Constructing The Ultimate Lineup

  • Monday, August 30, 2010 10:09 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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