Reminder: Batting Order Isn’t Terribly Important

In the comments of Friday’s post about Placido Polanco, some Crashburn readers discussed their ideal batting order for the 2012 season. It’s a common discussion you’ll see among fans of any team — and, hey, it’s January, what else is there to talk about? I’d like to use that as a jumping-off point to remind fans that batting order doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say it should be ignored, but its relative magnitude should be kept in perspective.

Using this lineup analysis page, I punched in the on-base percentage and slugging percentage projections for the Phillies, courtesy Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS. Below are the noteworthy batting orders and their expected runs per game output. The eight players used were Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Hunter Pence, Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry, and “pitcher” (Phillies’ aggregate 2011 OBP/SLG for pitchers).

Most Optimal Lineups: 4.46 runs per game (723 runs in 162 games)

  • Ruiz-Victorino-Rollins-Pence-Utley-Mayberry-Wigginton-Pitcher-Polanco
  • Ruiz-Utley-Rollins-Pence-Victorino-Mayberry-Wigginton-Pitcher-Polanco

Most Likely Lineup: 4.21 runs per game (682 runs in 162 games)

  • Victorino-Polanco-Utley-Pence-Wigginton-Rollins-Mayberry-Ruiz-Pitcher

Least Optimal Lineups: 3.95 runs per game (640 runs in 162 games)

  • Pitcher-Rollins-Pence-Polanco-Mayberry-Ruiz-Victorino-Utley-Wigginton
  • Pitcher-Rollins-Wigginton-Polanco-Mayberry-Ruiz-Victorino-Utley-Pence

(Even if you’re highly skeptical of ZiPS or the lineup analysis tool used, the results will more or less scale.)

The difference between the most optimal and the most likely lineups is 0.25 runs per game, or about 40 runs over a 162-game season. Of course, that is made less relevant by the Phillies’ reliance on pitching and defense in lieu of offense: it would be more important to scratch and claw for the extra one-fourth of a run every game if they didn’t have an ace taking the mound three out of every five turns (each of whom averaged fewer than 2.8 earned runs allowed per nine innings in 2011).

Just for fun, I substituted the recovering Ryan Howard in for Wigginton. The most optimal lineup went up to 4.60 runs per game and the most likely lineup increased to 4.37 runs per game. The downgrade from Howard to Wigginton will cost the Phillies 11 runs over the course of a full season, or slightly more than one win. It’s not so much where you put your players in the batting order; it’s who you have in there in the first place.

Furthermore, the truly important lineup decisions will be made in the middle and late innings of games, when Charlie Manuel will be forced to pinch-hit, pinch-run, and make double-switches. For instance, deciding between Mayberry facing a tired right-handed starter and Jim Thome facing a fresh lefty reliever in the seventh inning of a 3-2 game will have more of an impact on winning or losing a game than whether Carlos Ruiz hits seventh or eighth in four at-bats over the course of that entire game. Batting order isn’t irrelevant, but the real focus should be on solid in-game decision-making.