In the coming days the conversation that has already started – with a tweet from a player, a cameo in a New York Times op-ed by Scott Boras – will grow in volume as baseball attempts to give players some rough guideline on when a season might restart, so that they can prepare.
The sense in the industry is that players, especially pitchers, want to have as much of a head start as possible on what the Cardinals have called Camp 2.0 so that they can be ready with a shorter lead-in. The Cardinals have expected a second spring training of anywhere between 12 to 17 days – one that would allow a starter a minimum of three appearances, even if that first one is only against hitters and not in a game setting. A start date of July 1 was kicked around this past week in part because it has been offered as a destination date for players – not a proposed restart date. Major League Baseball isn’t that far along, and won’t be without clearance from city and state governments and advice from the CDC.
“The best basement batting cage or backyard mound can’t give world-class hitters and pitchers the game-speed preparation they need,” wrote Boras, one of the game’s leading agents, in The New York Times. “The first step is to return the players to spring training-style camps as soon as possible.”
Regardless of when, how, or if baseball returns for a 2020 season it will be far different than any recent season, and possibly any season ever.
It will be shortened, for sure.
Rosters will be larger, for sure.
Wherever games are played – in a Phoenix bubble, in a Texas hub, or, as baseball is increasingly hopeful, at home ballparks – it’s not likely fans will be there, to start.
The divisions could be rearranged along geographic lines or spring training states. Doubleheaders could be a regular fixture, along with the designated hitter. Widespread testing protocols must be a fixture. Meetings on the mound could be forbidden. Some kind of proactive care will be in place for older coaches. And on and on and on. There are a lot of shoulds and coulds that baseball is now troubleshooting to be ready when games get the green-light to restart the 2020 championship season.
When MLB does, teams will inevitably hunt the new landscape for competitive edges.
However games resume, the Cardinals still look like a team that will struggle to score runs, but they could bend the unusual shape of the season in their favor:
The Cardinals should bat the pitcher seventh.
Stay with me here.
A bedrock concept for lineup construction is to get the best hitters the most plate appearances for when they can influence games. For some modern teams that has been as simple as moving the traditional No. 3 hitter up to No. 2, because there are, on average, about 15 to 17 more plate appearances available there over the course of a season. For other teams it’s merely getting the most plate appearances for the players with the best on-base percentage – and batting them earlier and earlier in the lineup.
Over the past four years, here is the average difference, in fewer plate appearances, from one lineup spot to another for the Cardinals (using stats and sorts available at FanGraphs.com):
1. Averaged 757 PAs
2. minus-18 PAs
3. minus-18 PAs
4. minus-15.5 PAs
5. minus-12.5 PAs
6. minus-17 PAs
7. minus-15.5 PAs
8. minus-22.5 PAs
9. minus-20 PAs
As you can see the difference increases the deeper you get into the lineup, and that makes sense because outs are happening there at a faster rate, so innings end there. Games end there. And then restart tomorrow at the top again. Put another way, the Cardinals in 2019 got 749 plate appearances from their leadoff spot, 732 from the No. 2 spot, 715 from No. 3, 702 from cleanup, and so on down to 634 for the eighth spot and 615 for the No. 9 spot.
The Cardinals’ offensive struggles illustrate the impact of lineup dynamics. They had one of the least productive leadoff spots in baseball, and yet that leadoff spot got 34 more plate appearances than the No. 3 spot, where Paul Goldschmidt often hit. That’s the equivalent of around eight games of opportunities for Goldschmidt to do more damage – if he had the same amount of plate appearances. The Cardinals had a .308 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. Give the No. 3 spot and its .335 on-base percentage the same amount of plate appearances and the Cardinals would have had a runner in base 19 more times over the course of a season.
In the granular nature of a game it doesn’t seem like much – and we can make too much about lineup factors – but over the canvas of a full season, it adds up.
When Tony La Russa moved the pitcher to the eighth spot in the order, one of the reasons why he wanted to do that was to get his No. 3 hitter up in the first inning and then have that hitter be the de facto cleanup hitter for the remainder of the game. Effectively, he wanted to assure as many plate appearances as possible for that hitter – while also maximizing later chances for him to hit with runners on base.
Too often, we see the lineup as static, hanging on a wall before a game.
It’s a spectrum.
Any inning could be 2-3-4-5, or 8-9-1-2-3.
As mentioned earlier, a lineup’s purpose is essentially to create the most chances to get on base ahead of the best hitter and then offer the most chances to get that best hitter home. To maximize that it makes sense then to get the worst hitter as far away from the best hitter as possible – have that hitter relied on as little as possible for setting the best hitter up or driving that hitter in. If the best hitter bats third – as he often does for the Cardinals – then the spot that is farthest away from him most often in the lineup is obvious.
It’s the fourth spot behind and it’s four spots ahead.
The catch here is that over the past four seasons, the seventh spot in the Cardinals order has averaged 22 ½ more plate appearances than the No. 8 hitter. That’s the continental shelf of the lineup. It just drops off.
Enter Baseball 2020.
As teams prepare for expanded rosters, doubleheaders, and a quick ramp-up for the regular season, it is expected that rotations will have to adjust, too. It’s possible starters won’t be prepared to go as deep into games as usual. Three inning, four inning, pitch-governed outings could be the rule. That means one plate appearance for the pitcher, maybe two if there’s an early rally. It changes the lineup dynamics, because now getting that pitcher an at-bat even slightly earlier than possible makes sense for at least these reasons:
• With expanded rosters, it means a team could use a better hitter as a pinch-hitter that much earlier in the turn of the lineup and still have a hitter available later.
• With shortened outings, it doesn’t sacrifice that chance to use the PH.
• It increases the chance of that second plate appearance by the No. 7 spot turning the lineup over, and back into view of the best hitters.
Some of this is already happening even without the traditional bounds of lineup use. As recently as 2017, the Cardinals’ pitchers had 327 of the 617 plate appearances in the No. 9 spot in the order. A position player – double-switched in or a pinch-hitter – took 47 percent of the plate appearances.
Even with the Cardinals’ robust, division-winning pitching this past season, that gap narrowed noticeably. Pitchers took 309 plate appearances in the No. 9 spot for Mike Shildt’s team in 2019. Position players in the No. 9 spot had only three fewer. The 615 total plate appearances for the No. 9 spot – 134 fewer of the course of the season than leadoff – were split almost evenly between pitchers and position players.
The lag of the offense wasn’t turning the lineup over that much.
Pitchers were also not pitching as deep into games.
In a season that could start with pitchers unable to go deep into games and could rest on finding any creative competitive edge in a slightly warped game, here is way to address both, to flex the depth of a roster, and maybe goose an average offense in the process. Bat the pitcher seventh. Let’s see what happens.
Pity there probably just will be a DH.
So, let’s talk about that six-man rotation …