The "New School" of baseball thought has once again come into open conflict with those mired in the commonly accepted wisdom of "baseball tradition". (Come to think of it, when are those of us in the "New School" not at odds with traditionalists?) The issue on the table, this time, is the decision of Yankees manager Joe Girardi to pencil 2B Robinson Cano into the second position in the Yankees batting order.
Traditionally, managers have tended toward the qualities of bat control and plate discipline when deciding which player to bat second in the order. A willingness to take pitches, often strikes (to allow the leadoff man a chance to steal a base), sacrifice bunt (sigh), and the ability to hit the ball to the right side have also been preferred traits of a number two hitter.
Sabermetricians, as they are wont to do, have suggested that the traditional way of constructing a lineup is flawed and a team could gain an advantage by optimizing their lineup. In The Book, Tom Tango expounded a number of ways a lineup's run scoring potential could be maximized, including the idea that a team would be best served by batting one of their three best hitters (preferably the best) second in the order. If a team implemented the line of thinking proposed by Tango and others, hitters would abandon the "traditional duties" expected of their position in the order.
Matt Klaassen of FanGraphs discussed the possible result of batting Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano back to back at the top of the Yankees lineup:
One difficulty when talking about even just one batting order spot is that one cannot consider just one hitter and his traits. The notion of a player being "ideal" for a particular batting order slot tends to cover up the fact that where a hitter is best slotted depends on the specific skills of the other hitters in the lineup. Putting all the likely combinations of base/out situations for various possible batting order combinations is not something one humans can realistically do, which is why simulations and models are important. This is all a roundabout way explaining why I am going to limit the discussion to one specific point: granted that the Yankees have decided to bat the left-handed hitting Gardner first, is it still okay to have another lefty, Cano, second?
Why This Discussion Is Important
The Yankees' leadoff hitter, Brett Gardner, bats left-handed, as does Robinson Cano, who has been hitting second. This part of Joe Girardi's lineup structure is unconventional for a number of reasons. Due to the injuries that have sidelined many of the notable fixtures in Yankees lineups of recent years, like Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira,and Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano is currently best hitter at Girardi's disposal. As I noted above, the strongest hitter in a lineup usually doesn't bat second.
The more interesting element in play here is that the Yankees' injuries have made it nearly impossible for the Yankees to split up the left-handed hitters in their lineup when facing a right-handed starter. Ordinarily, managers avoid having two left-handed hitters bat consecutively for fear of the two lefties having to face a left-handed relief pitcher in a crucial late game situation.
An Attempt to Further the Discussion
Most of the research on lineup optimization suggest that the resulting value of runs gained by an optimized lineup would be between five and fifteen runs per season. That doesn't seem like much of an edge, but when you consider that adding ten runs over the course of a season equals roughly one additional win, it could be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them on TV at home.
In my opinion, lineup optimization is a concept that would be most effective when implemented in conjunction with improvements in other aspects of the game that a manager can influence, like bullpen management and platooning.
The question we really should be asking ourselves is the one raised by Klaassen later in his piece, which I'll paraphrase: Is it likely that the increased chance of scoring runs by stacking hitters of the same handedness against a starter could outweigh potential cost of facing a relief specialist late in the game?