Fantasy value of lineup positions

Extra plate appearances key to providing more counting stats

Updated: March 27, 2013, 3:07 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Lost among the past week's headlines, which included Shelby Miller's selection as the St. Louis Cardinals' No. 5 starter, Jason Motte's impending DL status due to an elbow injury and the trade of Vernon Wells to the New York Yankees, were two announcements every bit as relevant to fantasy owners.

Houston Astros manager Bo Porter told his team's official website that Jose Altuve would be his leadoff hitter for 2013, while Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia told his team's official website that Erick Aybar will get "first crack" to serve as the No. 2 hitter to begin the season.

[+] EnlargeJose Altuve
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJose Altuve is in prime position to score runs batting leadoff, but playing for a potentially anemic Astros offense dampens expectations.

It's understandable why the first three headlines catch your attention: They involved a top prospect winning a prominent major league role, a top-five closer missing a portion of the season and therefore ceding his saves to someone else, and … um … OK, everyone's favorite contract whipping-boy moving to a team under arguably the greatest scrutiny of any in professional sports. These are developments with immediate impact in fantasy baseball.

The latter two headlines, meanwhile, involve lineup positioning, one of those facets of the game with a wide array of opinions. Many analysts have debated both what constitutes an "optimal" lineup, and whether lineup positioning matters at all. Fantasy owners, meanwhile, tend to make their own assumptions: This is what breeds the popular preseason question, "How is Giancarlo Stanton going to see anything good to hit in that Miami Marlins lineup?"

To be clear up front, it is not the goal of this column to rekindle the batting-order debate. Rather, its purpose is to illustrate the impact of lineup positioning on individual hitters' fantasy value, specifically as it pertains to counting stats such as runs and RBIs. We could discuss for weeks whether Aybar, he of the .320 career on-base percentage, is the right choice to bat second; the point here is what batting second means for his 2013 fantasy prospects.

There are two obvious reasons that a player's lineup spot drives his runs and RBIs: plate appearances and strength of offense.

With plate appearances, simply put, the number of times a hitter comes to the plate has a bearing on his fantasy statistics. A hitter cannot register a hit, a home run, a run scored (other than if he's used as a pinch runner) or an RBI without coming to the plate, and while a hitter can exercise some control over hits and home runs, he has less influence over runs and RBIs. Those are team-influenced statistics, so the best way to neutralize some of the "luck" factors involved is to try to get the player with the most PAs, meaning more chances at a run or RBI.

The chart to the right shows the average plate appearances per game by lineup spot for the past four seasons combined (2009-12) -- that sample covering all seasons with available data in our pitch-tracking tool -- as well as the average number of runs plus RBIs minus two times home runs per game for that respective spot. (The reason for runs plus RBIs minus two times homers: Extracting the runs/RBIs on home runs isolates only those runs and RBIs that required team assistance.)

This is one explanation for how Yonder Alonso and Marco Scutaro, who had similar on-base and slugging percentages and played an almost-identical number of games in 2012, had a such a wide disparity in runs scored (Scutaro led 87-47) and RBIs (Scutaro again led, 74-62). Scutaro made all but eight of his 149 starts in either the Nos. 1 or 2 lineup spots, while Alonso made all 144 of his between the Nos. 3 and 7 spots (and 102 of those specifically in the 5-6 spots), and that led to Scutaro accruing 64 more plate appearances than Alonso.

Strength of offense, meanwhile, also has a bearing -- including on the aforementioned Alonso/Scutaro example. Besides the obvious fact that higher-scoring teams inflate their individual hitters' runs scored and RBI totals -- both the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants, Scutaro's two teams, scored at least 67 more runs than the San Diego Padres in 2012 -- higher-scoring teams also turn the lineup over more. The more times through the lineup, the more PAs for individuals, and, again, therefore more chances for runs and RBIs. This is how Scutaro managed 64 more PAs, rather than the 45-50 or differential that the above chart would've indicated.

The chart to the right shows the average number of trips through the lineup for teams that met specific runs-scored benchmarks in any season from 2009-12. For instance, it shows that teams that scored 751-775 runs in any of those seasons averaged 4.28 trips through the lineup. And while you might note that a 0.23 differential between 850-plus and 600-or-below teams might not seem like much, keep in mind that equates to just over two team PAs per game.

This is where the Giancarlo Stanton question becomes relevant. His Marlins team will probably struggle to surpass 600 runs, ranking among the weakest offensive teams in baseball, meaning fewer overall trips through the lineup. Sub-600-run teams in the past four seasons averaged 706 PAs from their No. 3 hitters, or 4.36 per game. That matched the 4.36 PAs he averaged in his 14 complete games as a No. 3 hitter for last year's Marlins … a 609-run team that led to a disappointing 86-RBI season for Stanton.

Stanton's detractors this season hint that, with no threatening bat behind him in the lineup, he'll be constantly pitched around. Again, this isn't meant a detailed study of "lineup protection," nor would it be easy to prove that's what's going to happen to him. But to make two counterpoints: A quick examination of players slotted one spot ahead of any of the 25 worst individual Nos. 4 or 5 lineup spots (in terms of slugging percentage) from 2009-12 showed that they saw only 2.6 percent fewer fastballs than the league average and 1.5 percent fewer pitches overall in the strike zone, yet managed an OPS 31 points greater than league average. In addition, only three times during the 162-game-schedule era did a player for a 100-loss team walk at least 100 times -- Rusty Staub, 110 for the 1969 Montreal Expos; Cal Ripken Jr., 102 for the 1988 Baltimore Orioles; and Adam Dunn, 116 for the 2009 Washington Nationals -- and no player has ever been intentionally walked as many as 20 times for a 100-loss team. There's every bit as compelling evidence that trips to the plate, not lineup protection, is his greatest challenge in 2013.

Returning the discussion to Altuve and Aybar, and combining the impact of lineup position and team strength on PAs, let's look at the relative differences between high and low spots in extremely potent or poor offenses. (This time, let's add runs minus home runs per game and RBIs minus home runs per game to the equation.)

This is where Aybar would clearly benefit by nabbing that No. 2 spot; remember that he made 92 of his 137 starts last season in the bottom third of the order. Even on an average top-five offense -- and, remember, the Angels were top-five in 2012 -- a bottom-third hitter (spots 7-9 combined) got 0.270 runs/RBIs less team assistance than a No. 2 hitter did the past four seasons. That would represent a whopping 38 additional runs plus RBIs that weren't the product of home runs, for a player who appeared in the 141 games that Aybar did in 2012. (Breaking it down individually, it'd be 21 additional runs compared to 17 extra RBIs.)

As for Altuve, batting leadoff for one of the worst teams in all of baseball at least gives him a fighting chance to come to the plate five times a night, as well as for his team to plate him at least once every other night. Still, his prospective owners must accept the math: Using the chart above he'd manage 82 team-influenced runs, plus six more as a result of the six home runs we've projected for him. At 88 runs, he wouldn't be nearly the fantasy asset in the category that other leadoff hitters are, but remember it could be worse … if he batted, say, anywhere lower.

To be clear, none of this represents a promise that either Aybar or Altuve will score 88 runs this season; it is only using historical averages to illustrate a possible impact on either player in these counting-number categories.

Here are a few other players for whom lineup positioning carries weight:

Ben Revere: Whether he occupies the Nos. 1 or 2 versus 7 or 8 lineup spots has a bearing on his fantasy value, not only because of the increase in PAs, but also because as a No. 8 hitter, he'd be on base a fair share with the pitcher at bat.

Torii Hunter: He made 85 starts as a No. 2 hitter for the 2012 Angels, and projects as the No. 2 hitter for his new team, the Detroit Tigers. That's important as it pertains to him because his prospective owners want status quo. He averaged 4.48 PAs per game out of the No. 2 hole, with a BABIP of .426.

Jason Heyward: The third spot (83 starts) was his most frequent home last season, but in 2013 Heyward appears ticketed for the No. 2 hole. Expect more of his RBIs to shift into the runs scored department, but the slight increase in PAs over the course of the year might be all it takes to drive him above the 30-homer plateau.

B.J. Upton: He was a No. 2 hitter most often last year, but should slide in as the No. 5 hitter for his new team, the Atlanta Braves. Though there's chatter that the change will boost his RBI total, be careful not to overrate him, considering the drop in PA. He averaged 4.24 per game in his five years as a regular in Tampa Bay.

Ichiro Suzuki: If he's a bottom-third hitter this season -- and with the New York Yankees' current injuries, he might no longer be -- then Ichiro loses any advantage in counting numbers as a result of decreased plate appearances batting in the bottom third. He needs those PAs to fill the runs scored and stolen base categories; volume of PAs no longer helps him in terms of batting average.