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Out Of Order

The Yankees take the field for their first intersquad game of the spring today when they host the Phillies at Legends Field in Tampa. With that, one of this offseason’s burgeoning controversies will come to a head. Or rather it should have, but the key players will be on a plane to Arizona to join the USA’s entry into the World Baseball Classic.

Still, despite their absence, now that Joe Torre will once again be filling out line-up cards on a daily basis there is sure to be a great deal of debate over the issue of who should bat lead-off once the season starts, Yankee captain and 2005 lead-off man Derek Jeter or the newly acquired Johnny Damon, who repeatedly described himself as the best lead-off hitter in the game after signing with the Yankees in late December. Given the bearded Boston baggage that comes with Damon and the reverence afforded Jeter, as well as the considerable lead-off skills of both men, the debate could get ugly. I’m here to nip it in the bud.

Choosing which players take the field is the most important job any manager has. Productive players can only produce on the field, while a team’s 27 outs can disappear in a hurry when a manager calls the wrong number. Having chosen a starting nine, a manager can further distribute playing time within a given game by calling on pinch-hitters, pinch-runners and defensive replacements. Often overlooked, however, is his ability to distribute plate appearances via the batting order.

While there’s a great deal of debate over the significance of batting order, one thing that’s undeniable is its effect on playing time. Each successive spot in the order will receive approximately 18 fewer plate appearances over the course of a full season than the spot above it. This adds up to a whopping 144 plate appearances between the top and bottom spots, but the difference is largely insignificant when deciding between two consecutive spots. For example, the difference between a line-up with a .400 on-base percentage in the lead-off spot and a .300 OBP in the two-hole and a line-up with those two batters switched in the order is just 1.8 outs over a full season (.100 OBP points * 18 at-bats).

The difference between a line-up that starts Jeter-Damon and one that starts Damon-Jeter is even smaller. By the most basic logic, a line-up that puts Jeter ahead of Damon is a better line-up because of Jeter’s reliably superior on-base percentage. However, based on a projection using Jeter’s career OBP of .386 (his 2005 mark was .389) and Damon’s road OBP from 2005 of .342, the difference between the two line-ups is a grand total of less than 0.8 outs over the course of 162 games. That’s zero-point-eight, or a fraction of one out. Bear that in mind the next time you find yourself getting worked up over the top two spots in Torre’s batting order.

A lot of the gab about Damon leading off has harked back to the glory days of the late-90s dynasty which featured Chuck Knoblauch batting lead-off ahead of Jeter. It’s actually a very apt comparison, as the following list of on-base percentages shows:

Knoblauch – .361
Jeter – .384

Knoblauch – .393
Jeter – .438

Knoblauch – .366
Jeter – .416

In two of those three Championship seasons, Jeter’s on-base percentage surpassed Knoblauch’s by more than it does Damon’s in my above projection. As with Damon-Jeter, arguing for a Jeter-Knoblauch order over a Knoblauch-Jeter order would have been largely pointless as the difference between the two would also have been less than a single out over the entire season. It is interesting to note, however, just how far the Knoblauch-Damon comparison extends.

When the Knoblauch-Jeter tandem was in its full glory, Knoblauch was praised for the number of pitches he saw per plate appearance. The praise hinged on the fact that it was the lead-off man’s job to not only get on base, but to give his teammates a good look at the opposing pitcher’s repertoire by forcing him to throw all of his pitches in the first at-bat of the game. Indeed, in Knoblauch‘s four seasons as the Yankee lead-off man, he saw 3.96 pitches per plate-appearance (topping out at 4.09 P/PA in 1998). Jeter saw 3.78 P/PA during those four seasons, with a top mark of 3.85 in 1998. Similarly, since leaving the Royals, Damon has seen 3.94 P/PA over five seasons (topping out at 4.13 P/PA in 2003), while Jeter has seen 3.69 P/PA over the same five season (topping out at 3.82 P/PA last year).

Finally, Damon is a superior base stealer to the Yankee version of Knoblauch. In four seasons as a Yankee, Knoblauch stole 112 bases in 149 attempts, a 75 percent success rate at a pace of 33.7 bases per 162 games. In his four seasons in Boston, meanwhile, Damon stole fewer bases (98 total, 26.6 per 162 games) but at a significantly higher success rate (82 percent). Indeed, last year, Damon stole just 18 bags, but was caught just once, making him a fantastic weapon on the bases.

With all of that out of the way, I thought it would be fun to toy with the line-up generating engines that our own Ken Arneson discussed in a pair of recent posts over on Catfish Stew. Ken’s initial post was inspired by a post by Cyril Morong over at Beyond the Boxscore which deduced that, despite the accepted logic that a line-up provides a manager with a chance to reduce the number of opportunities that his starters with the lowest on-base percentages have to make outs, there are certain spots in the heart of the order in which slugging percentage actually corresponds better to run production than on-base percentage. After running a regression to determine the relative importance of on-base percentage and slugging percentage—the two key components of every hitters offensive game—to each spot in the order, Morong posted a table, which Ken then incorporated into a perl script designed to generate the ideal line-up.

Morong’s post makes sense on its face. Slugging is most useful when there are runners on base to be driven home, thus it is an attribute that’s more desirable in the line-up positions that are most likely to come up with men on base. That’s a central tenant of line-up construction that goes back to the sandlots–load ’em up and drive ’em in–and where we get the term “clean-up hitter” from. After looking at the results of Ken’s script, however, Morong’s numbers result in rather non-traditional line-ups.

To wit, I had Ken run the three Knoblauch-Jeter Championship clubs through his program (after making some tough choices for each year’s left fielder and designated hitter, I used each players actual OBP and SLG numbers from the given season) as well as some projected numbers for the ’06 Yankees. This is what he turned up as the ideal line-up for each of the Knoblauch teams:

1998: Raines Williams ONeill Jeter Brosius Posada Martinez Davis Knoblauch
1999: Williams Jeter Ledee Davis ONeill Brosius Martinez Knoblauch Posada
2000: Jeter Justice Williams Posada ONeill Brosius Martinez Ledee Knoblauch

Getting past the complete rejection of the Knoblauch-Jeter tandem, what this tells us is that the biggest slugger on the team should bat second (Bernie in ’98, Jeter in ’99, Justice in ’00) and, more troublingly, the lowest OBP should go in the six hole (Posada in ’98, Brosius the other two years).

Let’s see what happened when Ken ran my 2006 projections. I gave him two versions of the 2006 line-up, one with Bernie Williams at DH, one with Andy Phillips at DH. For the most part the OBP and SLG figures I used were career numbers. The exceptions being Williams and Sheffield, declining players for whom I rounded up their 2005 numbers, and Cano and Phillips, who lack a sufficient major league track record. I estimated Cano at a .310 OBP, assuming some natural correction on his batting average will shave ten points off his 2005 OBP, and a .450 SLG, again rounding down just slightly in anticipation of some correction in batting average after his unexpected rookie campaign. For Phillips, I looked at his triple-A stats for the last two seasons and tried to project his OBP and SLG should he hit .260 in the majors rather than .300 in the minors. The result was a .340 OBP and a .480 SLG (do I need to say it?). Here are all of the numbers:

Pos Name OBP SLG
C Posada .375 .469
1B Giambi .413 .539
2B Cano .310 .450
3B Rodriguez .385 .577
SS Jeter .386 .461
RF Sheffield .380 .520
CF Damon .345 .440
LF Matsui .370 .484
DH Williams .330 .380
DH Phillips .340 .480

And here are the line-ups:

With Bernie: Giambi Rodriguez Sheffield Posada Matsui Cano Damon Jeter Williams
With Andy: Giambi Rodriguez Sheffield Posada Matsui Cano Phillips Jeter Damon

Again, the top slugger pops up in the two-hole with the lowest OBP in the sixth spot. Again note the complete rejection of the Damon-Jeter/Jeter-Damon construction.

Thanks to David Pinto, you can now have more fun with this program over at Baseball Musings, while a more traditional line-up generator (which puts the best hitter–by the wildly overrated OPS–third, the next best slugger fourth, the next two best on-base men first and second, then fills out the bottom five in descending order of slugging) can be found here. The latter sounds unnecessary, except that it allows you to chose a line-up from every player in baseball, then base the order on one of two projection systems, all via clickable menus. As for my two 2006 Yankee line-ups (using my projections), the traditional line-up generator would produce these two results:

Jeter Sheffield Rodriguez Giambi Matsui Phillips Posada Cano Damon
Jeter Sheffield Rodriguez Giambi Matsui Posada Cano Damon Williams

Which, by sheer fact of the excellence of the heart of the Yankee order, which is awash in high OBP sluggers, also puts a big-time slugger in the two-hole, an idea which seemed to be gaining popularity during the 2004 League Championship Series when three of the four second-place hitters were Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, and Larry Walker, but has since been revealed as somewhere between fluke and fad.

This all brings us back around to the question of Damon. The difference between Jeter-Damon and Damon-Jeter is an easy-to-figure 0.792 outs over 162 games, but the difference between a line-up that begins with that combination and one that pushes Damon below the murderer’s row of Sheffield, Rodriguez, Giambi, Matsui and Posada, all of whom can both out-slug Damon and reach base more often than he can, is something else entirely.

To make the math simple, let’s assume Rodriguez and Giambi would hit three and four in either line-up, let’s then round the on-base percentages of Sheffield, Matsui and Posada all to .380. What we’re doing then, in essence, is promoting one of these .380 on-base percentages from the seventh slot up to the two-hole, then demoting Damon in turn, again for simplicity’s sake we’ll say from second to seventh. Now instead of an 18-at-bat difference, we’re talking about a 90-at-bat difference. Swapping out 35 points of on-base percentage over 90 at-bats is a matter of 3.15 outs, or more than a full inning. True, that’s just barely over one inning out of 1458 or more, but I guarantee you there will be at least one game this season in which that inning could have provided the Yankees with the opportunity to win a game they will wind up losing. Given the fact that the Yankees only won the division last year because of a tie-breaker, and actually wound up in a three-way tie with the Red Sox and Angels at season’s end, one could be excused for believing that the margin for error the team so long enjoyed has evaporated completely, making every inning crucial to their chances of winning the division. Then again, one could make the same point about the 0.792 outs lost by batting Damon ahead of Jeter rather than the reverse. As Brenda Holloway sang, every little bit hurts.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the Yankees season will be decided by much larger swings of fortune and misfortune by than the less than 1/1000th of their outs lost to less than ideal line-up construction. So bicker and banter all you want about who bats where, but bear in mind that, given the uniform excellence of the players being discussed, how little is truly at stake.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver