Analyst Tom Tango linked to an article written by David Laurila over at FanGraphs a few weeks ago and as Tango put it, “the Indians’ view on batting orders intersect(s) to a good degree with what’s in The Book.” The Book, for those unaware, provides the proper context for baseball’s “conventional wisdom”, either supporting or opposing some of the game’s long standing strategies through fantastic – truly fantastic – analytical work.
Chapter five, Batting (Dis)Order, looks for ways to maximize offensive production through lineup efficiency. For example, “Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2, and #4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth-best hitters should occupy #3 and #5 slots.” And, “From slot #6 through #9, put the players in descending order of quality.” This is just the surface of it and the chapter goes in far greater detail with expanded context.
Now back to the Cleveland Indians…
Center fielder Michael Brantley has one above-average offensive tool: speed. Unfortunately, because of his speed he’s been miscast as a leadoff hitter; one, though, that hasn’t been very good at getting on base. And as Tango pointed out, the leadoff spot should be reserved for one of the team’s top three hitters. Brantley, despite his recent hot streak, is not one of them. But he is the fifth, maybe sixth, best (healthy, non-DL’d) hitter behind Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and maybe Lonnie Chisenhall, if he can consistently square-up lefties.
So, that would put Brantley in the #5 or #6 spot in the order, which is where he’s been hitting for about the past month or so.
But, wait, those two spots, according to The Book, should also be used to leverage a player’s speed by having him hit in front of singles hitters or players that don’t strikeout much. And there’s a decent chance that this will be used for the team’s best base stealer.
Well, Brantley’s not the team’s best base stealer; he’s third, behind Kipnis and Choo, who belong at the top of the lineup. But he does hover around the “break even” point (about 75%) for stealing bases. And the two hitters that typically follow him – Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon – are both singles hitter that don’t strike out a lot.
Intuitively, Brantley shouldn’t belong in the fifth or sixth spot. But analytically he does. And as the Indians continue to battle for a potential playoff spot with probably better equipped teams it is moves like this that could help them even the playing field a little bit.
And, truthfully, Michael Brantley is an imperfect player, but what the Indians have done here is find a way to better utilize him.
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