If you’re a baseball coach for players age 10 and under, your batting lineup is going to be different that a team of players age 11 and up. There’s more freedom in preparing a lineup for the youngest, and it isn’t a bad idea to give each player a chance to bat at any position in the lineup. But for more established players entering their teen years and older, you may have asked the best way there is to optimize your baseball batting lineup.
There is a traditional approach to batting lineups that is used with predictable results. However, in the last 25 years, statistics have begun to play a larger part, and many now question if the tried and true batting lineup still yields the best results.
Here, we’ll take a look at the philosophy behind a traditional batting lineup and the rationale behind the batting order. We’ll then compare it to the new statistical approaches and see which point of view works better for your team and the competition you face.
There are two ways to look at the batting lineup as an effective tool for winning ballgames: the traditional approach, and the field of Sabermetrics, which recommends lineups based on computer data. They will be presented here each in turn and you can decide what you think will work for you in relation to your team’s overall hitting potential, and how the opposition stacks up against you.
Traditional Batting Lineup Approach
Lead Off Position
Throughout the history of organized baseball, the lead off position has been reserved for players who are the fastest runners. The idea is for the leadoff batter to get on base, then try to get into scoring position by either stealing second base or running to third when the next batter in the order gets a base hit.
The leadoff batter should also have a high on base percentage and be a good hitter. The goal of the leadoff hitter is to get on base however they can. They must be excellent reading pitches coming over the plate, and not be fooled by the pitcher’s pickoff move to first base.
Traditionally, coaches look for these qualities in their leadoff hitter, in order of importance:
- On base percentage
Later, when we discuss the Sabermetrics approach to your batting lineup, keep in mind for now that the leadoff batter only leads off once, at the start of the game
Coaches expect their second place hitter to move the leadoff batter to scoring position at second base, so the power hitters that follow can drive the leadoff batter in to score.
Much like the leadoff batter, speed is what coaches have wanted in their second spot batter. Like the leadoff position, they should be good at making contact with the ball, either by getting on base after hitting a well-placed sacrifice hit to move the leadoff runner. Optimally, he should be able to get on base.
- Doesn’t strike out a lot
- Good on base percentage
The third position in the batting order has traditionally be reserved for the player with the highest batting average. It’s also great that he has power in his swing, so he can drive home the leadoff player now in scoring position. A well-hit single deep in the outfield can score the runner from second base, and even a fast runner from first (the number 2 hitter in the order).
The number 3 hitter needs to move players around, and drive in the first runs of the game. To get optimum output for the third position batter, coaches have often tried mixing the role with other players on the team with higher batting average and power, like other hitters who have the most extra base hits (doubles and triples).
The traditional qualities of the third batter in the lineup is:
- Highest batting average on team (hits and runs batted in (RBIs)
- Able to hit for power
- Able to move runners forward and score
Fourth Position – Cleanup
Little league and high school ballplayers look at the number four spot in the lineup as a cherished batting position and one they work towards obtaining for themselves.
The cleanup hitter has traditionally been reserved for the team’s most powerful hitter. He needs to hit the ball hard, but he doesn’t always have the highest batting average. Hitting the ball hard means the ball will likely go through the infield and sometimes through the gap in the outfield, allowing runners on base to score from every position.
The cleanup hitter can also force outfielders to make errors on hits in the gaps of the outfield. Outfielders usually take a step back then the cleanup hitter comes to the plate.
Although it’s not expected of the batter in this position to always score home runs (clean up the bases), he will usually have the highest number of home runs hit on the team.
Conventional batting lineups look for these qualities in the fourth position batter:
- Most hitting power – able to hit the long ball
- High slugging percentage (the total bases he gets divided by how many at bats he has)
- High number of RBIs
- Most home runs
- Doesn’t need to have the highest batting average
Batting number five in the order is usually reserved for the player on your team who is close in power and runs batted in production as your cleanup hitter. The rationale is that sometimes the hitter in the fourth spot doesn’t succeed in clearing the bases, so the fifth batter has a chance to do it with his hitting.
The main difference between 4th and 5th positions is that the fifth hitter isn’t as powerful as the cleanup hitter, but he strikes out less than cleanup. What he doesn’t do with power he can do with his hitting, and avoiding getting strikeouts.
The fifth batter should be able to hit doubles and triples. He’s expected to get on base more often than the cleanup hitter. In their fifth position hitter, coaches look for:
- Able to hit more than singles only
- In the lower half of total strikeouts on the team
- Can be switched to the cleanup position when necessary
Sixth and Seventh Batting Positions
After the first five positions in the batting order are filled, coaches often place hitters in decreasing order of hitting effectiveness in this and the following three in the lineup’s order.
This position and the three that follow present the most challenge to coaches, because there are many variations to each spot. The sixth hitter might be better than the seventh who follows, but the sixth hitter should be able to hit, even though he doesn’t hit as well as the 5th batter before him.
Usually the batting average are lower for this spot, but also full of surprises. The sixth hitter can produce hits and throw off the expectations of the rival team with an unexpected base hit, and the occasional surprise double.
- Average hitter
- 6th position is faster runner than 7th
- Player with high strikeouts are designated sixth or seventh.
- Able to produce the surprise hit that the opposition doesn’t expect
This position in the lineup has usually reserved for batters who are still developing their hitting skills. At some point when he improves, he can be tried at a higher lineup position.
The 8th position may be a leader in strikeouts and who has the lowest on base percentage. Players like these are encouraged to do batting tee drills and improve their batting stance, batting stride and swing. Encourage them to work at home with a tee and a hitting net.
The last spot in the order is usually reserved for the pitcher. Nowadays switching the 7th, 8th and 9th slots is greatly encouraged.
Keep in mind that this last lineup position comes just before your leadoff hitter, so you may want someone in this slot who is a good hitter and has speed on the bases. This spot should not go to the player on the team who strikes out the most, but to a player who is able to scatter singles throughout the season. This player should jump start the middle inning for the top of the batting order to follow.
The Sabermetrics Approach to Creating an Effective Batting Lineup
Sabermetrics is the empirical study of baseball statistics, and it measures in-game activity. The statistical approach has been around a very long time, dating back even to the late 19th century. At its core is the belief that approaching a lineup is based on what are the normal amount of runners on base when the hitter comes to the plate.
Sabermetrics is most often used to evaluate a player’s past performance and to help predict their future performance, which will determine the player’s contribution to his team.
When past data is available about the performance of a team or a specific player, Sabermetrics can be used to predict the average future performances for the next season. Thus, a prediction can be made with a certain probability about the number of wins and losses.
Based on analysis of past team performances, the outcome of those performances, and box scores, the Sabermetrics approach used today in the Major League Baseball looks at bating lineups in a way that optimizes the potential for each spot in the batting order.
The batting positions in order of importance in the Sabermetrics model is here:
- 4 – Cleanup
- 2nd batter
- 5th batter
- 3rd batter
- 6th batter
- 7th batter
- 8th batter
- 9th batter
The rationale for this shift in batting order importance is aimed to optimize your lineup. The reason for the shift in order priority is described here in more detail.
Sabermetrics concludes that the leadoff batter on the team should also have the highest on base percentage. In a typical nine inning ballgame, the leadoff hitter comes to the plate less than 4 times out of ten (36%) with runners on base. In fact, the second man in the lineup comes to bat 45% of the time with a runner on base, 9% higher than the leadoff spot.
The leadoff batter comes to the plate more than anyone else in the batting order, and he’s one of the top three hitters on the team. His speed is more desirable than his ability to hit for power. Besides, the top of the batting order will be full of power hitters.
Desired qualities for a leadoff batter:
- Speedy, and who can hopefully get on base
- High on base percentage (OBP)
- Ability to steal bases is most valuable player quality
- Doesn’t need to be a power hitter
The batter in the number 2 spot is placed in the most important situations occurring in the game. He is in some ways even more important than the third batter in the lineup because of this.
The second place batter should be one of the top three hitters on your roster overall, in terms of hitting, least strikeouts and runs batted in (RBI).
Statistically, this hitter bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters who follow him in the lineup, so he needs to have a high on base percentage. So, unlike the traditional ways of creating a batting lineup, the number 2 batter does not necessarily need to be good in hitting sacrifice grounders or fly balls.
- One of the top three hitters on the team
- Great bat handler
- High on base percentage
- Least strikeouts
The traditional approaches teaches that when the third place batter comes to the plate considers the fact that there are likely runners on base, either at first or in scoring position.
However, statistical analysis of the history of this position shows that the number three hitter comes to bat with fewer runners on base, on average, than the fourth and fifth batters in the lineup.
Batter number 3 comes to bat often with two outs and no runners on base, so his clutch importance to drive runners on base forward is diminished. Coaches should thus consider shifting their priority away from the third batter and wait to fill it only after the more important lineup spots have been filled.
- Fifth best hitter on the team (not the best)
- Hitting for power a plus but not as important
Fourth Position – Cleanup
The new approach states that the cleanup hitter is more important than the 2nd hitting position, and comes to bat in the most important situations out of all nine hitters. This is because, even though the second spot hitter goes to the plate more often than cleanup, there are usually more runners in scoring positions for the fourth batter than the second.
The cleanup batter in this new model almost has the same qualities as the traditional lineup, except that he tends to make runs score even more than what was previously thought. He must also have the highest slugging percentage on the team.
- One of the top 3 hitters on your team
- High slugging percentage on the team
- Best hitter on the team with power
- Team’s RBI leader
- Able to hit the long ball
The fifth position in the batting order is traditionally reserved for the hitter most like, but not as effective, as the cleanup hitter. However, the role he plays in scoring runs for the team is now viewed slightly differently.
The fifth batter should be the fourth best hitter on the team, after the first, second and fourth batters in the lineup. Fifth is where you place your next best hitter. In the traditional lineup, he’s considered the 2nd best hitter, but Sabermetrics analysis places him now at fourth.
Your fifth batter should be able to hit singles and doubles, and if he hits the long ball, it’s an added benefit, but no longer of critical importance. He’s not the player to try to imitate the cleanup batter.
Compared to the third hitter in the lineup, number 5 hits less home runs. Also compared with the 3rd position, he should have less strikeouts and more multiple base hits.
- Fourth in importance in a team’s lineup
- Fourth in hitting
- Has the most plate appearances with men on base
- Relied on more to hit than the third batter in lineup
Positions 6 through 9 – Suggested Strategies
The main difference between the traditional lineup and the Sabermetrics approach regards base stealing.
Stolen bases are most valuable ahead of high contact players who can hit singles, who are most likely to be at the bottom of the batting lineup. A player who is good at base stealing, but doesn’t hit well enough to be higher in the lineup should get the sixth position. The remainder of the lineup is reserved for singles hitters.
The Pitcher Batting Eighth Idea
The main argument against placing the pitcher in the eighth slot in the order is that you give him more plate appearances, even though the ninth position just precedes the leadoff batter.
The argument in favor of placing the pitcher 8th is you give the ninth position to a player with a higher on base percentage. He’s followed by the leadoff who already has a high OBP, so he will more likely move the 9th position hitter to the next base.
Runs are at a premium, so if you give your players more plate appearances, and more chances to hit with runners on base, then you should try it, if the traditional lineup means less runs for your team.
Here is a very short summary of the traditional lineup against the Sabermetrics one.
Player runs fastest on team Player should be one of the three best hitters
Good bat handler One of the three best hitters
Best hitter on team Fifth best hitter on team
Best power hitter Top 3 best team hitters, highest slugging %
Second best hitter 4th best hitter
Best remaining power hitter 6th best hitter
7th best hitter 7th best hitter
8th best hitter Hitter or pitcher, 8th best on team
9th best hitter 9th best, but good OBP
Davey Johnson, Sabermetrics and the 1986 New York Mets
Thirty-four years ago, statistical analysis and machine learning were not nearly as sophisticated as it is now. Yet at the time there was a coach who started to apply statistics to his lineup choices and turned the fledgling, losing New York Mets from a 68 wins and 94 loss record in 1983 to a franchise record of 108-54 only three years later.
Davey Johnson played second base for the Baltimore Orioles. Upon his retirement, he was offered the job of Mets’ team manager and accepted. Johnson had a degree in mathematics and had read a book called Percentage Baseball by Earnshaw Cook, who believed that the statistics thought of as the most important in baseball were wrong, and that other factors needed to be considered.
Cook’s book, however, was too densely academic for major league baseball coaches to utilize for their batting lineups. Johnson, however, met with the author and afterwards tried to apply the new way of looking at player stats to design to create his team’s lineup.
Johnson installed a computer in his team office and hired a statistician to go through the league’s player data. As a result, the Mets ended with a 90-72 winning record, the first in years before he coached.
Then, a year later, the Mets had a chance to make the playoffs if they could win a 2 out of three series against the St; Louis Cardinals. Whitey Herzog, manager for the Cardinals was the most formidable rival Johnson had yet faced. Incredibly intuitive, Herzog was first to institute double switches when a pitcher was removed from the game, so that a better hitter could come to the plate before his relief pitcher did, greatly improving the Cardinals’ odds for runs scored.
A 12-inning game in late September between the Mets and Cardinals was decided in favor of the Cardinals, who made it to the playoffs that year. But the Mets had improved even further to 98 wins and 64 losses, and a very respectable second place finish in the National League East. And in 1986, with the same application of statistics to create their batting lineup, the Mets went on to win the World Series a year later.
Davey Johnson today states he wouldn’t last a month in the statistically based Sabermetrics environment used in the majors. He does get credit, and has established proof, that statistics, if understood and applied, will break traditional expectations and result in more wins.