Optimizing the Astros lineup by The Book: The 2010 Edition(s)

Last year, at the nudging of Sky KalkmanI looked at the optimal lineup for the Astros according to The Book. At the time, I stated that it was kind of a depressing exercise. This year is no different. It's hard to make an optimal lineup out of a group of players who don't walk a lot and have an alarming propensity for GIDPs.

Last year this post ate up entirely too much time because I kept analyzing and rethinking how to format the lineup. This year, I just went with my gut reaction. If there is disagreement about my selections, I'll just take the critiques and we can debate them in the comments. I am also going to include a lineup optimized when Lance Berkman is not being in the lineup. The further back his return date gets pushed, the more inclined I am to believer that we won't see him until after the All Star Break...if we see him at all. So it makes sense to fine-tune the lineup to reflect his extended absence.

The caveat that needs to emphasized—heavily—is that these are lineups based on projections. There are certainly disagreements I have with the projections that will be utilized, but, in terms of this project, they are useful. In some ways projections are more useful than our guts, in other ways they are not. Last year, we got a lot of milage out of discussing how to optimize the lineup based on our gut assumptions and we should certainly hash that out again. I just don't want to be presumptuous enough to be the "chief gut".

Like last year, I'll start you off with a teaser of the optimized line up, by The Book, according to their averaged projections (discussed below):

  1. Hunter Pence
  2. Lance Berkman
  3. Michael Bourn
  4. Carlos Lee
  5. J.R. Towles
  6. Kazuo Matsui
  7. Pedro Feliz
  8. Pitcher du jour
  9. Tommy Manzella
To start, I need to show the averaged projections and explain myself. Averaging the projections is not a very scientific process, but what I wanted to to do was remove the overt optimism and pessimism of the various systems. I chose CHONE, ZiPs, and PECOTA because, to my knowledge, they are highest rated projection systems in the business. It's a pursuit of the Goldie Lockian standard of just right. Obviously, the various projection systems see different results for different players, so if you think one has a player nailed bring it up in the comments.

Player CHONE OBP CHONE SLG ZiPs OBP ZiPs SLG PECOTA OBP PECOTA SLG Avg OBP Avg SLG
Pence 0.345 0.488 0.333 0.475 0.355 0.494 0.344 0.486
Berkman 0.377 0.498 0.392 0.517 0.394 0.507 0.388 0.507
Bourn 0.338 0.36 0.328 0.354 0.335 0.375 0.334 0.363
Lee 0.341 0.503 0.349 0.514 0.359 0.497 0.350 0.505
Towles 0.332 0.409 0.323 0.375 0.331 0.384 0.329 0.389
Matsui 0.316 0.369 0.315 0.373 0.328 0.391 0.320 0.378
Feliz 0.299 0.407 0.297 0.391 0.315 0.390 0.304 0.396
Manzella 0.295 0.349 0.292 0.346 0.294 0.347 0.294 0.347
Keppinger 0.343 0.401 0.334 0.385 0.349 0.393 0.342 0.393
Blum 0.299 0.367 0.311 0.384 0.321 0.401 0.310 0.384

So why the lineup that I have chose? Because Tom Tango, Mitchell Litchman, and Andy Dolphin did an amazing amount of research to determine just exactly how to squeeze every last run out of a group of nine batters, and I think i've fit our players to that end.

Let's break it down:

The old-school book says to put a speedy guy up top.  Power isn't important, and OBP is nice, but comes second to speed.

The Book says OBP is king.  The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns?  The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs?  As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they're not as important.  The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power.  Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.

When Lance Berkman is healthy, he reigns supreme in terms of of OBP, but he is also the best hitter and needs to be placed elsewhere. That leaves Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence duking it out for who bats lead-off.  According to PECOTA, they are pretty much the same player, but everyone else has Lee as the second best hitter in the lineup. The way I actually differentiated between the two was that Hunter Pence has more speed and is thus more likely to get around to home than El Buffalo.

The old-school book says to put a bat-control guy here.  Not a great hitter, but someone who can move the lead-off hitter over for one of the next two hitters to drive in.

The Books says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often.  That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall.  And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player.  Doesn't sound like someone who should be sacrificing, does it?

In terms of the Astros lineup, I think that this is where Berkman has to be. It gives the Astros the maximized probability to have a ball in play to drive Pence in, and it also increases the probablity that there's someone on base, with only one out. Batting second also doesn't sacrifice any of Berkman's power potential.

The old-school book says to put your best high-average hitter here.  The lead-off hitter should already be in scoring position and a hit drives him in.  Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

The Book says the #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters.  So why focus on putting a guy who can knock in runs in the #3 spot, when the two spots after him can benefit from it more?  Surprisingly, because he comes to bat so often with two outs and no runners on base, the #3 hitter isn't nearly as important as we think.  This is a spot to fill after more important spots are taken care of.

My guess is that a number of you took one look at Michael Bourn in the three hole and scratched your heads. I feel like it fits, though. The numbers tell us it is not really important who hits here, so unless Jeff Keppinger is going to made into a full time player, the best way to have a decent, but not great hitter occupy this spot is to throw Michael Bourn in here.

There are a few ancillary bonuses gained by having Bourn here. First, he's fast enough to avoid/break up double play opportunities by either stealing a bag, or just being fast. Secondly, he can take advantage of Carlos Lee's gappers. That's not a bad little bit of spill over effect.

The old-school book says to put your big power bat here, probably a guy with a low batting average, who will hit the big multi-run homeruns.

The Book says the #4 hitter comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine spots, but is equal in importance to the #2 hole once you consider the #2 guy receives more plate appearances.  The cleanup hitter is the best hitter on the team with power.

Carlos Lee is the second best bat in the Astros lineup, which pretty much confines him to this spot. It also helps that his power bat fits the profile.

The old-school book says the number five guy is a wannabe cleanup hitter.

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns.  After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The projections do not see a whole lot of meaningful difference between Michael Bourn and JR Towles' OBP, but Towles is projected to provide more pop in his bat than Bourn. It makes sense then to slot him here, I think. If we could just get Keppinger an at bat everyday, I think that Kepp would bat 3rd and Bourn would slot down here at fifth...but it would be a tough call.

The old-school book says the rest of the lineup should be written in based on decreasing talent.  Hitting ninth is an insult.

The Book basically agrees, with a caveat.  Stolen bases are most valuable ahead of high-contact singles hitters, who are more likely to hit at the bottom of the lineup.  So a base-stealing threat who doesn't deserve a spot higher in the lineup is optimized in the #6 hole, followed by the singles hitters.

I chose Kaz Matsui to bat sixth because he has both the next best projected OBP, but also some speed to play well with Feliz. From here on it it's just a matter of whose OBP is worse. OBP kills.

Finally, a justification as to why the pitcher should bat eighth:

Yes, giving an awful hitter more plate appearances by hitting him higher in the lineup is costly, but the benefit of having a better number nine hitter interacting with the top of the lineup is worth the trade-off, by about two runs per season.  By putting a decent hitter at the bottom of the order, the top spots in the lineup will have more runners on base to advance with walks and hits and drive in with hits.

This team will need all the run producing potential it can get (see twelve runs in six games), so why scoff at the idea? Plus, it would probably see Manzella get more hittable pitches batting "in front of" Pence. I see nothing bad about this concept.

Ok. There is now an optimized lineup for an Astros team that isn't missing its best hitter, but what about one that is. Here's my crack at it:

  1. Michael Bourn - he bats first because I don't want to sacrifice Pence or Lee's power and that leaves Bourn with the next best OBP
  2. Carlos Lee - he is the best projected bat the lineup, so he has to be here.
  3. Kazuo Matsui - the fifth best bat. Thankfully Kaz, too, has some speed that might be beneficially in front of Hunter Pence and his proclivity for GIDPs.
  4. Hunter Pence - the second best bat in the lineup with nearly as much power as Lee.
  5. JR Towles - sadly the fourth best bat in the lineup in this scenario and a bat with more pop than Kaz's.
  6. Geoff Blum - there is nothing more depressing than the knowledge that the sixth best bat in the lineup carries a .310 OBP. Remember the days when Ausumus and Everett were clearly the worst hitters on the team and then turned in similar OBPs?
  7. Pedro Feliz - OBP kills
  8. Pitcher du jour - see above
  9. Tommy Manzella - OBP truly kills
This lineup is atrocious. It's so bad that I don't know if it is justifiable to not find a place for Jeff Keppinger in the lineup everyday just so that the Astros can at least field three bats that are projected to have an OBP greater than .340.  

If you are fighting the urge to curl up in the fetal position and weep, don't hold back. Once you are finished, though, post your comments, corrections, etc. and we'll hopefully have enough to report to Brad Mills and keep him from looking like he does above.
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