The Lineup Conundrum

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On Wednesday, Brian Snitker moved Dansby Swanson to the two-spot in the lineup and wrote out his fortieth different lineup in 62 games. Over those same 62 games, the Braves have used 29 different defensive combinations, thanks to a number of injuries. However, now that the positional battles seem to have sorted themselves out, and the starting eight seem to be stabilizing, it’s time we start talking about what the most effective look from the Braves is as we enter the heat of summer.

The interesting thing about the Braves season to date is the fact that we are two months into the season and the core starting eight have only started together five times, seven if you count Suzuki/Flowers as a single entity. So let’s pretty much call that core starting eight a core nine with the rotation behind the plate:

Seven games. And still ten games over and tied for first place. Seven games. And six of those were over eight days from May 19 – 26.

Then the Acuña injury happened.

Since then, Snitker has kept a rather consistent rotation with Preston Tucker and Charlie Culberson splitting the time in place of Acuña. Over that time, however, the lineup has gone over a few different incarnations as Snit tries to figure out where the pieces fit.

Before the Acuña injury, the typical lineup looked like this:

In all honesty, there’s not a lot wrong with that lineup.

But it could be a lot better. Like with anything else over 162 games, there are changes that can be made to help optimize and gain every small little advantage. Let’s take a look at each position in the lineup and how the best pieces can be utilized in each.

LEADOFF

Conventional wisdom has always been that a fast guy leads off. Power normally doesn’t factor in, just so long as your leadoff hitter can get on and use his baserunning prowess to advance. This is where the “Inciarte should hit leadoff” contingent get most of their firepower from. He’s got the least amount of pop on the team and the most steals – the old school mindset tells you he’s the ideal leadoff guy.

The problem is, the more modern approach has told us that everything from your leadoff hitter revolves around the ability to get on base. With the leadoff spot always following the bottom three, they also come up with runners on less than other spots in the lineup, so you really don’t want a run-producer at the top, which is what keeps teams from putting their best hitter there. That’s why Albies may be the sexiest option at the top of the order because he’s been a huge sparkplug starting games, he may not be the most efficient.

The best option? Nick Markakis. He has a high walk-rate, high average, and of the Braves top four or five hitters has the least amount of pop. His one downside is a lack of speed, but with the middle of the order coming up, you’re less likely to need a hitter who can steal a base or take an extra base when the ball is in play. With Freeman, Albies, Suzuki/Flowers, and Acuña in the lineup, you have enough power that you don’t need to play the station-to-station type of small ball the curmudgeons in the booth are always glamorizing. The fans have gotten used to Markakis hitting behind Freddie at this point, but it’s just not the best place for him now that the lineup has depth.

TWO-HOLE

The old approach for the second hitter in the lineup is a contact guy who can give up an out to move over the leadoff hitter for the middle of the order. It was always an overlooked spot because they were generally bat control guys who you didn’t have a problem asking to sacrifice more at-bats than not for the sake of the team. This is likely the reason why we recently saw Snitker write in Camargo’s name for a couple of games. Write him in behind Albies, let him supply what he can offensively, and then let Freeman do the heavy lifting.

It’s not a good approach at all, because the two-hole is arguably the most critical spot in the lineup. A strong argument has been made in recent years the two-hitter should ultimately be the best hitter on the team, but there are flaws in that argument. While it is a critical spot, it’s also a spot in the lineup that is only one hitter removed from the bottom of the order. You get crucial ABs in regards to having the leadoff guy on, but they also have to serve as a set piece for the rest of the heart of the order.

The best option? Likely Albies. But, honestly, I’ve got plans for him in a moment, so we have some options here. The darkhorse would be the catching combo of Flowers and Suzuki. Over the last couple seasons, the duo behind the plate have been unsung heroes for this Braves team. The problem is, they aren’t very similar style hitters – Flowers is a high walk-rate guy who strikes out a lot, while Suzuki has provided a little more power in recent years. So having a platoon at the top of the order may not be the best possible option in terms of optimization. If their profiles matched up a little better, sure, but I’m going to scratch it for now.

My choice? With how the pieces are going to fit in a moment – Dansby Swanson. As you’ve seen on Twitter in the past few weeks, I’ve been heavily angling for Swanson to get more high-pressure plate appearances because that is a spot he has thrived in. Sure, his swing has some exploitable holes, as I pointed out last week, but put in a position where pitchers are forced to work to him, he’s been very good at finding mistake pitches and making it work. I know everyone has been down on Swanson with his struggles the last year and a half, but there is still a ton to like about him. And I think slotting him between the two best pure hitters on the team would allow him a great opportunity to reach that next level.

THREE SPOT

Freddie Freeman.

Nothing else really needs to be added here. The three spot was Chipper’s, and now it’s Freddie’s.

CLEANUP

Old-school says this is your power hitter. This is your bopper. This is where the dongs are made. May not be the best pure hitter on the team, or the highest average guy, but he’s gonna hit some taters.

But the new school approach says it’s a little more important than that. Essentially, it is the most important because of the situations, but it’s not necessarily where you want your best hitter (see: the #2/#3 spots). The cleanup hitter is equal in many ways to the two-hitter.

And that is why the best option for cleanup is the one I chose as the best option for the #2 spot early: Ozzie Albies. He provides everything you could want out of a hitter from the two, three, or four spots, but because of the power he has shown the past two partial seasons, he fits in perfectly as a cleanup hitter – even though you couldn’t get a more unconventional looking guy hitting fourth. That reason alone is probably going to scare away a lot of people from the idea, but all the numbers sync up – extremely high ISO, not the best BB%, but also not a bad K% for a guy with pop.

FIFTH

Most of us grew up thinking of the fifth-place hitter as the guy who just couldn’t quite cut it as the cleanup hitter. Or maybe his handedness was opposite of the cleanup hitter and was there to add balance later in games, as we developed more specialized roles from relievers. But for the most part, the #5 guy should be a mirror of what you expect out of your #3 hitter – a balanced hitter who can get on by swinging the bat or working the count, hit for power, and usually do it all.

The name I haven’t mentioned yet in any of the scenarios is the perfect fit for fifth: Ronald Acuña. I know a lot may sneer at hitting Acuña this low in the lineup, but until he can really flesh out his approach and figure out just where he fits as far as style, this should be where he lives. He’s still 20, he has all the raw power in the world, and speed to match it, but he just hasn’t put all the pieces together. He has the strikeout rate to show that so far, unfortunately. There is little doubt he will eventually settle into a likely two-hitter when all is said and done, but for now, there are better options to fill the higher pressure spots.

SIX THROUGH NINE

The also-rans. The “hey, we gotta do something with you” spots. But that doesn’t mean we should just come along and start pulling names out of a hat and writing them down. There is still some strategy to be had with the bottom of the order.

The catching combo is the perfect fit for rounding out the middle third of the lineup. Four, five, six have long been your biggest power guys. The six to eight spots have also usually been slotted in more of a diminishing talent sequence. With the Braves lineup, however, there really isn’t a lot of drop-off when you get down to those last few names. Which is why putting Flowers/Suzuki hitting sixth still works out and is something you should be comfortable with. They provide you with one last round of power before we get to the bottom three.

Seventh belongs to Johan Camargo. Honestly, I can’t think of any lineup option where Camargo doesn’t fit in at seventh. It’s not that Camargo is a bad hitter – he’s not by any really any measure – he’s just not one of the best hitters on the team either. And that’s more of a compliment to everyone else than a knock on him. He’s hit for a surprisingly high ISO last year and so far in 2018 compared to his minor league numbers, and so far this year has displayed a rather unexpected ability to draw a walk. The further along we get with Camargo, the more Josh seems to be almost spot-on with the comparisons he has drawn to Martin Prado in recent years.

Alright, the last two spots. You probably know where I’m going here.

Hit the pitcher eighth and put Ender Inciarte in the ninth spot. Snitker did it earlier this year and nixed the idea after a week because he “wasn’t comfortable hitting the pitcher at eight.” I don’t want to turn this into a bash Snitker piece, but friends, that’s just lazy and inexcusable. Whether or not a manager is comfortable with writing a name on the lineup card in a certain spot has zero to do with what is best for the team and their offensive output.

I get the argument. You’re moving almost a guaranteed out up a spot in the lineup, exposing them to more at-bats. The problem is, the pitcher’s spot isn’t like any other. Pitchers usually get two plate appearances per game, regardless of whether they are hitting eighth or ninth. The other 2+ trips to the plate are going to be from your bench, giving you essentially an AL lineup at that point because you usually aren’t going to run Sam Freeman or Dan Winkler out there to take hacks in a game that matters. The other variable is the fact Snitker has shown a rather strong fondness for double-switching late – which toys with where the pitcher’s spot in the lineup is anyways.

But Inciarte is perfect for the bottom of the order. He’s not a bad hitter. But he’s not a great one, either. He’s just not a balanced hitter or someone with a high enough walk-rate to fit in as your leadoff guy – as our other Brandon laid out for you a couple weeks back when we first launched. He’s similar to Swanson in the fact he succeeds most when he is able to make a pitcher come to him. He’s a singles guy with decent speed, it doesn’t take much of a mistake pitch for him to be able to slap a single. Which is why he would work great hitting in front of the leadoff hitter, but would likely fail if he were hitting ahead of the pitcher or a low-pressure guy like Camargo.

Ok.

Now, what do I propose with all that said?

It’s balanced, and I think it works.

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