Yes, I know that speculating on lineups at this time of the year can be annoying at best. But given how far the Cubs offense needs to be stretched in order for the team to compete in the Central next season, I thought I might call for some changes.
What I want to compare is the lessons of lineup optimization discussed by the sabermetric community, as far back as "The Book", to the management style of Mike Quade and major league managers in general. Among the most obvious discrepencies is how managers deal with the two hole. Whereas the book considers the two-hole as the most important spot in the lineup, managers consistently play high-contact, low-power players here, regardless of their overall prowess at the plate. I want to avoid going into all of the details discussed ad absurdium across stat-head blogs, so I'll direct anyone interested to http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/3/17/795946/optimizing-your-lineup-by. Needless to say, old school ways cost teams runs.
What does this mean for the Cubs? Well, I believe that the Cubs will suffer more than any other team if the biases of old school management lead Quade to overlook our best lineup. That's because Geovany Soto, our best hitter and worst baserunner, will probably never receive consideration for a spot anywhere near the top of the lineup. Yet, using the lineup optimizer available here, we can see that the best Cubs lineups place Soto near the top of the order. In fact, on a per game basis, the Cubs would rank among the top of the National League if they played a lineup featuring Soto often and early. Otherwise, they will be in the middle of the pack.
Sadly, leaving Soto out of the top of the lineup will likely have another effect. Because of biases against stringing together a bunch of like-handed hitters, leaving Soto out of the front of the order will probably reserve either the leadoff or two-hole for Fukudome. Professional baseball has slowly recognized the importance of OBP ahead of average, and there will be pressure to play Fukudome and his one-dimensional skillset at the top of the order. Few of us would be surprised if the right fielder actually took the leadoff spot out of camp. Without Fukudome at the top, however, I expect the 3 and 4 hole to run "Pena and Ramirez" instead of "Ramirez and Pena". The top four will probably go Fukudome, Castro, Ramirez, Pena, though with Soto it would more likely go Castro, Soto, Pena, Ramirez. Why is this important? Because the cleanup spot or four-hole is much more important than the three-hole. Conventionally, Ramirez's higher average would earn him a spot at #3, while Pena's power would reserve him for #4. Yet this is far and away a lesser lineup.
There are a number of other consequences worth noting, but here are the most important:
- Soto at #2 puts our best hitter in the most important spot in the lineup.
- It also encourages shifting Pena up to #3, against the conventional wisdom, but to break up a top-of-the-lineup featuring three righties in a row. Pena, a known fly-ball hitter, should help avoid GIDPs despite Soto's "speed".
- Instead of needing Fukudome's high OBP to fill up the front of the lineup, the Cubs will be free to play Colvin toward the back of the lineup, where his power would do more for the team than Fukudome's plate discipline.
- I would hope that Soto would bat fifth if not second, but I find it unlikely. With Soto in the five hole, either Soriano or Byrd would have to bat seventh, and I don't think this would be popular. Byrd was one of our best hitters last season, and Soriano has that albatross of a contract, so it might be easier to bat the "catcher" seventh despite his bat. At the back of the lineup, Soto will see more off-speed stuff, which he struggles against. With the speedy Starlin at the top of the lineup, Soto would instead see more fastball, which he crushes.
- Getting to the meat of the lineup faster might even encourage the team to bat the pitcher eighth and that "slap-hitting #2 token" DeWitt (or really whoever plays second base and inevitable fits that mold) ninth. This again leads to better offensive numbers.
Now, I recognize that there are concerns about batting such a slow player so high in the lineup, but if the Cubs want to compete while Soto is still in his arbitration years, they better make use of him. If my pure speculation about the cascading effects of such a switch are true, the Cubs could pair a powerful offense with a great bullpen and a deep pitching staff with some considerable upside. Whether Quade is a guy to challenge conventional wisdom is a valid question, so let's make the decision easier. Instead of challenging every heuristic about lineup construction, let's just call for Soto-at-2 and let the rest fall into place.
Oh, and one more thing. With the lineup here proposed (Castro, Soto, Pena, Ramirez, Soriano, Colvin, Byrd, Pitcher, DeWitt) instead of the much more likely outcome (Fukudome, Castro, Ramirez, Pena, Byrd, Soriano, Soto, DeWitt, Pitcher), the team would project to score 35 more runs and win 3.5 more games. The free agent market charges about $18mm for that sort of improvement.