Does lineup construction really matter?
It’s a question that has been explored, debated, and argued for years. The data says it does, but only in a limited manner. The reason for that is simple – most managers will bat their best bats near the top of the order. We can quibble about the order they use, but building a lineup is one of the most overrated skills we think a manager should have. It’s just not that difficult.
But Brian Snitker is not most managers.
Let’s make one thing clear – Snitker has been better at his job this year than he was last year. Possibly that’s due to being less in the minor league manager mindset. Perhaps it’s because Alex Anthopoulos has given Snitker not only a wealth of data, but people like Walt Weiss to make that data simpler and easier to understand. Also, the talent level is just better this year than last season. And it would be a little ridiculous to ignore that a team picked to finish with third or fourth in their division has been among the frontrunners for most of the season. Certainly, Snitker’s steady hand matters.
It would be just as ridiculous to ignore what are definitely not Snitker’s strengths. Unfortunately, they seem quite focused on how to utilize the on-the-field product. To be fair, he can only be as good as his 25-man roster and Anthopoulos deserves criticism for the ever-evolving door in the bullpen that has led to pitchers like Miguel Socolovich and Lucas Sims struggling for the Braves. It was Anthopoulos, not Snitker, that added Peter Moylan to the team despite his advanced age and questionable value. Depending on Jose Ramirez despite the metrics screaming regression after 2017 also falls on Anthopoulos.
But that doesn’t totally excuse Snitker, who quite publicly makes decisions with his gut over logic too many times. Beyond the bullpen struggles that mentality creates is the lineup issues.
You know how I said lineup construction doesn’t really matter because most managers aren’t choosing absurd ways to build a lineup? Oh, you do? You also remember how I said Snitker isn’t most managers?
Only three teams have a better wOBA out of the third spot in the order than the Atlanta Braves. Of course, we know why. His name is Freddie Freeman and we ought to worship his presence. Eleven teams have a better wOBA out of the second spot than the Braves. For the most part, that has been Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. While the OBP is questionable (.316), an ISO of .187 helps a lot.
The second spot in the order has 416 PA. The spot getting the most is, logically, the leadoff spot with 431. Only six teams have a worse wOBA than the Braves out of the leadoff spot. Only the Giants have managed to do what the Braves have – have a wOBA under .290 out of the leadoff spot and also have a record above .500. The other five teams include the Twins, Athletics, Pirates, Orioles, and Padres. Players on those teams have already made some plans for how to spend October that doesn’t include baseball.
The Braves have one of the best – some would argue the best – hitters in baseball. And while RBI is a number you’ll rarely see me bring up, there is a reason why Freeman has 59, tied for 15th-most in baseball, and isn’t closer to J.D. Martinez or Eugenio Suarez for either the MLB or NL leads. The Braves are effectively giving Freeman often one bullet in the chamber to produce a run – his own. It’s not all that surprising as a result that Nick Markakis, who has hit behind Freeman all year, has the exact same amount of RBI.
Atlanta needs to look at Freeman and think how do they best utilize his skill set. It starts by giving him as many at-bats as possible. The third spot in the order has eight fewer PA than the second spot and 23 fewer PA than the leadoff spot. While conventional wisdom suggests hitting Freeman third, the more sabermetric option is to hit him second. But there’s another way at manufacturing more at-bats for Freeman – get more production from the top of the lineup. While again we can talk about the second spot, the bigger question remains the leadoff spot.
Ender Inciarte did a lot of nice things last year. But even at his best, he was an average leadoff hitter because he doesn’t walk often enough nor provide much pop in his bat. He was a fine option on a team that wasn’t competing, but the Braves have a chance to go to the playoffs. They need more than what Inciarte has produced – which includes a .315 OBP this season and .301 out of the leadoff spot.
It would be reasonable to point out Albies hasn’t been an on-base machine. Though it would be just as fair to point out that Albies has a .356 wOBA – 64 points higher than Inciarte – so let’s not try to compare the two.
These numbers are readily available. Ignorance is not an option, but Snitker is not making a choice on who to bat leadoff based on numbers. As Kelsey Wingert pointed out, “Snitker has addressed Ender leading off multiple times and believes this team is at its best when Ender is leading off and doing what he’s capable of doing.” But there is a caveat there. Ender is not doing what he’s capable of doing. There is an additional argument that even if he was, batting him leadoff wouldn’t be what is best for the team, but Inciarte – outside of a few short runs – has not looked like the 2017 version of Inciarte.
Is it stubbornness? Is it being too much of a player’s manager? Even Bobby Cox, who Snitker is a disciple of, wouldn’t have stuck with Inciarte this long.
The Braves briefly experimented with Inciarte in the nine-hole in May. Not because Snitker believed in the concept of hitting the pitcher eighth and utilizing the ninth spot as a second leadoff hitter who, even though Inciarte has struggled, is still a better option to jumpstart a rally in front of Albies, Acuna, Freeman, and Markakis than Julio Teheran. Rather, Snitker hit Inciarte ninth to “get him going.” His predecessor, Fredi Gonzalez, also utilized the pitcher hitting eighth to “shake things up.” These are the rationales of two managers being told to give it a chance by upper management when they don’t want to.
Yet it makes sense now like it did then. The Braves offense has slowed down and giving away outs in the leadoff spot is not helping. So…what would help? Try this lineup, coach. I’m sure it will shake things up and might even get a few guys going.
1. Nick Markakis – Markakis is 15th in baseball in OBP and he’s hitting fourth. Maximize his PA.
2. Ozzie Albies – There are problems, yes, but know how many Braves have a better wOBA? Two. Albies should hit between them.
3. Freddie Freeman – He’s good.
4. Ronald Acuna Jr. – Going to get a lot of strikeouts, but the production will also be there.
5. Johan Camargo – Comparable production to the catcher platoon, but splits up back-to-back righties.
6. Kurt Suzuki/Tyler Flowers – Flowers is struggling right now but will get going. Could also flip with Acuna Jr. when Suzuki is in the lineup.
7. Dansby Swanson – Not much better right now than Inciarte, but a bit more pop in front of the pitcher spot.
8. Pitcher – Why can’t the NL adopt the DH already?
9. Ender Inciarte – You won’t neuter his speed game by hitting him in front of the pitcher.
This lineup may not score a bunch more runs than the current one, but it will give the team a better chance to win. And for a team struggling to get wins right now, that would be a big improvement. Either way, it’s time for Snitker to stop hoping things will change and actually manage his roster. Good clubhouse guys rarely win in October.