Are the Mets Out of Order? It Doesn't Matter
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Published: March 19, 2006
For a player so seemingly perfect, David Wright is causing his manager some real headaches.
Wright, the Mets' 23-year-old third baseman, has done it all in his first season and a half in the majors, hitting for average (.302) and power (41 home runs), with speed (23 stolen bases) consistency and the plate discipline of a veteran.
Wright's versatility and aptitude suggest that he could hit anywhere in the batting order, his varied skills meeting every prerequisite.
The mounting debate among the news media and the fans has left Mets Manager Willie Randolph, who will make the decision, understandably chafed by rampant suggestions and theories from those who will not. Perhaps he will find some comfort in what the statistics folks have to say: It does not matter.
Randolph, a lifelong baseball man, retains a traditional image of what the top of his lineup should look like: A leadoff speedster (in this case, José Reyes), then a patient bat-control man (perhaps the new catcher Paul Lo Duca), then a veteran all-around hitter (Carlos Beltran), then the top slugger (the newly acquired Carlos Delgado).
This would push Wright whom Randolph kept in the 7 and 6 holes most of last year to protect him from undue pressure to No. 5 in the order, despite his growing reputation as the Mets' most potent offensive threat.
Randolph claims to be considering all his options, including having Wright hit as high as second.
"David saw more pitches than anybody on our team last year," Randolph said. (Wright's 3.98 pitches each plate appearance were the Mets' most.)
But for all the debate about where players should bat, deeper statistical methods have revealed that the order barely makes a difference and the difference can be quite counterintuitive.
Mark Pankin, a financial adviser based in Lincoln, Va., has developed one of the most advanced computer models of lineup behavior, a method that simulates all the interactions among hitters and their tendencies to hit doubles, draw walks and more.
Using last year's statistics, Pankin turned it loose on the Mets and a half-dozen plausible batting orders.
Whether Lo Duca, Wright or Beltran batted anywhere from second to sixth, each order scored at rates of 4.82, 4.83 or 4.84 runs a game which over a 162-game season would be a difference of merely three total runs.
"No matter how you look at it, switching hitters around only makes a difference in the second decimal place," Pankin said. "It basically doesn't matter."
This same conclusion has been reached by Bill James and dozens of other lineup empiricists.
And one irritated manager. In 1972, the Tigers' Billy Martin pulled names out of a hat to order his lineup against Cleveland, and wound up with the plodding slugger Norm Cash batting leadoff and the anemic shortstop Eddie Brinkman at cleanup. Deliciously, Brinkman wound up in the middle of the afternoon's key rally, doubling home the tying run and scoring the game-winner in the Tigers' 3-2 victory.
Many have posited over the years that putting batters in reverse order of overall skill something the renegade manager Bobby Bragan tried a few times in the 1950's and 60's, including having the slugger Eddie Mathews bat leadoff would produce the most runs, by virtue of those hitters getting more plate appearances over the course of a season. But Pankin's model demonstrated that it was not quite so simple.
Strangely enough, Pankin found that the most efficient lineup (assuming Reyes led off, an inevitability) featured Lo Duca second, then Delgado, Wright, Cliff Floyd and then Beltran; the worst had Wright batting second and Beltran third. (Even allowing Beltran to improve from last year's disappointing New York debut did not change matters much.) The reason, it appears, comes in how managers gear their lineups toward first-inning potency, at the expense of later innings.
A Reyes-Wright-Delgado start did enjoy the best first inning but carried with it a 59.3 chance that the Nos. 4 or 5 hitters (Floyd and Beltran) led off the second inning, costing that frame more than the first inning had benefited. With Reyes-Lo Duca-Delgado-Wright-Floyd-Beltran, the best hitters (Delgado and Wright) usually came up with either runners on base in the first or led off the next.
"You weaken the first inning a bit, but you strengthen the second," Pankin said.
It appears as if Pankin is on to something. According to Stats LLC, over the past five seasons, more runs were scored in the first (1.16) than second (0.97) innings. But the average of those two (1.06) was still lower than any inning until the seventh when relievers start taking over suggesting that managers are indeed overplaying their first-inning hands.
So perhaps Wright's supporters should not worry so much about where he hits as long as he hits.
"I really don't care," Wright said. "I'm still going to go up there with the same approach hitting second that I'd be hitting seventh or fourth."
In the end, when it comes to lineups, it's mind over doesn't matter.