Lineup construction is a topic that comes up far more often in proportion to how important it is. But if you can save a few runs in a year by using the proper lineup, it’s worth it. Put your OBP up top, not your steals. The #2 hitter should be better than your #3.
With 14 going on 15 years of lineup splits available on FanGraphs, are any trends clear? Yes, actually. In regards to the two specific issues above, managers do seem to be getting better. Let’s explore. (Note: All “league averages” are non-pitchers. Pitchers aren’t real hitters, after all.)
The on-base percentage of leadoff hitters vs. the league average has climbed. In 2002, the league average OBP was .336 whereas it was just .332 for leadoff hitters. Ten years later, in 2012, league average was .324 but leadoff hitters hit .344. The gap has begun to decline since then, but the trend is still apparent, and in 2016 leadoff hitters have a .332 OBP vs. the league’s .324. Overall, here’s a simple chart of the league’s leadoff OBP minus the overall average OBP for each year since 2002:
Not everyone has caught on; either Dusty Baker or Ben Revere really need to figure things out soon for the Nationals, for example. But leadoff hitters are getting better at getting on base.
Meanwhile, managers have a longer way to go in their understanding of the fact that a #3 hitter will most often find themselves batting with the bases empty and two outs which, naturally, is not a good situation for scoring runs. However, just by comparing the wRC+ of the league’s #2 and #3 hitters shows that some teams are learning. In the dark days of 2002, #2 hitters had a wRC+ of 92, compared to 128 for #3 hitters. Since then, #2 hitters haven’t been that bad, but they haven’t been great, either. However, the last three years have been #2 hitters’ most productive since 2002: they had a 102 wRC+ in 2014, 107 in 2015, and currently a 105 in 2016. Teams haven’t moved their best hitters out of the three hole (this will be #3 hitters’ seventh straight year with a wRC+ of 120 or better), but they are starting to see the value of a good #2 hitter. This has led to the wRC+ gap between #2 and #3 hitters to exhibit a clear downward trend since 2002:
Even if you take out that 2002 season, the trend holds. It is still basically due to a change in the past two years, but the more hitters like Andrew McCutchen or Manny Machado, Corey Seager or George Springer bat in that second spot in the order and have success, the more we can expect out of the two hole. A lot of these #2 hitters, you might note, are young guys with a lot of career ahead of them with their current teams. It’s up to managers to keep them at #2 instead of moving them to #3 as these players continue in their careers. They may not, leaving 2015 and 2016 as anomalies so I can be wrong again. (Actually, I’m never wrong, because where’s the fun in that?)
But next time you lament the general failures of managers to put out the correct lineup, remember, things are getting better. Maybe it’s just your favorite team’s manager.