Monday, April 1, 2013

The Importance (Or Lack Thereof) of Batting Order

A couple of weeks ago, Len Kasper, one half of the TV broadcast booth of the Chicago Cubs, was on 670 The Score in Chicago discussing the upcoming season with afternoon drive hosts Dan Bernstein and Terry Boers. When he was asked what some of the more important questions the Cubs had to answer in Spring Training, he answered (paraphrase) "They need to find a #5 hitter."

It's a discussion as old as baseball, the importance of the batting order. There ARE reasons why batting order is important, the primary one being that for a given season, each slot lower in the batting order produces about 15-20 fewer plate appearances per year. Here's the data from the 2012 regular season:

I’m not sure people understand just how INFREQUENTLY a player actually bats his batting order position. This chart shows how often a player actually batted his batting order slot from 2010-2012:

The “More” column reflects those innings in which more than 9 hitters go to the plate. Positions 1, 2 and 3 require serious thought since they’re guaranteed to bat their slot at the beginning of the game, but after that it’s a crapshoot. Buried somewhere is the data that managers use to justify batting their pitcher 8th, but I’m at a loss to understand it or believe that the difference has any measurable impact. To illustrate the point I made at the beginning, whomever the Cubs slot as the #5 hitter will actually bat 5th in an inning around 16-17% of the time, or about 1 in 6 at-bats. Whether this is important or not is for others to debate, I suggest that it doesn't deserve the ink and airtime it gets.

Also in here is the reason why there is much more randomness in baseball than in football or basketball. On August 12th, 2012 in the game between the White Sox and Blue Jays, Adam Dunn came to the plate in the top of the 8th with the Sox leading 3-2 with 1 out and a runner (Kevin Youkilis) on 2nd (Dunn walked, by the way). There was nothing Robin Ventura had done to insure that Dunn would be the hitter at this crucial part of the game—he hadn’t moved hitters around in prior innings in order to make this come about, but was the lucky beneficiary of the vagaries of the game. Contrast with basketball and football:

1.       In basketball, if the Bulls are down 2 with 3 seconds left (and assuming a healthy Derrick Rose), there’s little doubt as to who the intended shooter is—it may not work out that way for any number of reasons, but it’s almost certain (and I’d love to find out if I’m correct) that Tom Thibodeau has five specific players on the floor (and most likely NOT all five of the starters) in five specified positions, down to who in inbounding the ball. The Bulls may be successful, they may not be, but it will be ON THEIR OWN TERMS.
2.       In football, down 4 and 4th-and-goal with 15 seconds left in the Super Bowl, we have two pretty good ideas as to whom the Bears will target (again, assuming healthy)—Michael Bush with a run or Brandon Marshall with a pass. Granted, football allows for more possibilities, but again, the key players on the field are not in doubt.

Now, assume it’s the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of the World Series and the Cubs are down to their last out with the bases loaded and down by one run (I used the word “assume” for a reason). As they relive the 1945 Series against the Tigers, who is facing Jose Valverde in this particular instance? Beats me, and it’s out of the hands of Dale Sveum, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer or Tom Ricketts as well. Heroes in baseball are made as much by luck as by intentional design, and any time luck becomes an important facet of the outcome, randomness is introduced.

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