07 February 2013

Earl Weaver and Batting Lineups: Weaver on Strategy

Previously on the Camden Depot Book Club, I remarked on a few items that Weaver addressed in his second chapter of the book, Weaver on Strategy.  That chapter addressed his thoughts on various aspects of offensive play.  This entry will address the next chapter.

Chapter 2 - The Lineup
Pushing the Right Buttons

A Perfect Order
Earl Weaver was a bit of a master clock maker.  He saw his role in setting his team up before each game and then letting them go.  A significant part of his determination of who to set out on the field came from his understanding of various metrics.  The following is his idea of who should slot in where in the line up:
Leadoff - "someone with a high on-base percentage...70 walks and a high batting average"
Second and Third - "have as many guys on base as possible when the number four hitter comes to bat"
Fourth - has enough power "to do some damage with men on base"
Fifth - "should have some power...so opposition cannot pitch around the number four hitter"
And he derides the use of the second hitter being a high contact bunt or hit-and-run player.  The concept of the first five players and how not to use a second hitter is actually very forward thinking.  It reemerged with the Oakland A's teams from the 2000s and has progressively made its way through a significant portion of Major League Baseball.

However, as much of a visionary Weaver was with the lineup, even the good people of Baltimore forget his lessons.  Last year with Nick Markakis going down, much was to be argued about the proper lineup order.  J.J. Hardy and his sub-300 OBP batting second 150 times last year.  That has to be one of the most anti-Weaverian displays last year.  Hardy is an old school perspective on second batters.

As interesting aside, I do not think I ever printed this before as I cannot seem to find it, but I once ran a regression on batting lineups of all 30 teams over a ten year period expanding from OBP and SLG value to include an improvised speed score based on Speed Score.  What I found amazing by the regression analysis was that speed came out as a negative trait for a lead off hitter.  This does not make intuitive sense at first look.  However, thinking more about it, the reason why speed was considered a hindrance according to the regression analysis was because managers tended to use speedy players at the top of the lineup while largely ignoring how well they actually get on base.  Speed is excellent, but not when the other tools overwhelm the utility of speed.

Numerical Narcosis
I think numbers can be a wonderful thing.  Ideas and concept sometimes become so elegant and lucid in their place when events are measured in the right ways.  It is what brought chemistry out of alchemy and advanced medicine away from barbers.  To understand how something works, why something works, it can be quite empowering.  However, it can lead one to overlook where current processes do not measure things as well as they measure other things.  I call this numerical narcosis or, more simply, being drunk on numbers.

Such perspectives run rampant in baseball circles where a little knowledge can make someone dangerous.  The Verducci Effect has evaporated into nothingness and likely will be forgotten in time.  That hypothesis came forward by squinting hard and seeing patterns where there really were none or at least none that could be so easily pinned to a change in innings.  Likewise, number crunching amateur players has eroded from the meager footholds that they held in Oakland and Toronto.  Psychological evaluations petered out in Baltimore.  Everyone looks for an in, everyone wants to believe that they can explain and measures things, which can lead to ignoring times where the approach fails.

This brings me back to Earl Weaver and his focus on a player's record against a pitcher.  He goes over sitting down and looking at a sheet of paper that yields information that ranges on 2 to 35 plate appearances with most below 20.  Somehow he thinks this is sufficient data to make decisions on who should play over general handedness data.  I would suggest that having one or two seasons of data points on handedness would be a much better predictor of future success than a few seasons of numbers against specific pitchers.  Although pitcher have some degree of unique value, the sheer difference in volume between the two datasets will likely leave handedness more useful than performance against specific pitchers.

The Extra 3% Lineup
On average, a team send a batter up to the plate 34 times in a game.  An idea Earl Weaver had was to sometimes write in outfielder Royle Stillman or first baseman Tom Chism at shortstop when the Orioles were the visitors.  After the top half of the inning, Mark Belanger would then come in and play the rest of the game.  This happened in 1978 and 1979 when Belanger hit 36 and 48 OPS+.  Weaver would only do this in September after the roster increased in size for fear that during the regular season a pinch hitter would be needed.

Last year, Robert Andino played in 127 games.  Let us assume that he started 60 of those on the road.  Just how many runs would replacing Andino with a bench player for that first at bat earn the Orioles?  If Steve Pearce and his 92 wRC+ batted leadoff in place of Robert Andino and his 61 wRC+ for those 60 at bats, the Orioles would have gained 2.3 runs over those 60 plate appearances.  That is roughly a quarter of a win.  If such a situation was carried out over 81 road games, that would be worth maybe a third of a win.  Trade in Steve Pearce for Nick Markakis and you would see a gain of about three quarters of a win for those 81 games.

Needless to say, I could understand doing this in situations where a player must sit, such as when Matt Wieters needs a day off.  If you have a player as poor at hitting as Andino in the lineup then, sure, as long as it does not mess with Andino's head too much...let Wieters lead off.  However, I assume these situations are few and far between.  They probably really frustrate the players, too.


Next Chapter:
Pitching - The Game Within the Game

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