Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Power of the Geek

The Geek speaks and lineup discussions erupt throughout the baseball blogosphere, like aftershocks following an earthquake. (Item for to-do list: add link to Geek on sidebar of blog.)

Here we are almost a year to the day from the Great Tike Redman in the Three Slot controversy of 2005, talking about batting order again.

Somewhere in one of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts on my shelf in the other room is a lengthy discussion by James of an experiment he ran with the 1927 Yankees in which he did a computer simulation of that team's expected runs scored using what would intuitively be the worst possible lineup that could be constructed from that team--Ruth batting ninth; Gehrig batting sixth, away from Ruth; the pitcher spot batting first; that kind of thing. The result that James reported was that the order in which the team members batted made surprisingly little difference. As I recall--and it's been a long time since I've read it (if only these things were digitized and searchable)--his conclusion was that the team might have lost one or two more games using this lineup instead of the lineup that they did use, and the ultimate conclusion was that batting order matters a lot less than a lot of us think it does. (Caveat: This was written in the 80s, and may well have been debunked by subsequent sabermetric research, about which I am not an expert.)

I think we all have a sense of who should bat where in the lineup programmed into us from an early age--probably pre-Little League. The little speedy guy bats first. The other speedy guy who's a little bigger and not quite as speedy bats second. The best guy on the team bats third. The slow guy with the big arms bats fourth. The catcher bats sixth or seventh. Or eighth if he can't hit. Despite all the evidence presented to the contrary, we all still believe, somewhere in our DNA, that this is the way things should be.

I think it was Gene Mauch when he was managing the Angels who stirred things up by batting his great OBP guy, Brian Downing, in the leadoff spot despite the fact that he was big and slow. It worked for him, and enlightened organizations seem to understand that, if you're going to bother tinkering with the lineup at all, you should stack your high OBP guys up toward the top. But the Little League imprinting is strong and, in some organizations, it never dies. A lot of people will get upset with you if you try to argue that Vince Coleman was a terrible leadoff hitter and that Willie McGee wasn't much better. Or around here, you could try the argument with Omar Moreno and see how far you get.

The search for the prototypical leadoff hitter is a search for Fool's Gold, and the Pirates, like many teams, have wound up broke and hungry out on the frontier more than once. Jacob Brumfield. Jermaine Allensworth. Tike Redman. Adrian Brown. Marvell Wynne. Pokey Reese. Brant Brown. Lee Mazilli. J0hn Cangelosi. (Help me out here, readers, I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch of other speedy little guys who looked like they should be leadoff hitters.)

I will close this post with two words, then duck and run:

Chris Duffy.


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