The 2008 Blue Jays Lineup

Friday, April 04 2008 @ 10:00 AM EDT

Contributed by: Anders

Three games in, and already grumbling about the Jays batting order has begun. Mercy! I would say that the John Gibbons has been pretty conventional is his deployment of the troops, but of course conventional doesn’t always mean right. Everyone has their own ideas, naturally, but lets take a look at the current nine and a more statistically oriented bunch and see what we can come up with.

Lineup construction has advance from simply balancing lefties and righties, and is being recognized as an increasingly important strategy decision (depending on who you ask anyway.) We’ll start with a review of the 2007 season. Reed Johnson, Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus all missing substantial time due to injury, but everyone else was mostly healthy.

On average, the Jays starting lineup usually looked something like this last year (OBP/SLG plus number of games started in parenthesis.)

1. Alex Rios .354/.498 (139)
2. Lyle Overbay .315/.391 (107)
3. Vernon Wells .304/.402 (143)
4. Troy Glaus .366/.473 (110)
5. Frank Thomas .377/.480 (147)
6. Aaron Hill .333/.459 (158)
7. Gregg Zaun .341/.411 (93)
8. Adam Lind .278/.400 (72)
9. John McDonald .279/.333 (94)

Of course, there were variations – Vernon and Reed also spent some time leading off, with Rios dropping to the 3 hole; Matt Stairs played in a bunch of games and generally hit 2nd; Frank Thomas and Glaus alternated in the 4 and 5 holes; Aaron Hill hit anywhere from 5th to 7th; and Royce Clayton somehow managed to start 55 games... The results were, on the whole, pretty underwhelming, as the Jays finished 10th in the league in runs scored, 12 in batting average, 12th in OBP, 8th in SLG and 9th in OPS.

Broken down by batting order position the Jays hit thusly (OBP/SLG):

1. .321/.407
2. .319/.420
3. .326/.403
4. .342/.444
5. .391/.547
6. .334/.445
7. .324/.423
8. .274/.319
9. .301/.370

I wont get into the (numerous) failures of the 2007 Jays’ hitters, but clearly it was not a strong campaign on the whole. The team’s struggles started at the top of lineup, as a past strength (whither Freed Johnsononatto?) became a huge weakness. In a weird quirk, Frank Thomas and Troy Glaus each hit better batting 5th than 4th. So what could have been done better last year?

The epic baseball book, The Book, covers lineup construction with a great deal of insight, and I am going to borrow greatly from it here (for a primer, check out Dave Studeman’s piece on the always excellent Hardball Times.

The Coles Notes version:
Your best hitters should bat 1st, 2nd and 4th, with the 1 and 2 guys being big OBP guys. After that, you want your next two best hitters in the 3 and 5 slots, and then everyone else in descending order of non-suckitude.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. You want your best hitters hitting near the top of the lineup where they are more likely to get that extra AB at the end of a close game and extra AB’s over the course of a season, and you want OBP guys to set the table. The number 3 hitter is less likely to lead off an inning (as he almost never leads off the 2nd) and thus is less in need of OBP skills, and the number 4 hitter is generally a pretty likely candidate to lead off the second inning, as well as bat with men on base in the first, so he should be a good hitter all around. Looking back at the Jays 2007 lineup with this focus, a more ideal lineup would have looked something like this

1. Alex Rios .354/.498 (R)
2. Frank Thomas .377/.480 (R)
3. Aaron Hill .333/.459 (R)
4. Troy Glaus .366/.473 (R)
5. Gregg Zaun .341/.411 (S)
6. Vernon Wells .304/.402 (R)
7. Lyle Overbay .315/.391 (L)
8. Adam Lind .278/.400 (L)
9. John McDonald .279/.333 (R)

I think we can all agree that Thomas, Rios and Glaus were the Jays three best hitters last year (maybe not in that order) and here we have them batting 1st, 2nd and 4th. Having Glaus and Thomas hit back to back leading off might have been a bit much, so Glaus gets dropped to 4th, and Rios could be dropped to second so that DP machine Aaron Hill doesn’t bat right behind him, but now we’re quibbling. I have Hill batting 3rd and Zaun 5th because Zaun has better OBP skills, and the rest of the Jays follow in descending order of quality. It’s not for me to say that this lineup, featuring the Jays making the most starts, would have done better, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Hold your arguments ‘til the end, please.

Lets look at 2008. David Eckstein replaces John McDonald for our purposes, Troy Glaus gets replaced with Scott Rolen, Shannon Stewart replaces Reed/Lind in the right field platoon, and Rod Barajas gets some at bats backing up Zaunie. The rest of the Jays lineup is the same, for all intents and purposes (though Scutaro will bat for Rolen for the first month of the season or so.) Here’s what John Gibbons has thrown out the first two games, with three year batting splits of OBP/SLG included, along with handedness.

1. David Eckstein, SS .357/.375 (R)
2. Shannon Stewart, LF .336/.388 (R)
3. Alex Rios, RF .339/.472 (R)
4. Vernon Wells, CF .327/.470 (R)
5. Frank Thomas, DH .373/.518 (R)
6. Lyle Overbay, 1B .355/.455 (L)
7. Aaron Hill, 2B .341/.415 (R)
8. Marco Scutaro, 3B .331/.384 (R)
9. Zaun/Barajas, C .353/.409 (S)/.310/.434 (R)

There are a couple of problems here, I think. Firstly, despite David Eckstein’s intangibles, he is simply not good enough to be batting leadoff, compared to some of the other Jays hitters. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that he is one of the worst two hitters in this lineup as currently constructed, though the team is good enough that this isn’t a slap in the face. Vernon also is a poor candidate to be hitting cleanup this point – unless he shows that he is the hitter he was in 2006. I think Aaron could be moved up the lineup – he had a good 2007 and figures to improve. Also the Zaun/Barajas combo figures to be better than Scutaro, who could be dropped in the order.

Keeping this in mind, as well as our earlier defined goals for lineup construction, here is one line up the Jays could field.

Leading Off: Lyle Overbay .355/.455 (L)
This is a pretty unorthodox choice – first basemen aren’t lead off hitters. However, Overbay is arguably the team’s best on base threat, given Frank Thomas’ recent woes. 2008 promises to be a make or break year for Lyle Overbay. He is hitting the presumed downside of his career at 31, and was injured for a good part of last season, none of which portends well. However, he hit .312/.372/.508 in his last full season, which I think the Jays would happily take. Eckstein obviously figures to get the majority of the at bats here, which is probably not a great thing

Batting Second: Matt Stairs/Shannon Stewart 358/.470 .336/.388 (L)/(R)
The Stairs/Stewart platoon (though not a strict platoon) hits second, though Stairs is a better choice here than Stewart. Stairs had a very good year last year, and posted a very good OBP (well, for the Jays) of just under .370, and was clearly one of the Jays best hitters in limited duty. He gets spelled by Stewart, who has also shown very good OBP skills during his career (.361 career average) and is more of a traditional top of the order player. I think this is really the Jays most logical choice, and Gibbons seems to agree. Other candidates here would be Zaun because of his good on base skills, though he is probably not a good enough hitter overall, and Thomas, which would be rather unorthodox.

Batting Third: Aaron Hill .341/.415 (R)
I think this is really the most logical place in the order for Hill. He has to be a cinch to hit better than his three year average, and he is exactly the type of hitter you want batting third. He has pretty good power but only average plate discipline, and I think that a .300/.350/.450 year would not be a surprise. Rios figures to be the guy hitting here all year, and while I think Rios should be batting cleanup, neither he nor Hill is a bad choice given their skill set (assuming that Wells returns somewhat to form.)

Batting Cleanup: Alex Rios .339/.472 (R)
While there can be arguments over whether Rios was the Jays best hitter in 2007, he sure looks like he will be their best hitter in 2008. This is pretty traditional, but makes sense. Of course, Vernon will hit fourth until he struggles – let’s hope he makes this all moot by having a fantastic year.

Batting Fifth: Frank Thomas .373/.518 (R)
A conventional choice - the Big Hurt seems to be on the downside of his career, but still figures to be a sufficiently above average hitter, as well as an OBP machine. Additionally, he hit .285/.391/.544 in almost 200 ABs from the 5 slot last year, which while perhaps meaningless, is production any team would take in a heartbeat

Batting Sixth: Vernon Wells .327/.470 (R)
Boy, $126 million doesn’t buy what it used to. Vernon had a bad 2007, and almost has to rebound in 2008 (right? Right?!) I think that the drop would take some pressure off of him, and until he hits better there is not much reason to have him take up valuable space at the top of the lineup. Lyle figures to get the majority of plate appearances here, which his unfortunate given is on base skills. Scott Rolen could figure too.

Batting Seventh: Gregg Zaun/Rod Barajas .353/.409 (S)/.310/.434 (R)
Gregg Zaun is getting pretty old, but again possess good on base skills, while Barajas mixes in the power. At this point, they are better than the remaining options. I guess Rolen might hit here when he returns, depending on Overbay.

Batting Eight: David Eckstein .357/.375 (R)
Eckstein does a lot of things you would want from your leadoff hitter – draw walks, gut out at bats, see a lot of pitches. He just doesn’t do them well enough to justify being the everyday leadoff hitter on a team with playoff aspirations.

Batting Ninth: Marco Scutaro .331/.384 (R)
Nothing against Scutaro, but he is not an everyday player at this point, and its not unreasonable to drop him to ninth. The catchers figure to see regular duty here once Rolen returns

Optimal(er) lineup?
1. Overbay L
2. Stairs L/Stewart R
3. Hill R
4. Rios R
5. Thomas R
6. Wells R
7. Zaun S/Barajas R
8. Eckstein R
9. Scutaro R

So in keeping with the theories we touched on earlier, the Jays best hitters at this point (Overbay, Stairs, Rios, Thomas and Hill) get the bulk of the at bats hitting 1 through 5, with Wells sixth and then the rest of the hitters in order of goodness. If Vernon picks up and Thomas struggles the two of them could be flipped. When Rolen gets back I think he slots in the seventh hole in this arrangement.

The chief difference between this lineup and the lineup the Jays have actually used is basically just flipping Eckstein and Overbay and flipping Vernon and Aaron, along with a few minor shuffles up or down. I think that Overbay and Aaron are likely to do better than the people they replace, so I think it makes sense. If one were to stay more conventional, two important changes could be moving Rios to the four slot and batting Wells third, and dropping Eckstein to the bottom of the order. On the whole, this lineup might be five runs better over the course of a season – not even a win. That’s not really the point though – the point is to come up with a different lineup.

Alright Bauxites – how could this, or the real Jays lineup, be improved.