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Exploring the Atlanta Braves lineup structure

There have been some interesting lineups this year. Let’s explore lineup optimization.

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MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals
Ozzie Albies and Michael Harris have some eye popping platoon splits
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

So far, the lineup selections by Brian Snitker have been interesting for the Atlanta Braves.

Most of us know by now that there are a lot of nuances involved when a lineup is built, but we also know that the traditional way of the way it used to be done which typically was your fastest guy batting first and your power bat hitting third, is no longer viewed as the optimal way to construct a lineup.

We have seen the best hitters on teams getting higher and higher in lineups so that they get more at bats throughout the season. We have seen in for a few years now with players like Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, and Aaron Judge batting second.

It has been fascinating to see how lineup construction has evolved over the years. Ultimately, it seems that managers are going with probability, or “playing the odds”. For example, in today’s game where pitchers have gotten way better at limiting runs (2022 was the second lowest league average OPS since 1992), you have a higher probability to score runs by moving your best hitters higher in the lineup to give them more at bats.

For reference, on average the first spot in the lineup will receive 782.46 plate appearances per year, the second spot will receive 764.64, and so forth all the way down till the ninth spot will receive 631.8.

For reference, if Ronald Acuña Jr were to play every game, on average he would lose fifty-five plate appearances dropping him down to cleanup.

The Braves for the most part seem to be following the same mold. There is a reason Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson, and Austin Riley typically bat 1-2-3.

Things started to change when The Book by Tom M. Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin was written. The book is all about playing the percentages of baseball by some of the greatest minds in baseball analytics on the planet.

They found that to optimize your run output, you need to have your three best hitters bat first, second and fourth. Then, when ranking your hitters it would be third, fifth, and followed by sixth through ninth.

When they say best hitters, they mean by a combination of slugging and on base percentage. Ideally you want your best OBP guy batting first, then your highest OPS guy hitting second. You then want your third best overall hitter batting cleanup. The reason you don’t want your third best hitter in the three hole is because statistically speaking, they have the highest probability of coming to the plate with zero on and two outs.

Once you get to the fifth hitter you just want to rank them based on OPS+ in decreasing order.

How does this impact the Atlanta Braves?

We already pointed out that the Braves somewhat follow this model. We also know that players like Ronald Acuña Jr and Eddie Rosario were not fully healthy, and Michael Harris’ surface numbers were a bit higher than his XSTATs. So, let’s look at the ZiPS projections for OPS+ ranked from highest to lowest (one-hundred OPS+ is league average):

1. Ronald Acuña Jr, 133 OPS+

2. Austin Riley, 131 OPS+

3. Matt Olson, 129 OPS+

4. Sean Murphy, 112 OPS+

5. Michael Harris and Ozzie Albies (tie), 110 OPS+

7. Travis d’Arnaud, 105 OPS+

8. Marcell Ozuna, 102 OPS+

9. Orlando Arcia, 84 OPS+

10. Eddie Rosario, 82 OPS+

Of course these are projections, and it no exact science. But, it should not be a shock to see Acuña, Olson, and Riley getting the most at bats. It also makes sense as to why we have seen Michael Harris hit where he has thus far.

One thing that The Book alludes to is that the old school method of rotating the handedness of the hitter is not as important as once thought.

Platoon Splits matter

One area that, for whatever reason, seems to be lost among fans discussing lineups is that platoon splits exist. When you optimize your lineup, you have to consider this. Odds are heavily in favor of seeing the starting pitcher for longer than you will relief pitchers. So, if you are playing the numbers, you want to build one lineup based on if it is a lefty starter, and a different one based on it being a righty starter.

ZiPS does not project platoon splits, so let’s look at OPS+ of each probable starter of the Braves vs righties, and then lefties. To make it as accurate as possible, let’s look at the last two years. We all know Austin Riley had a terrible start to his career, and last year Acuña and Albies were not at full strength.

Vs. Righties (2021 and 2022):

· Ronald Acuña Jr: 165 OPS+ in 2021, 122 in 2022

· Austin Riley: 157 OPS+ in 2021, 129 in 2022

· Matt Olson: 142 OPS+ in 2021, 132 in 2022

· Sean Murphy: 106 OPS+ in 2021, 107 in 2022

· Michael Harris: 165 OPS+ in 2022

· Ozzie Albies: 104 OPS+ in 2021, 98 in 2022

· Travis d’Arnaud: 72 OPS+ in 2021, 111 in 2022

· Marcell Ozuna: 83 OPS+ in 2021, 114 in 2022

· Orlando Arcia: 35 OPS+ in 2021, 122 in 2022

· Eddie Rosario: 113 OPS+ in 2021, 70 in 2022

Vs Lefties (2021 and 2022)

· Ronald Acuña Jr: 188 OPS+ in 2021, 102 in 2022

· Austin Riley: 104 OPS+ in 2021, 199 in 2022

· Matt Olson: 157 OPS+ in 2021, 110 in 2022

· Sean Murphy: 106 OPS+ in 2021, 107 in 2022

· Michael Harris: 82 OPS+ in 2022

· Ozzie Albies: 152 OPS+ in 2021, 96 in 2022

· Travis d’Arnaud: 129 OPS+, in 2021, 162 in 2022

· Marcell Ozuna: 63 OPS+ in 2021, 42 in 2022

· Orlando Arcia: 114 OPS+ in 2021, 70 in 2022

· Eddie Rosario: 77 OPS+ in 2021, 40 in 2022

As can be seen, in some of the players there are massive platoon splits. So, if you truly want to optimize your lineup, which putting Acuña and Olson where they have been show Snitker does (at least to some extent), then there should be some significant differences in the two batting orders.

Acuña is an exception to most rules. You don’t get this type of speed and power combo very often. Not to mention he is well above average against both lefties and righties. He is not moving from the top spot. Outside of that, let’s have some fun and create some batting orders based on OPS+ and the model mentioned earlier from The Book.

If we use this model, and use a player’s OPS+ ceiling of the last two years you get vs righties and based solely on offense:

1. Acuña

2. Harris

3. Olson

4. Riley

5. Arcia

6. Ozuna (LF)

7. d’Arnaud (DH)

8. Murphy

9. Albies

Arcia’s underlying metrics show his performance last year was no fluke, but Harris’ shows he should have some regression. So, he may not be ideal to stick at the two spot.

When we look at using the model vs a lefty, the lineup looks drastically different:

1. Acuña

2. Riley

3. Olson

4. d’Arnaud (DH)

5. Albies

6. Arcia

7. Murphy

8. Harris

9. Rosario

Of course, there are a lot of variables in play here. When you look at the past two seasons and look at the ceiling, it is most definitely not a perfect science. There are injuries involved, players outperforming or underperforming their XTATS due to small sample sizes etc.

This was just a fun exercise and is not a true example of what the lineups should actually be. But, we are able to gather some information from this exercise.

Moving players like Riley and Olson around is not going to make a massive difference. However, there are a few things that stick out.

Albies is lethal against lefties and should be in the top half of the order, but against righties he should be in the bottom half.

The opposite can be said about Harris. He does very well against righties, but poorly against lefties. Ideally you would want to bump him down to the bottom half of the order against them. Of course, it is small sample size so far, but his splits are massive.

Arcia is surprisingly better against righties than some may have thought (especially factoring his metrics from last year which we covered in great depth), and maybe it would make sense to move him up from the nine spot.

And lastly, the ceiling from the last two years in LF is bleak against lefties. For his career, Rosario hits better against righties than lefties, yet if we look at the last two years, Rosario is the best offensive option there.

The Braves analytics department is arguably one of the best in the business, so it would make sense to trust them and the info they are feeding Snitker. But, based on the information we gathered from what we just looked at, there are some puzzling lineup structures we have seen so far.

Lineups to date, and what did not make much sense.

At the time of this writing, the Braves have played four games, and there are some odd lineup placements.

In game one, when facing a lefty in Patrick Corbin, Travis d’Arnaud was batting 8th. By this model, he is better suited to hit in the top of the order against lefties. d’Arnaud promptly went 4-5 and was the offensive deciding factor in the game.

In game two, Albies was hitting cleanup against a righty in Josiah Gray. Albies is hitting 9th in the model above against righties. Orlando Arcia, who was batting 9th, and shows could possibly be bumped up in the lineup vs righties went 3-4, while Albies went 1-3 with a single.

In game three, against once highly ranked prospect lefty MacKenzie Gore, Ozuna was batting 5th. Based on the model, he should not have even been in the lineup. Ozuna went 0-4.

In game four, d’Arnaud was batting cleanup, when by the model above he should have been in the bottom half of the lineup vs a righty. d’Arnaud went 1-5 in the game.

These lineup structures are by no means an exact science. It is just a fun exercise to gain some baseline knowledge of how the lineup could be improved. Hindsight is 20/20, but in the first four games had these players mentioned above been utilized a little better in lineup placement, it would theoretically improve the odds to score more runs. The Braves were 3-1 in that stretch, so it is not that big of a deal.

It was sure odd seeing some of those lineup cards, and it was fun doing this lineup breakdown loosely basing it off of one of the best reads out there, The Book.

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