still being able to take advantage of when he runs into homers or extra base hits when there are men on. In addition, you take advantage of his walks and his ability to not make outs.
There are even tiny advantages outside of those. One of Uggla’s defining characteristics is the strikeout. The cool part about the #2 slot is that it actually optimizes the value of a strikeout compared to the value of other outs! The strikeout is on average worth a little bit more than a normal out, but not so much that it would not be considered the same. In no other slot is the strikeout worth more on average than a non-K out. The reason for this is that #2 hitters face a larger number of situations with a man on first and less than two outs, making the value of a non-K out increase due to the potential for a double play. Of course, because Uggla puts fewer balls in play, this is adequately avoided on average. In addition, Uggla has shown lower rates of GDP because he generally does not put the ball on the ground (career GDP/PA of .013, compared to the 2009 NL average of 0.02), further making the slot advantageous.
But, a comparison would not be fair without pointing out the alternatives. Unfortunately, last year’s alternatives were awful. Chalk it up to Fredi Gonzalez not knowing a thing about lineup construction. The #2 hitters for the Marlins collected a .257/.340/.377 batting line, the second worst non-ninth batting line in our lineup. Of course, most of that was the abomination known as Emilio Bonifacio and his 193 PA of .245/.306/.302 baseball. It could not even be fully redeemd by Nick Johnson’s excellent 129 PA as a Marlin #2 hitter. This year, if Bonifacio wins the the third base job, I would not be surprised if he was the go to option at the #2 slot. The team would be throwing away one of the most important spots in the lineup to its worst hitter by far.
The better option is to move Dan Uggla to the #2 slot. He would likely see less runners, though the quality of runners would be better (Chris Coghlan rather than Jorge Cantu), and if the team and fans really felt like the RISP problems were real, those situations would be far diminished batting second. At the same time, Uggla can get on base, something he does very well, and serve as a competent baserunner for Hanley Ramirez and other boppers to bring home. It’s a perfectly logical solution, which means it will undoubtedly not happen. Thanks, Fredi!