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Breaking Down the Lineup: April Edition

May 5, 2012
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Quick note: I started writing this article nearly 5 days ago and thus, may be a little outdated when I post it. To compensate, I’ve made adjustments to the article to keep up with current on-goings.

The Giants have played 26/162 games thus far, but have closed out their April sitting on a 12-10 record, and 4 games behind the first place Dodgers. That’s not too shabby considering that Burriss, Crawford, and Pitcher have been an actual starting trifecta in a majority of the games. Or you could look at it this way: the Giants are 12-7* since getting swept in Arizona and have won 5 out of the 6 series since. Either way, there hasn’t been too much warranted grumbling, aside from the #FreeBelt movement picking steam and the Huff Fiasco at 2nd Base. (*Giants are 0-4 in May…)

What I want to get at however, is the Giants’ lineup. As of Monday, the Giants are currently tied with the Indians for 15th in total runs with 90, which is a hefty improvement from last year when they were 26th at the same point. Interestingly, the Giants actually scored more runs (97) in March/April in 2011, but so did the rest of the league, which might say something about the quality of pitching this year. Anyhow, what’s evident is that in spite of our severe lack of production in the bottom third of the order—55 wRC+ (2B), 63 wRC+ (SS), -58 wRC+ (P)—we’ve seen a general uptake in offensive production that’s pushed the Giants lineup to roughly middle-of-the-pack in regards to the rest of MLB.

Predominantly, Bochy has constructed lineups in the following manners: 1) +Belt 2) -Belt 3) Hector/Posey. In all three of these lineups, 1-4 has almost always consisted of Pagan, Cabrera, Sandoval, and Posey. For the most part, this arrangement has worked noticeably well: 1) Pagan has provided speed and surprising pop hitting leadoff 2) Melky is hitting .300 with a .366 OBP, 5/7 in steal attempts, and leads the team with Crawford in doubles (6) 3) Panda has hit in 21/22 games with a 20 game hit streak, and 4) Posey has a 1.016 OPS and is obviously the reincarnation of Zeus. Nuff said.

What’s been a recurring problem however, starts with R and ends in ISP: the Giants are hitting .193 with runners in scoring position. I don’t need Google to tell me that the Giants are still among the league’s worst at knocking in runners on 2nd and 3rd; it’s been extremely irritating to watch runners on the corners with 1 out or less not touch home plate for the umpteenth time. If you want more proof that the Giants have been ineffective at getting runners in, Pagan, Cabrera, Sandoval, and Posey have accounted for 53 out of the 90 runs the team has scored this year. That’s almost 60% of all runs scored, and it highlights the hole in the Giants lineup: the 5 and 6 hitters.

With the 1-4 hitters have been set in stone, I’m going to single out the 5-8 in Bochy’s lineups. With Belt in, the 5-8 has almost always been Schierholtz, Belt, Crawford, Burriss. Without Belt it has been Huff/Pill, Schierholtz, Crawford, Burriss. With Sanchez it has been Sanchez, Schierholtz, Crawford, Burriss. Hmm.

Bochy clearly holds Belt in high regard…I can’t be the only one concerned that Bochy thinks Sanchez, Pill, and Huff are better hitters than Belt.

But however way you look at it, that second half of the order doesn’t exactly inspire confidence the way the first string does. Crawford and Burriss/Theriot/Arias? are well below-average offensively, and it’s shameful to have to depend on the pitchers for hits. So what do we get out of our 5-6 hitters? In Huff and Sanchez we get below average production (73 wRC+ and 79 wRC+), in Pill a somewhat decent bat off the bench, in Belt, raw hitting ability and a great eye for the zone, and in Schierholtz, the man of the 1.021 OPS with RISP. Wait what?

Who’d you think was knocking in all those runs for Buster? Of course those batting numbers account for only 12 AB, and it would be irresponsible to not touch upon Nate’s 6/10 performance in the Mets doubleheader, but what’s impressive is that he has the most walks of all Giants with RISP. He’s only struck out once. In other words, he’s been able to maintain his composure and not flail at sliders in the dirt; he’s clutch.

The problem with the Giants lineup is that it’s too top heavy. Once you manage to ground Buster out, it’s smooth sailings for the next two innings, and even then, our best hitters don’t get on base at a guaranteed clip. The lineup lacks the depth to wear pitchers out, and it’s not because we don’t have the hitters; we just haven’t been aligning them efficiently.

When you dissect our best lineup (with Belt) into trios in respect to 3 outs per inning, you get the following:

Pagan
Cabrera
Sandoval

Posey
Schierholtz
Belt

Burriss
Crawford
Pitcher

The first set is reasonably strong: you have your leadoff man in Pagan, Melky who can hit, steal, and hit for power, and Sandoval, who can hit. This is arguably the toughest segment of our lineup for a pitcher to face. You don’t want the leadoff man on base because he can steal, and he hits before a guy who can knock him in from first. You have to be careful with Melky because he can hit, take a walk, and steal a base. You don’t want him on base because Sandoval can really hit. He’ll knock one over the fence or he’ll single in Melky from second. You can pitch to him, or pitch around him…and leave the bases full for Buster Posey.

As I’ve mentioned previously, most of our runs have been accumulated as a result of the batting order above. But after Posey, then what? Schierholtz might be able to single Posey to second to get 2 men on with one out…for Belt? No problem for the pitcher, who gets Belt to groundout/strikeout trying to do something in his only game of the week and then gets to toy around with either Crawford or Burriss for dessert.

So what gives? We obviously have a 2-4 that is working out very well for us, but on the other hand a giant sieve in the back order of that lineup.

The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, are having no qualms with their offense. Since 2011, they’ve generated the most runs in the NL and are still holding onto that title through April. That’s no surprise to many, given that when healthy, the Red Birds have at least 6 potent bats in Furcal, Beltran, Holliday, Berkman, Freese, and Molina—a staple that many teams would like at least a piece of. But what I find more interesting than the players they’ve acquired however, is the organizational philosophy behind that structure, specifically in how they’ve set up that lineup.

While their 1-6 bats all have the ability to hit, how the Cardinals have ordered them is intriguing. You face Furcal as the obligatory leadoff man who gets on base, and then you’re looking at the meat of their lineup in Beltran, Holliday, and Berkman. What’s interesting is that this set of batters highly resembles the Giants’ 2-4 in Cabrera, Sandoval, and Posey. Beltran can hit, walk, and steal, Holliday is a great hitter, and Berkman is the sweeper. Call it Wall Street’s version of the Giants’ trio, but likewise they have also been very productive in accumulating runs.

It’s obvious that having your best hitters clustered together near the top of the lineup produces more opportunities to score, but what is it that makes this Melky, Sandoval, Posey / Beltran, Holliday, Berkman arrangement just tick so well? As always, sabermetrics seems to come to the rescue. In a 2009 article from Beyond the Boxscore,  Sky Kalkman discusses how Tom Tango (author of The Book) pits his sabermetric knowhow against the old-school train of thought in forming the proper lineup.

Here’s what was said regarding the 2,3,4 holes in the lineup:

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 Books 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?

The Third Spot

The old-school book says to put your best high-average hitter here.  The lead-off hitter should already be in scoring position and a hit drives him in.  Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

The Book says the #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters.  So why focus on putting a guy who can knock in runs in the #3 spot, when the two spots after him can benefit from it more?  Surprisingly, because he comes to bat so often with two outs and no runners on base, the #3 hitter isn’t nearly as important as we think.  This is a spot to fill after more important spots are taken care of.

Cleanup

The old-school book says to put your big power bat here, probably a guy with a low batting average, who will hit the big multi-run homeruns.

The Book says the #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots, but is equal in importance to the #2 hole once you consider the #2 guy receives more plate appearances.  The cleanup hitter is the best hitter on the team with power.

–  Sky Kalkman (Beyond the Boxscore)

What Tango argues for essentially, is a system of aggregate efficiency. Players are nothing more than cogs in a methodology designed to create runs for the team, and in this system, the leadoff hitter is most important, followed by the 4th, 2nd, 5th, and then finally the 3rd hitter. The best hitters in the lineup according to Tango should comprise the 2, 4, 5 holes rather than 2, 3, 4, and the Cardinals have seemed to have followed suit with Beltran (2) being an on-base king, Berkman (4) is arguably the best batter, and Freese (5) is hitting and slugging well. Holliday has been a little disappointing thus far, but Tango would say he isn’t causing too much damage hitting in the 3-hole. The Cards must love them some sabermetrics.

But I think there is one thing that Tango understates in importance: the 6th hitter, AKA the bridge between the middle of the lineup and the bottom of the order. Assuming hitters before him have reached base, the 6th hitter often finds himself in the ancillary cleanup role as the 5th hitter’s insurance or the one who brings home the cleanup crew. But power is not necessary here, because the 6th hitter is essentially the rally extender. Just getting on base at this spot ensures the pitcher will reach the top of the order next time around, accumulating more PA for the big bats to do some damage. This batter should be one of the toughest out in the lineup—a player that can hit, walk, and above all else, avoid striking out. Yadier Molina fits the bill for St. Louis with a high average, decent walk rate, career K% of just 8.5%, and even increasing power in recent years. It’s no surprise then that he’s only second in RBI behind Freese on the team. But what about the Giants? Do they even have a middling bat that could produce in this part of the order?

Let me suggest Nate Schierholtz. Despite his minuscule 4.2% BB rate, Schierholtz averages the 3rd most pitches per PA on the team with 3.93, only behind Posey (4.16) and Blanco (4.02). Not only is he seeing pitches, his K% has improved significantly from nearly 17% in 2011 to 11.3% this year. And in spite of his recent 1/24 slump the past 10 games, he still posts a respectable .835 OPS with RISP (if that’s indicative of any sort of clutch). It also doesn’t hurt that his ISO has taken a grand jump to .239 and his .246 BABIP should eventually correct closer to his career .309 mark.

Now with Panda out for at least a month, setting the lineup is little more difficult with the batting talent spread thin, however these are two lineups I’d like to see Bochy experiment with:

1 Blanco (CF)
2 Cabrera (LF)
3 Posey (C)
4 Belt (1B)
5 Schierholtz (RF)
6 Theriot (2B)
7 Gillaspie (3B)
8 Crawford (SS)

1 Blanco (CF)
2 Belt (1B)
3 Cabrera (LF)
4 Posey (CF)
5 Pagan (RF)
6 Theriot (2B)
7 Gillaspie (3B)
8 Crawford (SS)

Blanco should be hitting leadoff every game. He is a dynamic presence with a LOT of speed, but here’s the best part: 14.3%. That’s his walk rate. It’s no fluke either as his career BB% is 12.9%; seriously, he and his glove need to be out there more often.

In the first lineup, I think the 2-3-4 set with Belt would still be a very effective opener. I have Posey in the 3-spot mainly because it’s always good to have 2 consistent hitters back to back, but him hitting higher gives him more opportunities for PA in addition to some lineup protection in Belt. With Panda out, the betters hitters get to move up so I’d put Nate in the 5-hole with Theriot to follow. The only reason Burriss should be in a lineup is for his defense. Theriot has a much better track record, and with consistent playing time he should hopefully be able to replicate his numbers from last year. Gillaspie has yet to prove himself and Crawford hitting 8th goes without saying.

In the second lineup, I wanted to change things up because I didn’t like the idea of having Belt (high K’s) and Pagan (low OBP) together in the middle of the order. Belt moves up to 2, where his on-base skills will be handy with Melky and Buster coming up. Pagan has actually garnered the 3rd most hits thus far (but has the most PA), and those hits will be much more useful with runners on base. 6-8 stays identical.

The Giants are on a 4-game losing streak to open up May, but there’s still a lot of baseball to be played. I’m hoping that we will continue to see more of Blanco and Belt in the lineup, and if we can win more than we lose until June we should be good to go once Panda returns. Oh what do you know, the Giants just won a game against the Brewers. Hopefully, this is the start of better days.

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