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Shifts in Lineup Construction and the 2018 Phillies

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The recent acquisition of Carlos Santana raised a number of questions among Phillies fans:

  • why now? (this team isn’t ready to compete, let’s see what the kids can do!)
  • why him? (.249 average? really?)
  • why that position? (I thought we were set at first base, we need starting pitching!)
  • where will he bat? (he’s obviously here to provide protection for Hoskins, right?)

We’ll just focus on that last one for this discussion. It’s true that in a bygone era (1980s, ‘90s, even the early 2000s), someone with Santana’s build and hitting profile would most likely bat 5th or 6th. A serviceable bat dangerous enough to make pitchers think a bit before pitching around the middle of the order guys, but not good enough to insert in those marquee 3-4 spots reserved for the “best hitter” and the “RBI guy”.

All of which has and will vary depending on the rest of a team’s personnel. Santana himself has spent the most time in the cleanup spot, and second most in the 5th spot.

But a look at his career splits highlights a recent trend. The spot he has batted in third-most in his career is leadoff. Teams have been increasingly more willing to make getting on base a priority at the top of the lineup, and not worry much about “clogging the bases”.

In fact, new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler’s comments on the matter, which were the subject of this piece, indicate Santana may be hitting near the top of the order:

— Kapler said he has yet to decide where Santana fits into his lineup. Kapler noted that Santana spent some time batting leadoff while in Cleveland, but could fit just as well in the No. 2 or No. 3 hole with the Phillies.

The Phillies already have a hitter in Cesar Hernandez who is very good at getting on base, and will mostly likely lead off next season, if he’s still here. Even if he’s traded, someone like Odubel Herrera or J.P. Crawford may be more likely to lead off for the 2018 Phils.

One other recent shift in lineups is to move your best hitters up slightly. The graphs below show overall hitting in the NL for each spot in the order since 2002, using wRC+ (wRC+ is the comprehensive stat wOBA normalized for each season’s offensive level, with 100 being average). The 1-4 spots include dotted trend lines.

Here we see that as recently as the early 2000s there was very clear separation between the 3-4 spots, who tended to be a team’s two best hitters, and everyone else, including the 1-2 spots.

However since then, that gap has been closing. Third, and (especially) fourth hitters have been getting worse, on average. Meanwhile the lead-off and second spots have gradually been getting better, and share a very similar trend line.

Note: all numbers and graphs below, and in particular league averages, are for position players only and exclude pitchers.

Given these trends, it’s not surprising that a lineup’s power generation has also been moving up. Rather than just looking at home runs, a better measure of “pop” is Isolated Power (ISO), which is simply the difference between a player’s slugging percentage and their batting average, and so it measures extra bases per at bat. The graphs below use ISO+, which takes each position’s ISO and compares it to the league overall, with 100 equating to the league average.

Ruth and Gehrig roll over in their graves as both the 3 and (especially) 4 spots have been losing power, while the 1-2 spots have been gaining it. The 2 hole, once the domain of the slap hitting, sacrifice bunting, bat handler, is now the home of a variety of hitters, and on average its power is almost at the level of the league overall:

These changes are presumably due at least in part to research on optimizing the lineup that was done over a decade ago by Tango/Lichtman/Dolphin for The Book, summarized here: Optimizing Your Lineup By The Book. For example:

The Two Hole

The old-school book says 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.

The Book says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player. Doesn't sound like someone who should be sacrificing, does it?

So, what does all this mean for the 2018 Phillies?

If Hernandez is still here, it may mean something like this to start the season, at least vs. right-handed starters:

1. Hernandez
2. Santana
3. Herrera
4. Hoskins
5. Altherr/Williams
6. Franco
7. Crawford
8. Alfaro

Or, flip Herrera and Altherr/Williams, perhaps depending on which right fielder is in the lineup that day.

Or, flip Hoskins to 2nd with Santana 4th, if Hoskins continues being the team’s best hitter.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how Kapler structures the lineup, and how much he veers from traditional roles (guessing “quite a bit”).

We will get our first peek at that 57 days from today, when the Phillies host their annual game against the University of Tampa’s Spartans.