A Perfect Lineup

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Every once in a while, I like to take stock of the various players around baseball and imagine what it would be like to compile the optimal batting order if I had the option to pull from all 30 teams. I don’t claim this to be a difficult task, but it’s certainly fun, and involves more than simply selecting the best overall player at each position. The real challenge for me is finding a combination of players that are all appropriately used in their respective spot in the order. I don’t want the end result to look like the the All-Star Game where lineup that was so stacked, Curtis Granderson had to bat ninth.

Obviously, there are very differing schools of thought on how to write up a lineup card. The completely sabermetric approach, which is still too unconventional for any manager to roll out, is not something I’m going to dabble in because it would appear overly radical, and I want to put together a lineup that would be recognizable in the same way batting orders are commonly assembled. Furthermore, it’s not realistic to put together a lineup with that mindset, since it’s never going to happen. I love stats as much as anyone, but putting together a more traditional batting order is more fun for me.

Let’s start with the lead-off spot, since it’s only logical to begin at the top. I’ve always been obsessed with the skill set of a quality lead-off hitter, and that obsession only grows as they become less and less common. With today’s (rightful) on-base percentage focus, it’s no longer acceptable simply to put a fast guy at the top of the order and call him a table setter because he slaps the ball and runs fast. That said, I’ve always believed a lead-off hitter should still be fast, but it’s worthless if he doesn’t get on base at a high clip. So the main priority is getting on base, but I’m one that actually values speed as well. There are plenty of statistical minded people that don’t care how fast the lead-off guy is; OBP is the first and only qualification. Maybe this is an area I’m overly traditional in or something, because I just can’t get past the idea that a lead-off hitter should be fast and more contact oriented as a hitter. It’s not that I dislike power throughout the order, but if you have an on-base machine that also hits for great power, he’s probably wasted in a spot of the order where there are rarely guys to drive in. A hitter with premium patience and power should be in the middle of the order, not the top of it. Or so I say.

So anyway, using 2012 stats (which I’m basing this entire lineup on by the way), I sorted all qualifying hitters by walk percentage and tried to eliminate any players with too much power or too little speed. I had a brief inner debate over Chase Headley or Ben Zobrist, but then decided on Zobrist because I want my corner position guys to have more power. With that in mind, I’m sticking Zobrist at second in my imaginary lineup even though he plays right field more often. Not only does he have a career 12.6% walk rate, he also contributes on the base paths. He’s got some pop, but not enough to where I’d want to put him in the middle of the order. I’m feeling pretty good about this selection.

Now moving on to the two hitter, another one of my favorite spots. Here I like a dynamic hitter, one with a great mix of power, patience, and speed. There aren’t many of these in baseball in any one era, but one name that immediately came to mind was the Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler, who’s always worked lots of walks but has struggled at times to make contact. This season, Fowler’s really putting it together nicely, although he is receiving the benefit of a .383 BABIP. I’m a big fan of his 12.7% walk rate and .248 ISO regardless, though, so he’s my two hitter and center fielder.

I’m not even going to look up stats on the three hitter, because it’s Joey Votto and that’s the end of the story. Votto has turned into the game’s premier first baseman (and arguably hitter as a whole) this season with his .954 OBP and ridiculous doubles production. He’s not by any means a major home run force, but that doesn’t bother me for a second. There’s no one I’d rather have playing first and hitting third than Votto.

Ah, the clean-up spot. Here’s what I want a hulking slugger, a prodigious power threat that can fit the bill of a “three true outcomes” type and not bother me a bit in the process. I had lots of options here, but these days the hitter I’m most impressed with from a power standpoint is Jose Bautista, he of the .381 wOBA despite a .215 BABIP. Bautista would drive in Votto roughly 200 times a season in my proposed lineup, and I’ve done the math on that, so don’t question it!

Now things get a little fuzzier from here on, but there’s little question of the five hitter’s importance in a potent lineup. I still have my corner positions to fill out the middle of the order with, so it’s time I set out to find a third baseman and left fielder to hit fifth and sixth, not necessarily in that order. I refuse to pick the cream of the crop at either position, as it makes this process too easy. Besides, how do you convince Ryan Braun to bat fifth? I thought I might go with a little upside and stick the still developing Mike Moustakas in this slot and let him man the hot corner. Moustakas still needs to work on getting on base at a higher clip to bat fifth in such a productive lineup, but I’m trying to vary up the lefties and righties and I’ll take a chance on him improving quickly. Call this a gamble, but I have no problem assuming Moustakas will pan out nicely.

I thought I might go with a masher in the six hole, and no bat impressed me more than the one wielded by Josh Willingham and his 149 wRC+. There are obviously better hitters in left field, but again, I’m not picking Matt Holliday or Braun this low in the order, and Willingham is about as good of a six hitter as you can find anywhere. You could easily make a case to swap Moustakas and Willingham in this order, but for the anal sake of alternating batting sides, I’ll keep it this way. Again, it’s also worth noting that Moustakas is likely to get better while Willingham is having as good of a year as he can have.

Now I’m left with the two most important defensive positions on the field: catcher and shortstop. This is by design, as it only makes sense that your most demanding defensive positions are going to be manned by your worst hitters. I’m going with Miguel Montero as my seventh hitter and catcher; he’s a very solid hitter, especially for the position, and he wouldn’t bat as low as seventh in many orders, but I don’t think it’s overly insulting, either. Montero gets on base well and has just enough power to be dangerous, and while he isn’t known for his defense, I’m okay going with an offensive-minded catcher.

For the final spot, I’ll take Cincinnati’s young shortstop Zack Cozart. Cozart hasn’t shown much with the bat so far in his career (.308 wOBA), but the ability is there, and so far he’s been rather serviceable with the leather. It would be pretty nice to pencil in a guy like Cozart, who’s still growing as a player, in the eighth spot, but it doesn’t feel like cheating too badly. He may well show considerable improvement down the road, but he’s not there yet.

So here are the final results:

1. Ben Zobrist / 2B / S
2. Dexter Fowler / CF / S
3. Joey Votto / 1B / L
4. Jose Bautista / RF / R
5. Mike Moustakas / 3B / L
6. Josh Willingham / LF / R
7. Miguel Montero / C / L
8. Zack Cozart / SS / R

Not bad for a lineup without a DH, right? That said, it isn’t packed with All-Stars, either. It’s seriously fun to do this and discover your personal lineup preferences and secret player crushes. I recommend this activity for every baseball fan!

Can’t get enough of Spencer? Check out his work at StanGraphs and follow him on Twitter at @shendricks221.