I just finished reading The Only Rule Is It Has To Work a couple of days ago. I’d recommend it.
Thus concludes the first installment of Alex Book Club. It’s also probably the last installment since taping stolen Caldecott Awards on baseball books and saying I have a book club is frowned upon by Barnes and Noble.
In case you never heard of the book, Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh from Baseball Prospectus’ Effectively Wild are given authority over an independent club and try out the SABR theories people debate. Would a five man infield work? Can a closer go multiple innings? Can you evaluate talent from just a stat line?
Of course, they run into obstacles along the way, usually from a less-than-receptive manager. One of the most common areas of debate is lineup construction.
Which finally brings us to today’s story (I knew I buried that lede around here somewhere): what does the “best” Pirates’ lineup look like?
Some of that lineup has already been decided. Hurdle announced that McCutchen is going to bat third (for the record, I’d bat him second again. I think his struggles early in the year were physical and not mental from the order change. If it was mental, he would have caught fire when getting dropped in the order, but he continued to tread water for weeks).
It’s safe to assume Mercer will bat eighth against righties and get looks leading off against southpaws. Bet the farm the pitcher will bat ninth.
That still leaves six starting position players to sort out over six spots. There’s 720 different combinations, or 1,440 once you factor in different lineups for lefties and righties.
And of course, that ignores the wildcard on the club: Jung-ho Kang.
For the second year in a row, Kang will not get a full spring training. He’s standing trial for drunk driving Wednesday, an offense that could result in jail time, jeopardize his work visa or lead to a suspension by the league. Between that and his injury history, odds are Kang is going to miss a chunk of this season at some point.
But let’s look at what the lineup will be when he, Marte, Polanco, Harrison, Cervelli and Bell are on the scorecard.
Harrison is the product of generations precise leadoff hitter breeding, but his low walk rate leads to a sluggish OBP and makes him undesirable at the top. The Pirates had the right idea giving Jaso the most nods at leadoff last year, but like I documented in my last article, he is not built to be an everyday starter anymore and struggled.
Cervelli had a .417 OBP with the bases empty over 211 plate appearances last year. That was a big jump from his .361 career clip, but .361 is nothing to sneeze at either. A walk with the bases empty is every bit as good as a hit, so put the OBP machine first.
If there needs to be a change midseason and Bell has proven himself, he might deserve a look. He had a mind-blowing 1.166 OPS in 87 plate appearances leading off in AAA last year.
Against Righties: Francisco Cervelli. Against Lefties: Jordy Mercer
I’m sure you all remember every argument last spring training on why McCutchen should bat second. Put the baddest guy in the lineup there because they’ll get 18 more at-bats over the season and even more with runners on base.
This year, the baddest dude will probably be Polanco.
It’s true that Bell, Kang and Marte all have higher projected OPS marks from Fangraphs’ Steamer and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, but for the first half last year, Polanco was a monster, slugging .500 with a 128 wRC+. His second half was not nearly as good, but that was partially due to a shoulder and knee injury. If he stays healthy and continues to develop, he can be an All-Star.
This decision becomes easier once one considers Kang is too streaky to be given the spot I deem the most important in the lineup, Bell needs to prove himself and Marte is better utilized elsewhere.
Against southpaws, Harrison might be worth taking a look. His OBP was still low, but a .467 slugging percentage resulted in a 118 wRC+ against lefties. But I’m picking Cervelli again, who had a 129 wRC+ when he had the hand advantage. That’s the exact same number as Sean Rodriguez last year.
Against Righties: Gregory Polanco. Against Lefties: Francisco Cervelli
I’d like to thank Hurdle for saving me the trouble of pissing into the wind and arguing that Cutch should bat second. Changing positions for getting the old spot in the lineup back is a fair trade.
Against Righties and Lefties: Andrew McCutchen
For the traditional “bopper” spot in the order, I think the Bucs would be crazy not to give it to the guy who hit only nine home runs last year.
I don’t usually get suckered into seeing how a batter hits in a certain spot in the lineup because it is too situational and specific to take too seriously, but there is something magical about batting fourth.. I remember how excited Polanco was last year when he got a chance to consistently bat cleanup. Call it a hunch, but I do think getting the marquee spot in the order can help or hurt offensive output.
And boy, did Marte shine batting cleanup. Over 274 plate appearances, he hit .332, had a .391 OBP and a 148 wRC+. That weighted run pace would have been good for 10th in all of baseball, sandwiched between Kris Bryant and Nelson Cruz.
Kang may need consideration, but my vote goes to Marte.
Against Righties and Lefties: Starling Marte
Kang’s spot in the lineup. He hit 12 home runs in 107 at-bats in this spot last year. He’s been bounced around to fourth and sixth before, but he always seems to nestle in back at fifth. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Against Righties and Lefties: Jung-Ho Kang
14 years ago, the Pirates had two players named Randall Simon and Tike Redman. Simon was a slow footed first baseman with a 1.000 career average against Milwaukee mascots, and Redman was a speedy outfielder and singles hitter. Simon batted sixth, Redman seventh. If both were on, Simon effectively killed Redman’s best tool: his speed. This drove an 11 year old Alex bonkers.
Sorry 11 year old Alex, but Bell and then Harrison are a good six-seven duo. To conclude this trip back to mid-2000s Pirates baseball, let’s look back at how terrible the red jerseys were.
Awful, I know.
Bell’s lumber is just too appealing to bury any lower than sixth, and Harrison’s OBP is too streaky to be given anything higher than seventh at the moment. To atone for my baserunning sins, I’m going to move Harrison up to sixth against lefties to take advantage of that high slugging percentage.
Against Righties: Josh Bell. Against Lefties: Josh Harrison
Harrison is going back to where he spent most of last season and Polanco is here against lefties. I will admit dropping Polanco this much may be a bit drastic. After all, his OPS was just five points lower against southpaws (.781) than righties (.786) a year ago. If he proves that wasn’t a fluke, give him a higher spot in the order.
Against Righties: Josh Harrison. Against Lefties: Gregory Polanco
Sorry, kid. It’s not really Bell’s fault that he is getting saddled with the eight spot here, but unless Hurdle breaks the tradition he’s had going for two years right now, Mercer is free from the eight hole against southpaws and someone has to take one for the team. Bell didn’t look too good from the right side in very limited time last year and has always posted better numbers in the minors batting left-handed. This is a temporary spot until someone needs moved down in the order.
Against Righties: Jordy Mercer. Against Lefties: Josh Bell
The “ideal” lineups
…And without Kang
…And without Kang…well, not a lot changes. At least in lineup construction.
David Freese is one of the most overqualified bench players in the league. He batted everywhere in the order last year and played at least 11 games as the number two, three, four, five and six hitter. Whether Hurdle wants to put him in fifth or drop him a little and move everyone else up, he’s flexible. Jaso, who becomes the backup first baseman again with Kang out of the picture, also has batted around the order a lot in his career.
Kang is the big bat clubs like the Pirates aren’t supposed to have. The guy who is always a home run threat. A true power hitter. Heck, his respectable .255 batting average was lower than his isolated power (.258). He might need to miss time, and if it’s to get help, it is worth every second.
Regardless, if assembled correctly, this can be a top five offense in the NL. Like always, expect juggling as the season goes on, but there are a lot of good hitters here.
The only rule for the order is it has to work.