Should Good Hitters Lead Off? FanGraphs Investigates

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.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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bluerum29
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bluerum29

I want a guy that can get on first and steal second leading off. Hitting second would be a guy who can ensure the leadoff man moves over to third. And in the 3 hole is someone who gets the runner in. Manufacture a run to leadoff the game.

FrodoBeck
Member
FrodoBeck

I want a guy who can hit homeruns in every single spot of the lineup.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

I want to win the game 4-2, so I’m not concerned with every guy in the lineup being able to hit a homerun. Get your hall of fame quality pitchers a few runs and win the game. That is good baseball.

yaro
Member
yaro

This is the dumbest shit I have ever read. So not only is your offensive strategy based on an ideal scenario that sees you giving away outs, its also predicated on having MULTIPLE HoF pitchers. We might see less than 5 pitchers inducted into the hall in the next 5 years. Your roster construction assumes you have these guys in droves.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

What can I say, I’m spoiled. Growing as a baseball fan of the Braves in the 90s, great pitching is the expectation. It is not just about winning, its about how you win. I want to win with great pitching. Without that, its just not the same.

Fernando
Member
Fernando

I think it’s totally valid to have a preference for the type of baseball you want to see. Some kinds of game will be more entertaining than others, and the specifics vary person to person. But we have to understand the real world doesn’t always work out according to our preferred outcomes. If your preference is so strong that it taints perfectly good wins just because they didn’t win in the way you would like then you must be disappointed pretty regularly.

bluerum29
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bluerum29

Disappointed quite often. My expectation is working towards the ideal. If I pay to go to a sporting event of one of my teams and they lose, I usually feel as if I wasted my money and time.

Fernando
Member
Fernando

That’s your right as a fan. It’s your time and money. But I don’t think teams will ever function according to that standard in the real world.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

It is predicated on not giving up more than 4 runs in a game at all. Once you give up 5 runs, it feels like a loss. Even when my team wins the game, if they gave up more than 4 runs, I’m disappointed.

hopbitters
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Member
hopbitters

That sounds like the guy from the ’46 Tea Totallers. He pitched, too.

Da Bear
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Da Bear

No need to hit home runs, just nine guys with enough of a batting eye to flawlessly foul off every strike and take every ball. As long as you never make an out, it doesn’t matter if each batter takes one base or four!

Anon
Member
Anon

Rough quote from Joe Garagiola doing a DBacks broadcast years ago after the batter hit a ground ball to 2B that moved the leadoff man to 3rd: “Boy, I’ll tell you. I’m tired of hearing how great a guy is hitting one on the ground to move the guy up. Don’t hit a grounder to 2B, drive the guy in! If a grounder to 2B was a good thing, I’d be in the Hall of Fame!”

dl80
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Member
dl80

That’s a good point. But I think the question is, given an identical line, wouldn’t you rather have a guy who makes more outs by grounders rather than strikeouts?

springer
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Member
springer

Why would you?

dl80
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Member
dl80

Because strikeouts are useless and groundouts occasionally result in errors, moving guys over, etc.

MikeS
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Member
MikeS

They also occasionally result in double plays, but in general I am with you. All other things being equal, you have a better chance of a good outcome making bad contact than no contact. Although I don’t think the difference is huge and if you are sacrificing doubles and homers to make contact than all other things are NOT equal and you are probably losing out.

Rex Manning Day
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Rex Manning Day

Guys who hit lots of grounders also tend to hit into lots of double plays. A strikeout is at least only one out, barring shenanigans from the baserunner.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

Driving the guy in is great. But what are the % difference in the odds. A guy on second and nobody out, if you don’t get that player in, the inning is a failure. Get the run, do that 3 or 4 times in a game and you should win.

Brownie19
Member
Brownie19

I believe the stats say run expectancy with a runner on 2nd with 0 out is 16% higher than it is with a runner on 3rd with 1 out. Moving a runner to 3rd in exchange for an out isn’t a great way to win baseball games.

Obviously there are chances of finding a hole or there being an error on a bunt or when ‘giving yourself up’ with a grounder to 2nd – but that’s why the strategy of simply trying to hit the ball hard to drive the runner in is preferred.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

The % chance of scoring with a runner on second and 1 out is going to be lower than on 3rd and 1 out. If the batter doesn’t get a hit and doesn’t move the runner, they completely failed in their at bat. Working to create a run instead of waiting for the big inning to happen. There end up being a lot of innings with nothing happening as a result of swinging for the fences and hoping for the big inning. I’d rather action with results.

jonah-pride
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jonah-pride

There’s sure to have been more work done on this in the last 8 years, but this makes me think of Sky Kalkman’s excellent article on Beyond the Box Score comparing the old school method (what bluerum29 has outlined above) and the more modern lineup espoused by “The Book” https://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/3/17/795946/optimizing-your-lineup-by

If you’ve never read “The Book” (which I think is worthwhile for everyone) that article does a great job summing up their stance on batting order.

Jolly Good Show
Member
Jolly Good Show

Got to agree with jonah-pride over The Book. It you haven’t read it yet, I would highly suggest doing so. It explains the article above, and other things, in more detail.

Serbian to Vietnamese to French is back
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Serbian to Vietnamese to French is back

I will have someone who can issue the first order and steal the second instruction. The second blow will be the guy who can definitely take the lead in third place. And in three holes there is one person in the race. A race to run games.

Emielke
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Emielke

25 likes but have no idea what this comment means?

Sooted72
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Sooted72

i think thats the point

Hughes
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Member
Hughes

Read the username.

kylerkelton
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kylerkelton

bro you have to be trolling hahaha

bluerum29
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bluerum29

Because I believe that how you win is just as important as the winning itself?

Fernando
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Fernando

So if your team played “the right way” and lost, it would mean just as much to you as playing the wrong way and winning?

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

I don’t like when the pitchers don’t perform well. Even if the team gets the win, that is an ugly win and I don’t enjoy that in baseball.

Ryan DC
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Member
Ryan DC

So if your team won the World Series by averaging 7 runs scored and 6 runs allowed all season long you’d be disappointed? Hey man, props for sticking to your aesthetic principles!

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

Nice that they won the world series, but those would be some awful ERAs for your pitchers.

TerryMc
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Member
TerryMc

but their win totals would be great 🙂

Hughes
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Member
Hughes

Who’s to say you can’t have an all time great offense combined with an all time comically error prone defense?

David Klein
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Member

This comment is from 1985 right? Or is it Arod?

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

I read this as sarcasm, but I could be wrong