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Optimizing the Astros Lineup by THE BOOK: Season Update

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Before the season started, SkyKalkmen at BtB got many of us thinking about how the Astros could maximize their offensive talent.  At the time, I went through the likely Astros regulars and looked at their PECOTA, ZIPS, and CHONE projections and made my best guess at how to get the most from our collection of relatively high SLG to low OBP guys that all three systems projected.

It's August now, and we know enough about the actual performance of the Astros to move away from the projections and go ahead and look what they've actually produced and how Cecil Cooper could best harness that when constructing his lineup card.  While this optimized lineup will have to wait for Lance Berkman to return from the DL, it's some food for thought for an evening without baseball...right?

Leading Off: Michael Bourn

Here's what we're actually looking for in a lead off hitter:

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 I did this in early April, Hunter Pence was slated as our lead off guy, but Michael Bourn has defied every projection system (and likely our own) expectations.  With the third high OBP on the team at .360, Bourn really is the ideal lead off hitter.

Batting Second: Lance Berkman

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?

 

As I said in April, Lance is the ideal two hole hitter.  He leads the Astros in both OBP, SLG, ISO, wOBA...he's our best hitter—period.

In the three hole: Miguel Tejada

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.

 

Miggy is having a phenomenal season in terms of collecting hits, but he's offensive numbers, overall, lead a lot to be desired.  With that in mind, he finds himself in the three hole, where his skill set will be maximized and not wasted.

Batting Clean-up: Carlos Lee

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 feels pretty self-explanatory here: second best hitter, lower OBP than Lance...

Batting Fifth: Hunter Pence

The three and five hole were tough decisions for me to make because of the wonkiness of Miguel Tejada this year, but after my agonizing, I feel confident that as of August 6th, 2009, the Astros actually have five players who make sense filling out the first five spots of the optimized lineup from The Book.

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.

 

Hunter Pence is Carlos Lee, with less HR.  So he's our wannabe clean up hitter.

Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine:

Even though the Astros have two full-time platoons operating, it actually works out such that it doesn't matter whether the opposing pitcher is left-handed or right-handed, or whether Q or Pudge are behind the plate either.  The Je(geo)ff's are eerily similar hitters in 2009 and Humberto Quintero and Ivan Rodriguez are both just equally bad.

So here's how the rest of the lineup should shake out:

6. Geoff Blum/Jeff Keppinger

7. Kazuo Matsui

8. Humberto Quintero/Ivan Rodriguez

9) Pitcher du Jour

A caveat could be made that Mike Hampton (and at this point even Roy Oswalt) should bat eight on the days that he toes the mound, but as Sky discussed in his original piece, the effect of having two "lead-off" hitters is negligible over the course of a full season.  However, whatever Cecil Cooper does with the pitcher, what's amazing is how close our actual lineup is to the optimized one.  Do we have to start giving kudos to Coop now?