Why is a manager in charge of the lineup?
Baseball contains strategy, but it's not the same piece-moving chess match that football can be, where every play is intricately designed to feature all 11 players.
Does it matter whether a manager bats a guy second or eighth? Derek Jeter's been batting leadoff for the Yankees all year and they're still on the cusp of the playoffs. Last year, the big dustup was Dusty Baker batting his light-hitting shortstop second for some ill-fated "place-setter" reasons.
When it comes down to it, did the decision to bat Jose Altuve in the cleanup spot make or break this season?
Why, then, do we treat any questions about who gets to set Houston's lineup each day as a make-or-break matter for this front office?
Let's set up a scenario: A manager of a young team, who we shall call the Houston Buffs, works in concert with the front office. The team gives him reams of data, uploaded to his custom iPad he can keep by his side in the dugout. He can consult is brand-new iWatch to see statistics from the team database at a moment's notice.
The manager sets out to create a lineup for that day's game. He knows his team. He knows his slugging first baseman has been struggling and probably needs a mental health day off. He knows that his bench outfielder hasn't played in four days and probably needs some at-bats. He gets his starters in order.
Now, the front office steps in with its lineup suggestions. Based on the players you picked, the numbers spit out a lineup that maximizes their positions relative to run expectancy and the opposing pitcher.
Voila. A lineup is created.
Did the front office allow the Buffs manager to create his own lineup? In this scenario, was the manager free to pick his lineup, based on his knowledge of the clubhouse and where his players were at? Or, did the almighty number crunching nerds tell the manager what to do and take away all his agency?
I lean toward the latter. Gut feelings should not have any place in whether a shortstop bats fifth or sixth on a given night.
But, you say, what does it matter? How many runs could that actually save or give a team in a season? Probably not many, according to most of the research done on lineup construction. Maximizing a lineup doesn't drastically increase a team's ability to win.
Take these Astros, though. They've played a preponderance of one-run games this year and, for the second straight year, have not won nearly enough of them. What if maximizing lineups gave them two more one-run victories? Those runs add up.
No, the difference between whether you view the Buffs scenario above as meddling or cooperation lies in how you view the agent giving you the lineup suggestion. If you have had serious communication breakdowns with a front office and don't trust the data you're given, then they're trying to set your lineup for you. They're trying to micromanage you.
If you have a good working relationship, then the process is a two-way conversation. Call this the Joe Maddon Theory. It's not an affront to managerial autonomy, but a way the two sides can best work together, meshing the psychological with the empirical.
Why does a baseball manager have total control over a lineup?
Because that's the way it's always been done. That's the traditional baseball wisdom. It's an art, not a science.
It also runs counter to all the research that's gone on in baseball over the last 20 years.
If all a manager has to do with a baseball team is order nine guys, why is he so important that he has his own award?
Managing is about more than lineup construction. To argue that the Astros could lose out on top-flight manager candidates because they have ideas on lineup optimization minimalizes his impact on a team. It's about more than that. it always has been.