Should Good Hitters Lead Off? FanGraphs Investigates by Ben Clemens February 12, 2021 This story starts, as all good stories do, with me recounting the time one of my coworkers and I discussed something. Okay, fine, very few good stories start that way — almost none, in fact — but bear with me. This (non-baseball) coworker, someone who I consider very bright and very interested in baseball, told me he didn’t really believe in wRC+, even after I’d shown him some articles describing it. Why, I wondered, didn’t he believe in it? It’s so elegant! The math is right there! How can you not like something that wraps up performance at the plate in a single number? No need to compare apples to oranges — you can juice everything to a pulp and simply count calories. His answer was simple: it doesn’t consider batting order. “You’re telling me,” he said, “that you’d rather have Mitch Moreland as a leadoff hitter than Xander Bogaerts?” It was 2017, and we were working in the Northeast, which explains why both players were Red Sox and why this question was even close. “His wRC+ is higher, but he’d be worse at leadoff. He doesn’t get on base enough.” To be honest, it’s a compelling argument. I didn’t really have the intellectual tools or the time to counter it. I went with the old tried and true method: I vaguely mentioned something about context-neutrality in the long run, said I had some bonds to arbitrage or whatnot, and went back to work, ending the conversation without conceding defeat. Fast forward to today, and I still don’t have a wonderful answer to my former co-worker’s point. I do have a computer program that simulates games, though, so I decided to come up with a quick and dirty check. What if we plugged real hitters with similar one-number batting statistics but who get there in wildly different ways into the lineup? Would we learn anything? Would I be able to write 1,500 words about it and entertain the masses? I guess we’ll find out! Let’s start with a generic overview of a major league lineup in 2020. Here are the wRC+ and wOBA for each spot in the lineup using the aggregate batting line of all teams in 2020: Average Lineup, 2020 Order Spot wRC+ wOBA 1 105 .327 2 113 .337 3 116 .342 4 112 .337 5 107 .329 6 100 .318 7 80 .289 8 86 .298 9 80 .290 As far as one-size-fits-all statistics go, the shape of the lineup generally makes sense. Maybe better hitters should be hitting first, but teams are concentrating their best hitters in the first five spots in the lineup. Behind the scenes, I’ve also recorded a rate for each outcome in each lineup spot. That’s a mouthful, so let’s walk through an example. In 2020, leadoff hitters walked (unintentionally) 9.22% of the time and hit doubles 4.4% of the time. Number six hitters struck out 24.36% of the time and hit homers 3.61% of the time. I did the same for each outcome (except reaching on an error, which I distributed randomly among all outs) and each spot in the lineup. From there, I told my computer program to play a game. Every time a batter comes up, the program generates a random number and uses that to determine what that batter did, like digital Strat-o-Matic. It keeps track of the batting order, the base and out state, and the inning, and keeps simulating plate appearances until a nine-inning game is complete. Then it does it again, and again, until it has simulated a million games. My model thinks that this generic lineup would score 4.83 runs per nine innings in 2020. In actuality, major league teams scored 4.85 runs per nine innings. Considering that we’re ignoring stolen bases, intentional walks, and sacrifice bunts, I’m fine saying that this is close enough for our purposes. Next, it’s time to start swapping out these generic average batters for real hitters. We’ll start at leadoff. I looked for two hitters whose wOBA matched that lineup spot’s .327 mark but who got to their production in different ways. Why wOBA over wRC+? wRC+ is basically wOBA with park and league corrections, and since we’re playing these hypothetical games against average opposition in a generic park, I don’t want the added nuance. Meet our two contenders, Nick Castellanos and Whit Merrifield: Two Potential Leadoff Hitters Player wOBA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% Nick Castellanos .329 .225 .298 .486 7.9% 28.5% Whit Merrifield .329 .282 .325 .440 4.5% 12.5% Ignore for the moment whose line you’d rather have going forward, or which you think is more sustainable. I’m hard-coding these; they’re both going to hit exactly this way, BABIP and luck and all, indefinitely. These are two different hitters, but they get to the same total offensive output despite wildly different approaches. First, I plugged Merrifield’s line into the program and re-ran things. With Merrifield leading off but everyone else in the lineup unchanged, our team scored… 4.83 runs per nine innings, exactly the same as before. Neat! He’s an actual leadoff hitter, so it’s gratifying that an average-for-the-spot leadoff hitter gives us an average result. Phew! Next, I replaced Merrifield with Castellanos. He’s a power-over-OBP type, but again, when it comes to wOBA, the two hitters are exactly the same. Here’s the Moreland-Bogaerts test from the beginning of this article: does Castellanos perform the same as Merrifield as a leadoff hitter? He can’t! In a million simulations, the team with Castellanos leading off and an average 2-9 lineup scores only 4.8 runs per game. Over 162 games, that’s roughly 5 runs of difference, or half a win. That’s not a mountain of difference, but it’s a real one. In fact, a team would have scored more runs with Carlos Santana (.199/.349/.350, .316 wOBA) leading off than with Castellanos. In other words, you really can add to your understanding of a hitter by supplementing wRC+ with the shape of their production. More OBP is better in the leadoff spot, which makes good logical sense. Getting on base ahead of the homer-heavy portion of the lineup adds runs over time. Hopefully, the inverse will hold true. Let’s go to the cleanup spot, home of the third-best overall line and the highest home run rate. The classic cleanup hitter is a hulking first baseman, but I’ve gone with a third baseman who powered up instead. Additionally, one fun thing about using a neutral park is that I can simply take a Rockies hitter’s statline and use it without adjustment. If they put up these numbers in a regular park, their wOBA wouldn’t need adjustment — and hey, we can just imagine they put those numbers up in a regular park. Say hi to Rafael Devers and Raimel Tapia: Two Potential Cleanup Hitters Player wOBA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% Rafael Devers .337 .263 .310 .483 5.2% 27.0% Raimel Tapia .338 .321 .369 .402 6.8% 18.4% With Devers in the lineup, our hypothetical squad scores 4.82 runs per game. That’s worrisome, because his homer-happy ways aren’t making the lineup better. Isn’t this where he was supposed to be good? Is wRC+ just broken? Nope! Plugging in Tapia also leaves our team scoring 4.82 runs per game. In the center of the lineup, it seems that going heavily into OBP or slugging are both acceptable plans. Why is that? This merits more exploration, but fourth seems to sit at a happy medium in the lineup. There are hitters in front of you to drive in if you’re a slugger. There are hitters after you to drive you in if you’re more of an on-base type. Whatever you’re doing, the key thing is to do it well. By the sixth spot, on the other hand, power starts to play up. I plugged in Devers, and an average lineup but with 2020 Devers hitting sixth would produce 4.90 runs per game. One with Tapia’s batting line in the sixth spot would produce only 4.885 runs. It’s a tiny difference, but one that makes sense: Tapia’s superior on-base skill (not in real life, but certainly in his 2020 statline) matters a lot less with the 7-8-9 hitters coming up next. Was my coworker right? Yes and no. How you get to your wRC+ definitely matters, and you shouldn’t just go blindly assuming that a particular player is your best bet to lead off because he has a high wRC+. Getting on base matters more than maximizing all-in offensive production. The middle spots of the order, on the other hand, come pretty close to reflecting wRC+; however you get to your offensive production, it’s mostly important that you produce as much as possible. Finally, if the hitters following you are bad, power matters more, because your walks and singles are all for naught more often. Was that pretty obvious even before running all these simulations? Yep! I’m glad that the modeling bore it out, however, because I’ve believed plenty of things that just weren’t true. This one — that wRC+ is in general sufficient but that you should supplement it with thinking a little beyond the headline number — has a little something for everyone. Want to look at one number and move on with your life? You’re mostly okay! Heck, you could have skipped this article and it would hardly matter. Want to dig overly deep and read too much into everything? You can do that and squeeze a handful of runs out over the course of a year. Want to just rely on common sense? We’ve got that too. On-base specialists should lead off, one-dimensional power types should hit at the end of your string of good hitters, and everyone in between those two should be good. We all knew that already, but it’s good to see it again anyway.