Opening Day lineup impact

Updated: April 1, 2014, 4:25 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Monday was an Opening Day of unexpected lineup positioning: Austin Jackson batting fifth? Wil Myers second? Grady Sizemore sixth?

Fantasy owners often overreact to these seemingly puzzling lineup machinations, perhaps drawing from memories of 20th-century lineup construction. You know that outdated mindset: Speedster bats first, handles-bat-well bats second, batting-average-guy bats third, home run hitter bats cleanup.

No matter how many times we -- and especially the sabermetrically inclined -- insist it, it bears repeating each and every season: Lineup construction doesn't matter. Or, at least, it carries nowhere near the weight people think it does.

Simply put, a hitter's position in the lineup carries influence in two regards: One, it impacts the number of trips he makes to the plate; and two, depending upon how close he's slotted to the strongest (or weakest) members of the batting order, his counting-number contributions (specifically runs and RBIs) shift from one column to another.

Addressing each of those individually, and examining statistics from the 2011 to 2013 seasons combined, here are the key takeaways:

You want batters to hit as high in the lineup as possible

Depending upon your perspective, this is either obvious or somewhat puzzling, since some believe that leading off depresses a hitter's RBI total without any other significant statistical gain. While the former is true -- hitting first greatly increases the chances of a hitter having the three worst members of the lineup batting directly ahead of him -- hitting first results in a massive boost in overall opportunities (i.e. trips to the plate), and even an ill-equipped leadoff man can fall into a healthy number of runs simply by the increased number of PAs.

You want Nos. 3-5 hitters if it's RBIs that you seek, Nos. 1 and 2 if you want runs

Again, obvious, but that's mostly because major league teams still convince themselves that their best power hitters -- even if also capable batsmen or on-base specialists -- need to bat third to fifth. Until we see more radical lineup-construction strategies take hold, that's not going to change.

You should never fear the No. 2 hitter. In fact, the No. 2 hole might be the most advantageous spot in the entire lineup (especially in the American League)

To illustrate this, examine the chart below, which addresses all three of these points. The key beneath explains each of the headers, but for further clarification: The "PA/162" column shows how hitting higher in the lineup helps; these are the average plate appearances that major league teams accrued from each lineup spot. And the "RBI/H" and "R/TOB" columns show how runs and RBI production is influenced by batting in specific spots; they are the rates (not totals) at which these statistics were accrued by lineup spot.

It's that No. 2 lineup spot that stands out: Though its RBI rate is low, consider the context that it slots two places behind the pitcher, which on average is the worst hitting position in baseball. What might ease your mind about your players slotting second is that No. 2 hitters in American League games managed a 0.374 RBI/H rate, hardly on par with those of the Nos. 3-5 spots but competitive with any of the others. Plus, couple that AL number with the slot's R/TOB rate and it actually had the fourth-best combined production of the nine, behind the Nos. 3-5 spots and only five points behind the No. 5 spot. There's nothing wrong with having your hitter slotted second; in fact, in the AL it's particularly advantageous because of the larger number of PAs.

By the way, the players who accrued those statistics need to be considered, as the seven players to appear in at least 100 games as a No. 2 hitter in 2013 were Manny Machado (154), Torii Hunter (138), Jean Segura (120), Elvis Andrus (116), Daniel Murphy (113), Marco Scutaro (110) and Shane Victorino (107), none of whom managed greater than 17 home runs or a .466 slugging percentage (both of those by Hunter). That major league teams still bat speedsters, contact or line-drive hitters or light-hitting walkers second influences the statistics, and you can be sure that if more teams follow the lead of the Tampa Bay Rays -- who are batting Myers second -- those numbers might eventually compare favorably to the ones from the meat-of-the-order spots.

So what about stolen bases, particularly important in the example of Austin Jackson?

[+] EnlargeAustin Jackson
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAustin Jackson will lose plate appearances if he sticks in the No. 5 spot, but may well end up with more steals than a season ago.

The above chart gives the impression that players won't attempt steals when slotted into the meat of the order -- Nos. 1 and 2 hitters attempted steals 16.0 percent of the time combined, Nos. 4 and 5 hitters only 5.8 percent -- but again, that has far more to do with the personnel slotted in those spots than player tendencies themselves. Consider that only four of the 16 players to appear in at least 120 games in the Nos. 4 or 5 spots combined last season were natural base stealers (Hunter Pence, Alfonso Soriano, Adam Jones and Brandon Phillips), while the other 12 were mostly slower power hitters.

Pence, Soriano, Jones and Phillips combined attempted a steal 13.0 percent of the time when batting fourth or fifth; they combined to attempt a steal only 12.2 percent of the time when batting in all other lineup spots. In fairness, let's stress that they accrued 2,314 plate appearances combined as the No. 4 or 5 hitter, but only 354 in other spots, so there's a bit of a sample-size problem going on there.

But even if you run it conversely, the numbers support the theory that speedsters don't stop running: The collective group of players to make at least 20 appearances in both the No. 1 or 2 and No. 4 or 5 lineup spots last season attempted a steal 4.5 percent of the time in the No. 1 or 2 spots, but 6.0 percent of the time as the No. 4 or 5 hitter. This is a group of 23 players, including Michael Brantley (17 steals), Justin Ruggiano (15), Eric Hosmer (11) and Jayson Werth (10). And that's hardly a one-year thing; a comparable analysis I did in 2009 revealed similar findings.

Jackson therefore shouldn't suffer as a result of his drop from the leadoff spot (he made 127 starts there last season) to fifth and, in fact, he'll probably steal more than the eight bases he did in 2013. After all, the Detroit Tigers hired baserunning consultant Jeff Cox during the winter in large part to help Jackson in the base stealing department; and if Jackson bats fifth, there's no need for the team to give him the red light on the basepaths in fear of opposing pitchers subsequently walking Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez (they're slotted third and fourth).

Addressing some of the other significant Opening Day lineup changes:

Ryan Zimmerman (batted second): He did bat second 42 times in 2013, but accrued 103 starts in the No. 3 or 4 spot. It's a wise move for the Washington Nationals, though, as it increases the chances that their best hitters will come to the plate more often over the course of a game, though Zimmerman's runs are likely to swell at the expense of some RBIs. There's no reason to alter your expectations beyond that; I'm actually more puzzled that Bryce Harper batted fifth instead of third or fourth.

Wil Myers (second): It's not as strange as it sounds. After all, Myers has as keen a batting eye as he has powerful bat; he had an 8.8 percent walk rate as a rookie last season and 12.2 percent in the minors. If there's any negative to the decision -- besides the need to shift some of your RBI projections into his runs-scored column -- it's that Myers moves one spot closer to Jose Molina in the order.

Chris Johnson (fourth): Leave it to the Atlanta Braves to completely shuffle their lineup, putting Johnson, who made 111 starts out of the fifth spot or lower in 2013, at cleanup. It's a boon to him, as it'd mean potentially 40-50 more PAs over the course of the year, but I'm not so sure that he has the power punch to remain there. Couple it with his inflated BABIP of a year ago and he might be an ideal sell-high candidate if he gets off to a hot start in terms of batting average or RBIs.

Jose Altuve (third/fourth): His Houston Astros are one of two teams that haven't yet played, but all indications are that he'll bat cleanup versus right-handers and third versus left-handers. That might seem like a positive to some, but in a lineup like that of the Astros, it results in a bothersome PA drop (perhaps by 30-plus) for a counting-numbers player. Here's the other thing that bothers me about Altuve hitting in a "run-production" spot: He has shown a tendency to swing even more freely the more he's asked to produce; he has a lifetime 44 percent swing and 30 percent chase rate (percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone) as a No. 1 hitter, 49 and 35 percent in those categories as a No. 2 hitter and 55 and 41 percent as a No. 3 hitter.

Grady Sizemore (sixth): Bear in mind that 703 of Sizemore's 870 career starts have come as a leadoff man, so the Boston Red Sox's decision was somewhat puzzling; many might've guessed he'd either occupy the wide-open leadoff spot or, more likely, bat eighth or ninth. As a No. 6 hitter, he has more of an opportunity to be a run producer, though I'm not so sure slotting him there is what would depress his stolen base total; his injury history is a much more likely explanation if he doesn't run.

Leonys Martin (eighth): There was much winter chatter about who would bat second for the Texas Rangers between Martin, Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar, with many theorizing Andrus was least likely to score the gig. Still, Andrus' .328 on-base percentage was the third highest qualified on the team, and higher than either Martin's or Profar's, so his winding up there was inevitable. The upshot is that Martin suffers that painful 100-PA-or-so disadvantage of being a bottom-two hitter, though there's no reason to think he'll steal any less often as a result.

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