Constructing The Ultimate Lineup

  • Monday, August 30, 2010 6:09 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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Baseball is the only sport in which the lineup has an order. In basketball, football, hockey, soccer, etc., the starting lineup is just a collection of players who have different roles. But in baseball, not only does each player have a position, he also has a number.

That number isn't a rank, of course. No, there's more nuance than that. Everybody who follows baseball learns early on the basic lineup tenets: The leadoff batter is fast, the No. 2 guy "handles the bat well," the No. 3 guy is the best hitter on the team, the cleanup spot is for a power hitter, and so on. As our understanding of the game has increased, lineup optimization has become a hot topic. It turns out those tenets perhaps aren't the smartest, although the impact on a team's record is fairly minimal.

However legitimate or intelligent, certain players tend to get attached to a certain spot in the batting order, much like an actor who can't shake a particular role. And it becomes part of their identity as a player. Because of this, I thought it would be interesting to look at the best hitter throughout baseball history at each lineup spot. To qualify, I'm going to say the hitter has to be in the top 10 all time in plate appearances at that lineup spot, because what's a list like this without some arbitrary qualifier? Thanks to the Baseball-Reference Play Index for the research.

1. Rickey Henderson -- Rickey says Rickey is the obvious choice. Henderson took 13,122 of his 13,346 plate appearances as a leadoff batter, batting there 2,412 more times than anyone else. He ranks 14th all time in wins above replacement, and his .822 leadoff OPS is better than anyone else's in the top 38 in PAs at that spot. Henderson also had all the qualities expected of a leadoff man: Getting on base (second all time in walks, lifetime .401 OBP), stealing bases (first all time) and scoring runs (first all time). He also had good pop for a leadoff guy, topping 20 homers four times and setting a major league record for career home runs to lead off a game.

Honorable mention -- Craig Biggio
Active player -- Ichiro Suzuki

2. Derek Jeter -- Believe me when I say I'm not a Jeter Freak. I respect the guy a lot as a player, but I'm not a Yankees fan, I don't fawn over him and I'll happily tell you he's overrated (considering the hype). But the guy clearly is still an obvious Hall of Famer and one of the best shortstops of all time. He's also racked up the sixth-most PAs of anyone in the No. 2 spot, although he's hit mostly leadoff the past two seasons. As a No. 2 batter, Jeter has hit .315/.385/.458 and ranks fourth in hits, fifth in doubles, third in home runs and first in RBI from that spot.

Honorable mention -- Ryne Sandberg
Active player -- Jeter

3. Babe Ruth -- Stan Musial actually has almost 1,000 more PAs in this spot than anyone else and a .999 OPS in those opportunities. I love Stan the Man, but this can't be anyone other than the Sultan of Swat, who ranks eighth in PAs but first in home runs, RBI and walks. As a No. 3 hitter, the Bambino hit a ridiculous .346/.482/.703. Simply the most devastating offensive force of all time.

Honorable mention -- Stan Musial
Active player -- Albert Pujols

4. Lou Gehrig -- I bet most people would not guess the top two players in career PAs at the cleanup spot: Eddie Murray and Fred McGriff. Gehrig comes in fourth and bats behind Ruth, just as he often did in real life. The Iron Horse famously played in 2,130 consecutive games from 1925-39, and a large percentage of those came in the No. 4 spot. Gehrig had a 1.100 OPS from the cleanup spot and ranks first in home runs, RBI and walks and second in hits and triples.

Honorable mention -- Manny Ramirez
Active player -- Ramirez

5. Jimmie Foxx -- Foxx isn't nearly as well known as some other sluggers of his era, like the previous two guys in this lineup, but he was a tremendously fearsome hitter. He led the league in OBP three times and slugging five times, hit 58 home runs in 1932 and finished his career with 534 dingers. As a fifth-place hitter, Foxx slugged .621 and hit 203 homers, 40 more than anyone else. He also leads No. 5 hitters in walks and RBI.

Honorable mention -- Harry Heilmann
Active player -- Jim Thome

6. Tony Lazzeri -- Damn. If I knew there were going to be so many Yankees on this list (and I probably should have known), I wouldn't have done it. Oh well. Lazzeri was a premiere offensive second baseman of the 1920s and 30s who was put in the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1991. As a sixth hitter, he ranks in the top five all time in walks, hits, doubles, triples and RBI and put up an .839 OPS.

Honorable mention -- Gene Tenace
Active player -- Jorge Posada

7. Gabby Hartnett -- This one wasn't even close, as Hartnett rose well above an understandably mediocre group. Hartnett, a Cubs catcher in the 1920s and 30s, also batted sixth and eighth a lot but racked up 2,382 PAs in the No. 7 hole, eighth-most all time. Here's the strange thing: Hartnett's most times batting seventh came in 1927, when he pretty clearly was the Cubs' fourth-best hitter. So why was he batting seventh so much? Was this something Cubs fans were upset about at the time? It would be interesting to know. Despite playing catcher, Harnett boasts by far the best line among primary seventh hitters, at .301/.377/.494.

Honorable mention -- Jimmy Dykes
Active player -- Adrian Beltre

8. Rick Ferrell -- It's not a surprise that guys who hit eighth a whole bunch were not particularly good hitters. Ferrell comes the closest, as he's the only one with a career OPS+ anywhere near 100 (average). A catcher for the Browns, Red Sox and Senators, Ferrell actually made the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee in 1984, was a seven-time All Star and set the big league record for career games caught (later broken by Carlton Fisk). In nearly 3,500 plate appearances as a No. 8 hitter, Ferrell only hit six home runs. But he leads No. 8 hitters with 470 walks, compared with only 150 strikeouts, and his .370 OBP was quite good.

Honorable mention -- Al Lopez
Active player -- Alex Gonzalez

9. Omar Vizquel -- The all-time leader in PAs in the last spot in the order, by more than a 1,000, is none other than Vizquel's current manager, Ozzie Guillen. Vizquel of course is known for his defense (11 career gold gloves at shortstop) and isn't a very good hitter (career OPS+ of 83), but there's not much competition here.

Honorable mention -- Mike Bordick
Active player -- Vizquel
Pitcher -- Red Ruffing. As a No. 9 hitter, Rick Ferrell's brother Wes hit 37 home runs with an .830 OPS, numbers no other pitcher can match. But he's only 53rd in PAs. Ruffing, who played from 1924-47, is third in pitcher PAs from the No. 9 hole and hit a very respectable .271/.306/.399 with 34 home runs. His 229 RBI from that spot are 42 more than any other pitcher.

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The Pitching Non-Pitchers

  • Monday, April 19, 2010 5:29 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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I tend to enjoy it when position players are used as pitchers, like Cardinals Felipe Lopez and Joe Mather were during Saturday's 20-inning marathon against the Mets.

Usually it happens with the game well out of reach, rather than hanging in the balance, but in any case it presents us with an interesting situation that you really don't see in other sports. You have a guy who obviously is a great athlete doing something extremely unnatural that he probably hasn't done in many years. For example, Mather said he had last pitched in high school, and Lopez in Little League.

In football, you don't see a linebacker coming in to play quarterback, and in basketball you don't see centers bringing the ball up the court. Yet in baseball, every once in a while you get to see a non-pitcher take the mound.

And it's shocking to me how well they sometimes do. In Saturday's game, the Mets had a tough time hitting both Lopez and Mather, although they managed to scratch across two runs against the latter. The last time a Cards position player toed the rubber, I was actually in attendance: June 13, 2008 vs. the Phillies. St. Louis was trailing 20-2 (the Phils had a nine-run fourth inning to go up 13-1), and Tony LaRussa brought in infielder Aaron Miles to pitch the ninth. The Cards' five previous pitchers all had surrendered at least one run, but wouldn't you know it, Miles retired the side 1-2-3.

I think in a lot of cases, it's probably difficult as a Major League hitter to suddenly be facing a guy who's heaving it in there at 75-80 miles per hour. Plus, with the ball coming in so slow, it's probably easy to over-swing in an attempt to crush the ball 500 feet.

But back to Saturday. As the game kept going, I was having some fun thinking about who else the Cardinals (or the Mets) might bring in if play continued. One name that popped in to my head was Rick Ankiel, the former Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder. Ankiel is now with the Royals, making the idea a moot point, but apparently, LaRussa would have used Ankiel had he still been around.

For the Mets, it could have been fun to see guys with great arms like Jeff Francoeur or Jose Reyes take a shot at pitching.

What other major league position players would it interesting to see get a shot at pitching at some point? I'd like to hear some suggestions, but here a few of my half-serious ideas:

-- Prince Fielder: The big fella is more nimble than he looks. Perhaps he could channel CC Sabathia? It would be entertaining to watch him pounce on a bunt attempt.

-- Manny Ramirez: Would probably cut off the throw if his catcher tried to nab someone stealing second base.

-- Jayson Werth: Looks the part -- he's tall and lanky and already has closer-style facial hair. Plus, he's got a good arm.

-- Stephen Drew: After that throw he made last week, the backstop might be in for a workout.

-- Derek Jeter: Jeter honestly seems like a good enough guy, but it would enjoyable to see him fail miserably at something for once.

-- Ichiro: Apparently, Team Japan was considering using him in an emergency in the WBC before the Mariners nixed the idea. But don't you just have a feeling he would be great at it? I bet he could throw 90 mph on the black, and who knows, maybe mix in a gyroball.

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Matches Made Far From Heaven

  • Friday, January 29, 2010 5:47 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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Now that Jim Edmonds has signed a minor-league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers in an attempt to revive his career, he has for the second time aligned himself with a division of the St. Louis Cardinals, his former club. Edmonds also played for the Cubs in 2008 before finding himself out of work last season.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the Edmonds situation. There is very little “loyalty” between teams that don’t want to be stuck with players they don’t need and players who want to get the most money they can on the open market. It’s just how the game works, and it doesn't bother me much anymore.

But the Edmonds situation did get to me thinking about the first time I saw him wearing a Cubs uniform and how jarring that was. And it made me wonder: What would be the most bizarre or shocking marriages between a team and a current player?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Derek Jeter, Red Sox. He’s the ultimate Yankee, so if this move happened (yeah, right), it would probably cause a riot in Times Square.

2. Albert Pujols, Cubs. He is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2011 season, so you never know. But it would be disturbing to see him in Cubbie blue.

3. Chipper Jones, Mets. He’s played his whole career for the division rival Braves and has been a particular thorn in the sides of Mets fans, who typically serenade him with chants of “Larry, Larry.”

I think it's telling about the fluid nature of team allegiance today that more didn't readily spring to my mind.

But for all the fans out there: What player wearing what uniform would seem particularly strange or "not right" to you?

Albert Soaring Above And Beyond

  • Thursday, January 21, 2010 5:24 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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It’s always interesting to me how you can know without a doubt something is true but still be surprised by it when the facts are presented in a certain light.

Such is the case with Albert Pujols. I think we can all agree he is the best player in baseball and has been for some time. But how much better has he been than the rest of his peers?

This is a topic St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold broached in a recent blog post in which he discussed possible contract negotiations between the Cardinals and Pujols, who is a free agent after the 2011 season. In trying to get a handle on how much dough Pujols could command on the open market, Goold compared Pujols’ career numbers to those of the two highest-paid players in baseball since Pujols started in 2001.

Long story short, Pujols has made about half as much money as Manny Ramirez and a little more than a third as much as Alex Rodriguez in that span and put up considerably better numbers. A-Rod has the edge in home runs, but Pujols’ lead in the much more important rate stats (OBP, SLG, etc) is laughable.

This is what I was saying at the beginning: I already knew El Hombre was better than everyone else, but seeing those numbers in front of me still shocked me.

I’d like to expand a little on Goold’s exercise just to bring even more perspective to Pujols’ dominance. Here are the active leaders in some crucial stats from 2001 to the present, thanks to the invaluable baseball-reference.com (counting only those with at least 1,000 plate appearances):

Batting Average: Pujols .334, Ichiro .333, Mauer .327, Helton .326, Guerrero .321

On-base Percentage: Helton .433, Pujols .427, M. Ramirez .415, Berkman .415, Chipper .415

Slugging Percentage: Pujols .628, M. Ramirez .590, Howard .586, A-Rod .584, Braun .574

OPS+*: Pujols 172, M. Ramirez 157, A-Rod 153, Berkman 149, Thome 149

Runs Created**: Pujols 1,364, A-Rod 1,241, Helton 1,178, Berkman 1,161, M. Ramirez 1,105

These stats give you a pretty good idea of how Pujols has basically been operating on his own plane for the last several years. To put this fact another way, Pujols’ worst OPS+ for one season came in 2002, when he put up a 151. Last season, only four players besides Pujols topped that number, and five did it in 2008. So even Pujols’ “worst” is basically unattainable for just about everyone.

An even better statistic for examining Pujols’ total offensive contributions is wOBA, which stands for weighted on-base average. wOBA appropriately gives more weight to OBP than slugging percentage and also considers stolen bases and caught stealing. It operates on the same scale as OBP. Here are the active leaders in wOBA, via Fangraphs.

Pujols .436, M. Ramirez .419, Helton .419, A-Rod, .412, Thome .406

Finally, Goold used the dollar value calculations on Fangraphs that go back to 2002 in order to get a read on Pujols’ total worth. These calculations take into account batting, fielding and the player’s position (first base is an easy position to play, meaning Pujols is docked a lot of points compared with A-Rod, who has played shortstop and third base). Using Goold’s idea as a jumping-off point, here are Fangraphs’ leaders in value since 2002 for position players (in millions of dollars):

Pujols 230, A-Rod 206.8, Utley 159.1, Berkman 149.7, Chipper 149.1

One more thing to ponder: Derek Jeter has racked up $145.6 million in value during this time, meaning Pujols has been worth 158 percent as much as Captain America. That is close to the difference between Jeter and Randy Winn ($89.5 million).

* Adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage measures a player’s OPS against that of other players in a given season, adjusting for ballpark. An average player has an OPS+ of 100, and better than average players are above 100.

** Runs created measures a player’s contributions to his team’s scoring. Although several other bells and whistles have been added over the years to account for various subtleties, the basic formula is OBP multiplied by total bases.