On April 22nd last year, Terry Francona debuted a long-discussed strategy: Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot.
In the top of the first inning, Santana worked the count full, as he so often does. With his sixth pitch, Justin Verlander left a 94-mph fastball out over the plate, and Santana clobbered it into the right field seats.
Francona’s experiment was immediately judged a success, and Santana would go on to start another 84 games in the leadoff spot, mostly against right-handed starters. Against lefties, Francona opted for Rajai Davis, who made 69 starts at the top of the lineup.
Santana came to epitomize the “new school” approach to the leadoff spot – get your best OBP guy in there – while Davis represented the “old school” approach of putting your best base-stealer at the top of the lineup. For what it’s worth, Davis has also been much better against lefties in his career, so that likely also played a role. Why Francona decided to go with this dual approach is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that he values OBP in the leadoff spot.
The most extensive research on lineup construction was published in “The Book,” by Tom Tango, Mitchell Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin. Among other recommendations, their findings say the best overall hitter should bat second, and the hitter with the best OBP should lead off. This research reinforces why the plodding Carlos Santana, Jose Bautista, John Jaso and Kyle Schwarber have become leadoff men.
If last year is any indication, Santana will likely continue to lead off, and the lineup will look something like this:
There’s just one problem. Despite all the walks, Carlos Santana isn’t actually the best OBP guy on the team, and he shouldn’t lead off. Let me explain.
Against right-handed pitching, Santana has a solid .357 career OBP. Against lefties, he’s even better, at .383. Against righties, Jason Kipnis leads the team with a career .362 OBP, and Brandon Guyer’s at .391 against lefties. That doesn’t represent a big upgrade. In fact, it’s almost negligible. That difference alone wouldn’t be a good enough reason to change the lineup.
However, hitters in the leadoff spot bat with a man on base only 36% of the time, the lowest rate of any spot in the lineup. When you hit home runs, you want guys on base. Carlos Santana hits lots of home runs. So guys with similar OBP, but less power (like Kipnis and Guyer) should bat in front of him to set the table. At the very least, a .390 OBP guy like Guyer should not be hitting seventh, as he primarily did last year.
In order to maximize production, “The Book” has other recommendations, too: The #2 hitter should be the team’s best overall hitter. As luck would have it, that’s Carlos Santana. The #4 hitter should be the best hitter with power, so Edwin Encarnacion isn’t going anywhere.
The 3- and 5-hole hitters should be your next best hitters after filling spots 1, 2, and 4. That’s some combination of Lindor, Brantley and Ramirez. If Brantley somehow returns to his 2014-2015 form, he’s clearly the best of the bunch, and you could even make an argument that he should supplant Kipnis at the top of the lineup against RHP. However, until we know he’s healthy and productive, he needs to hit lower in the lineup.
Using these principles to optimize the lineup, here’s where we end up:
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
|1||2B||Jason Kipnis||L||1||OF||Brandon Guyer2||R|
|2||1B||Carlos Santana||S||2||1B||Carlos Santana||S|
|3||SS||Francisco Lindor||S||3||SS||Francisco Lindor||S|
|4||DH||Edwin Encarnacion||R||4||DH||Edwin Encarnacion||R|
|5||LF||Michael Brantley||L||5||LF||Michael Brantley||L|
|6||3B||Jose Ramirez||S||6||3B||Jose Ramirez||S|
|7||RF||Lonnie Chisenhall1||L||7||2B||Jason Kipnis3||L|
|8||C||Yan Gomes||R||8||C||Yan Gomes||R|
|9||CF||Tyler Naquin||L||9||CF||Austin Jackson4||R|
1. You could swap Chisenhall and Naquin here, but I feel more confident in Chisenhall until we see some adjustments from Naquin.
2.- Brandon Guyer leading off may seem a bit radical, but he actually made 81 career starts there with the Rays.
3. Jason Kipnis all the way down at 7th might seem strange, but his career numbers against lefties (.313 OBP, .688 OPS) simply don’t justify batting any higher. You could even make an argument for Jackson or Gomes to bat ahead of him.
4. I’m assuming Austin Jackson makes the team over Abraham Almonte here, but it wouldn’t change anything if Almonte is Naquin’s platoon-mate. Neither one is likely to provide enough offense to justify a higher position.