The Astros project to have one of baseball’s best offenses in 2021. For the past several years, the Astros’ offensive output has been tremendous. The lineup’s potency isn’t in question, but what is up in the air is what the configuration of the lineup will be after an offseason of significant change.
While mismanagement of the lineup card isn’t terribly consequential in the grand scheme of a 162-game season, there is some merit to its importance in the postseason, where each game is crucial. The Astros not only expect to reach the postseason, but to play well into October for the fifth consecutive year.
Lineup optimization is a topic that’s been discussed for years. The goal is simple — to maximize run production. What it boils down to is properly inserting players into the nine (or eight in NL) slots of the batting order.
There is no one objective way to do this, but doing so from an analytical perspective is sensible and has been gradually permeating throughout the league in recent years, thanks in part to front offices having more influence on pre-game strategy.
Obviously, the importance of lineup optimization varies for each team, as it’s not something that can make up for a lack of talent. The Astros do not have that problem, so an examination of the best possible lineup is relevant and won’t be without meaning.
The values and qualities of each slot
In 2009, Beyond the Box Score’s Sky Kalkman wrote an article detailing the basics of lineup optimization and its significance. Kalkman’s analysis is based on “The Book,” which was written by sabermetricians Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin.
In Kalkman’s piece, he lays out the role and value of each slot in a batting order, and in general, how to view lineup construction as simply trying to avoid outs, particularly at key spots in the order.
“Another way to look at things is to order the batting slots by the leveraged value of the out. In plain English (sort of), we want to know how costly making an out is by each lineup position, based on the base-out situations they most often find themselves in, and then weighted by how often each lineup spot comes to the plate.”
From that standpoint, here’s how Kalkman ranks each slot, in terms of importance.
Put into layman’s terms, this is his takeaway.
“So, you want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters.”
For the most part, Kalkman’s analysis remains valid more than a decade later. Though perhaps not in accordance with how he values each slot, the belief that a team’s best hitter should hit 2nd has become more popular since the trend originated in the early to mid 2010s.
Sports Betting Dime published an article detailing the qualities each slot in a lineup should have. They created a table that was also based on analysis from “The Book.”
The 5-hole being more important than the 3-hole is certainly interesting, though again, it may not be meant to coincide with the “give the best players the most at-bats possible” logic.
An optimal construction
Just to state explicitly, this isn’t pertaining to what manager Dusty Baker’s lineup will look like.
Employing the parameters above and utilizing FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection system — which combines projections from ZiPS and Steamer and accounts for projected playing time — here’s what the Astros’ lineup should look like.
1. Alex Bregman, 3B
Few players in baseball possess better on-base skills than Bregman, who is remarkably disciplined at the plate. Of all Astros hitters, Bregman is the most well-rounded and is without any notable flaws. In terms of speed, he is a relatively above-average runner. He has all of the necessary attributes to hit atop a formidable order.
2. Yordan Álvarez, DH
Because Álvarez’s power output is likely to exceed all others’, it would be reasonable to think he shouldn’t be hitting this high. However, Álvarez is projected to be the Astros’ most impactful bat along with Bregman, so placing him in the 2-hole makes more sense.
3. José Altuve, 2B
This is where things get tricky, as determining who hits here and in the next three slots isn’t easily decided, but this is very much a good problem for the Astros. Altuve gets the nod here because, like Bregman, he’s exceptionally well-rounded. Although not as capable at the plate as Bregman, Altuve’s speed is easily plus.
4. Carlos Correa, SS
Correa’s power lands him in the cleanup spot, and his slightly more favorable projections have him here instead of the Astros’ young phenom in right field. Once again, Correa’s health will be in the spotlight in 2021, and could solely determine the outcome of his season.
5. Kyle Tucker, RF
Tucker has a case for batting in one of the two spots ahead, and while his plate discipline has improved, his still-developing on-base skills and his plus power make him ideal for the 5-hole. Again, a lot of this is splitting hairs, and there’s no clearly wrong way to construct this part of the order.
6. Michael Brantley, LF
Houston’s favorite uncle is used to hitting higher than sixth, but the reality is that Brantley’s in a stacked lineup, and one of the Astros’ high-quality bats has to be slotted here. Despite turning 34 in May, Brantley’s still projected to make an impact at the plate in 2021.
7. Yuli Gurriel, 1B
Gurriel’s hand injury might be responsible for his meager 2020 production. How big a role the injury played is unknown. His power outburst in 2019 is likely a thing of the past, but it is fair to wonder if his 2021 projections are somewhat light. Time will tell.
8. Myles Straw, CF
Conventional wisdom puts Straw at the very bottom of an order, as his blazing speed, half-decent on-base skills and complete lack of power make him a perfect fit to hit in front of the best hitters when the lineup turns over. As logical as it seems to do that, the lineup construction model that’s being adhered to says Straw should not be batting behind one of the Astros’ two catchers.
9. Martín Maldonado, C
Maldonado’s absurd 16.4% walk rate in 2020 is all but guaranteed to come crashing down in 2021. He’s a decent source of power, and he may still draw a fair amount of walks going forward, but overall, Maldonado’s strengths have never been at the plate, but behind it.
Jason Castro, C
Castro’s inclusion here is necessary because a platoon between he and Maldonado could be an inevitability, even if reports state the inverse. In any case, Castro’s 2021 projections will be fascinating to reflect on once the season is over. His 2019 production, albeit in less than 300 plate appearances, remains highly intriguing.
Constructing a deep, dynamic lineup such as the Astros’ isn’t difficult. Optimizing it is uncomplicated, as there are multiple ways to do it, especially when accounting for when a left-handed starting pitcher or a right-handed starting pitcher is on the mound, which was intentionally avoided here for the sake of simplicity.
Projection systems are not perfect, but they give an adequate look into the near future, and they’ve inferred that the Astros’ 2021 lineup will be one of the finest in baseball.