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Jim Leyland's sabermetric lineup

With a struggling offense in the American League Championship Series, Jim Leyland decided to shakeup his lineup by taking a page out of The Book. What should we think about the shuffle?

Ronald Martinez

It's not often that my twitter feed explodes with support for a decision made by Tigers' skipper Jim Leyland, but that's exactly what happened Wednesday when Detroit's lineup for game 4 of the ALCS was announced. With Austin Jackson struggling mightily, Leyland moved the speedster down to the eighth hole and bumped the rest of his hitters up in the order. The lineup looked drastically different than the one that took the field in game three, but while many players had been moved around, the big news was that likely American League MVP Miguel Cabrera would hit second in the lineup. Here's a sampling of responses that followed:

For those of you wondering why there was so much applause at the move, it boils down to the principles of lineup construction originally outlined in The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin. If you haven't read their work, you really should, but for now we can give you the cliff notes thanks to former BtBS writer Sky Kalkman's 2009 article on optimizing big league lineups. From Sky's article, we get this passage on the two-hole:

The old-school book says to put a bat-control guy here. Not a great hitter, but someone who can move the lead-off hitter over for one of the next two hitters to drive in.

The Book says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player. Doesn't sound like someone who should be sacrificing, does it?

Essentially, the smart money says that a team's best hitter should bat second, and not third like the conventional wisdom says. And with a .455 wOBA and a 192 wRC+ during the regular season, Miguel Cabrera fits the bill of the Tigers' best hitter.

Despite being the "correct" way to structure a lineup, however, we also know that lineup construction has very little effect on actual wins and losses. The Book estimates the actual impact of an optimized batting order to be worth roughly one win over the course of full season, meaning that the impact on a single game is quite negligible. While Cabrera did come to the plate and come through in a spot that he wouldn't have the prior night -- a runner on third with two outs in the third inning, Jake Peavy's wildness and the Red Sox defensive woes had more to do with the Detroit win than any lineup tinkering. To no surprise, that's exactly how our own resident Tigers' expert felt about the move:

Absolutely true, too much was probably made about the change. I set out to count how many times it was mentioned by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on FOX's broadcast last evening, but I lost track at about 71 times in the third inning. I don't hold that against them, though, because a large part of their job is to scrutinize decision's made this time of year. Plus they have three to four hours of air time to fill and entertain the masses; of course they're going to talk about the shift.

What interests me more is the attention from the Brian Kennys and Keith Laws of the world. Certainly they know that the Tigers batting order would have little to no affect on the game, so why the onslaught of praise? I'm speculating here, but I think this has to do with something bigger than just this one game. Knowingly or not, Jim Leyland made a decision supported by data, and that's a win for baseball in general. It's going to take time to debunk a lot of the conventional wisdom in baseball, but with every decision like this one, we take a step closer to doing so. And with the Tigers' resounding win on national television, maybe this actually speeds up the process:

We can only hope, Jonah, we can only hope.

. . .

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Fake Teams.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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