Monday, April 15, 2024
MLB

The Ideal Angels’ Batting Order for 2024

There are many schools of thought on batting order, and some modern analysts will argue that it has little effect on the record of a team. That being said, there are clear evolutions and optimizations in the way that offense is organized that have taken place over the past couple decades, and the degree to which these data-supported optimizations have been accepted can vary heavily among different organizations and coaching staffs.

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The Los Angeles Angels have a new manager this season, and it appears that Ron Washington will have full control over the batting order. He has clearly stated some of the principles he views as key when building the Angels’ batting order, and this is supported by the batting orders that he implemented in Spring Training. Breaking down his philosophy on the batting order of his players and comparing that with what the data says about batting order and the Angels’ 2024 hitting projections will allow us to understand what optimizations can be made to get the most out of their 2024 offense.

Before jumping into how the Angels should line up in 2024, it is important to understand what analytics says about the different spots in the batting order. Looking at the types of high-leverage or low-leverage situations that each spot in the order is most likely to end up in and how often they will come up to the plate in those situations will provide a blueprint for what types of hitters should be placed one through nine in the order. A lot of this may contradict commonly held beliefs or what your coaches taught you, but shedding preconceived ideas about how a lineup should look when presented with new information that can be supported with facts is essential in modern baseball. Many of the ideas below are explained in great detail in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin.

Here’s a quick history lesson to set the tone. The 1929 and 1930 Philadelphia Athletics won back-to-back World Series titles. They had a star-studded roster featuring all-time Hall of Fame greats like Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, and Mickey Cochrane, with quality depth around them. A deep dive into their World Series batting order reveals a harrowing reality. The winningest manager in MLB history, Connie Mack, used to bat Jimmie Foxx in the 5 spot. The 3-time MVP, Top 3 first baseman in MLB history, that guy. This was the era where it was thought that “table-setters,” or contact hitters and bunters with speed but average or below average overall bats, should bat first and second in the order. This left Mickey Cochrane to hit third and Al Simmons to fourth, both Hall of Famers and great hitters in their own right. But hitting Foxx, the cornerstone of the team, in the 5 spot with multiple middling hitters ahead of him is the perfect example of how baseball philosophies have rightfully changed in the modern era.

The Philadelphia A’s batting order in Game 1 of the 1930 World Series

Keys to Building Your Batting Order

1. Your Three Best Hitters Should be Batting in the 1, 2, and 4 Spots

It is very common for coaches to put their best hitter in the 3 spot. Based on the probability of different situations that these hitters end up in and how often they come to the plate over the course of a season, the 2 hitter should be the best overall hitter on the team since this is the spot that can contribute the most value over the course of a season. It is also worth noting that when I say “best hitter,” I am looking at a handful of stats. If it was my job, I would try to look at various projections of wOBA and some peripheral metrics, but to keep things simple, we can just look at OPS. After the best overall hitter is locked into the 2 spot, the next two best hitters should be placed in the 1 and 4 spots. How do you decide between the 2nd and 3rd best hitters on the team to bat in the 1 and 4 spot? Of these two hitters, the player with a profile that has more emphasis on on-base percentage (OBP) and walk rate (BB%) should be leadoff, and the player whose profile shows more emphasis on slugging percentage should be hitting clean-up. The top of the order will see many more PAs throughout a full season than the middle and bottom of the order, so even more reason to give the most opportunities to the best players. The data is very clear that your three best hitters should be batting in the 1, 2, and 4 spots, arranged as described.

“You mentioned OBP and SLG, but what about batting average?” Apologies to the baseball traditionalists, but I do not care much for batting average as a stand-alone stat. Batting average measures how often someone gets a hit. That is good information to know! However, it is even more helpful to know how often someone gets a hit OR walks (OBP), and it is also more helpful to know if someone’s hit was just a single, or a double, triple, or homer (SLG). The rate at which someone gets a hit (batting average) IS a key component in both OBP and SLG (and as a result OPS, the addition of on-base plus slugging percentage), so it becomes pointless to look at batting average as a stand-alone number. The common belief that a leadoff hitter should be a good contact hitter with a high average is also funny since a walk and a single are nearly identical to start a game.

2. Your Fourth and Fifth Best Hitters Should Be Batting in the 3 and 5 Spots

It seems strange at first, I know. Why would you not want one of your very best guys hitting third? The data is pretty clear again here. The third hitter comes up to the plate on average in lower leverage situations than the 1, 2, and 4 hitters. If you want your best hitters up in the most important situations on average, then your fourth and fifth best hitters should be batting in the 3 and 5 spots. The decision between who to bat at 3 and who to bat at 5 can come down to a few different factors, like handedness, speed, and how the hitters’ profiles complement the other hitters around them. I will cover that more with an example later.

3. The Second Leadoff Hitter Through the Nine Hole

The hitter in the 6 spot can be viewed as a sort of second leadoff hitter, or someone who leads off the bottom half of the order. Normally, this would just be the best hitter out of the remaining four guys in the lineup, but this is also where you can give some bias towards placing a stole base specialist as well. It is commonly thought to put a guy who can steal bases batting leadoff, and old-school baseball coaches would often put someone who could move that leadoff hitter over in the 2 spot. We have already established that we need our best hitters up at the very top. The classic speedy player who might lack pop or a good eye at the plate should be batting in the 6 spot most of the time.

Think about it like this: it is much more of a risk to try stealing a base when you have one of your best players at the plate prepared to do damage, and it is much less of a risk when the speedster tries to steal a bag with the bottom of the order is at the plate since they are much less likely to do damage. In a way, the worse hitters are more in need of the value that the stolen base adds to their chances of generating a run for their team, so bat that speedy but incomplete hitter that would’ve traditionally hit leadoff throughout much of baseball history in your 6 spot.

The bottom half of the order should typically be organized from best to worst among the remaining hitters, with a couple of exceptions. We established that a speed or stolen base bias can be given to the 6 hitter. The other exception is that there is statistically an increase in team run production when you have someone better than your worst hitter batting in the 9 spot. Your top of the order will have the chance to produce more runs if there is someone on base when the lineup turns over. Because of this, placing the worst hitter 8th and then someone slightly better or slightly more suited to get on base for the top of the order is the best approach.

This completes our breakdown of what you should be looking at when creating a batting order. As with most things, there is definitely room for tweaks or a chance that creativity will be needed in certain cases, primarily when a team’s roster is unique. Handedness is an important consideration that I did not cover, but the important strategy of trying to spread out your lefty and righty hitters evenly could force minor deviations from the blueprint I laid out. In other situations, a manager may struggle to identify the archetypes of players I described. Maybe deficiencies in the roster have led to no diversity between your OBP guys v.s. your SLG guys. The core tenet to stick to in these cases is best hitter bats second, and the top 3 hitters go 1, 2, and 4 in the batting order. Everything else can just be in order of best to worst of the remaining players.

How Should the Angels Apply This in 2024?

Based on what we have seen so far in Spring Training and the Freeway Series exhibition games, it is safe to conclude that Ron Washington plans to bat Mike Trout third this season. Anthony Rendon was featured hitting clean-up for much of Spring Training before shifting to lead-off in the Freeway Series, while Nolan Schanuel hit second for much of Spring Training before getting moved to sixth in the Freeway Series. Aaron Hicks moved around some, but Washington has hit him second on the order for the Freeway Series. Throughout the preseason, Logan O’Hoppe and Zach Neto have hit towards the bottom of the lineup (8th and 9th in the Freeway Series). Based on what is laid out above, several of these decisions do not seem to lead to the most optimized version of how the Angels could line up this year.

We know we need to place heavy emphasis on finding the team’s best hitters and putting them at the top. Using projections from Fangraph’s Depth Charts, the best overall hitter on the Angels should be Mike Trout, so he should bat second. After Trout, there is a clear grouping of 4 hitters that project to be the best overall in 2024: Logan O’Hoppe, Taylor Ward, Nolan Schanuel, and Anthony Rendon (listed in order of projected wOBA). O’Hoppe and Schanuel follow specific archetypes. Schanuel has the highest projected OBP on the team besides Trout, so he should bat leadoff with those plate skills. O’Hoppe has the highest projected SLG on the team besides Trout, so he should hit clean-up. This leaves Ward and Rendon for the 3 and 5 spots. But which guy should hit in which spot?

For this answer, I will go to a specific characteristic of their offensive profiles. Rendon has more of a proclivity for grounding into double plays. He excels at getting the ball in play when needed, sometimes even at the expense of power. This fact, combined with his declining sprint speed, can result in more double plays than average. Ward is faster and has a track record of grounding into fewer double plays than Rendon, which is supported by their wGDP (how often you ground into a double play for every double play opportunity you are in, compared to league average). Rendon has been below league average in wGDP for five straight seasons, while Ward fluctuates closer to average and is above average when combining the last three seasons. It is possible that I am putting too much emphasis on double play potential, but I want to optimize as much as I can, and I would rather not have a high double play guy hitting behind my two best OBP players. Ward should hit third, and Rendon should hit fifth.

Another thing to consider here is handedness. Schanuel is too new to big league pitching to determine how he will do against left-handed pitching in the long term. I like the idea of swapping Rendon and Schanuel against lefty starting pitchers. Rendon and Schanuel profile quite similarly, with elite plate skills (BB%, K%, chase rate, etc.) at the expense of some contact quality. Both are also some of the slower players on the team. They could be seen as interchangeable in the order situationally, but on average, Schanuel does project slightly better and should get the nod at leadoff to start the year.

The top 5 is now set, and it features the projected starting 1B, CF, LF, C, and 3B. The remaining best hitters according to Fangraph’s Depth Charts are, in order, Zach Neto, Luis Rengifo, Brandon Drury, and Aaron Hicks. A shortstop, two infielders who can play second base, and an outfielder are exactly what we needed to complete the bottom half of our batting order. Neto should hit sixth for several reasons. He is the next best hitter on the team, and he showed a desire to steal more bags with his aggressive base-running in Spring Training. Rengifo will slot in well in the 7 spot as the next best projected hitter who also likes to steal bases. This leaves Drury and Hicks for the 8 and 9 spots. The key determination that should be made is who will be better at setting up the top of the order. My pick for this would be Hicks in the 9 spot, since his only truly elite hitting peripherals are his great BB% and his low chase rate. These happen to be two of the key weaknesses in Drury’s profile. This means I’ll take Drury’s better quality of contact in the 8 spot to drive in Neto or Rengifo, and we’ll use Hicks’ great eye at the plate to turn the lineup over.

This is how the 2024 Angels offense should line up according to these principles:

  1. Nolan Schanuel, 1B
  2. Mike Trout, CF
  3. Taylor Ward, LF
  4. Logan O’Hoppe, C
  5. Anthony Rendon, 3B
  6. Zach Neto, SS
  7. Luis Rengifo, 2B
  8. Brandon Drury, DH
  9. Aaron Hicks, RF

I used a combination of depth charts and my judgment on the positions, but that is not what this article is about. Rendon will need days off to DH so then Drury can slide to 3B. Drury can also play 1B with Schanuel at DH if needed. But this exercise was about ordering the Angels’ best bats in the best order possible. Now you may ask: what about Mickey Moniak? Jo Adell? Miguel Sano? These guys simply do not project to be in the best version of the Angels’ batting order. Moniak’s high strikeout rate and low walk rate are two key concerns that he will have to address. Those poor swing decisions will need to be ironed out. Adell finds himself in a similar situation with his proclivity for chasing balls and whiffing strikes. Both are still young but need to show more to make this batting order. Adell projects slightly better in both OBP and SLG over Moniak, but both are bench outfielders behind Hicks by these projections. Sano and backup catcher Matt Thaiss would round out the bench in this exercise.

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I will conclude with this: I do not expect the Angels to use this lineup. In fact, it is likelier than not that we will never see this exact lineup in 2024. The philosophies on display in the preseason regarding batting order show a clear disagreement with what was laid out in this article. And that is okay. It’s not the end of the world if the new Angels coaching staff does not fully embrace the optimizations that are supported by analytics. It would be nice if they did, but their sharp focus on other facets like defense and being bought in as a team may end up making up for it. Besides, injuries and rest days will throw a wrench in the optimal lineup on a regular basis. What really matters are the principles that informed the decisions I made to build this Angels lineup. Hopefully, you will think differently about how to construct a lineup to be the best it can be, even if the Angels won’t.

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