The optimal Braves lineup is one they likely would never use

The Braves won three games in a row after manager Brian Snitker shuffled the batting lineup, but it’s not clear that the batting order had much to do with it. The Braves scored just two runs against Arizona in the first game with the new-look lineup, and six runs in the second. The Braves scored five runs in the series finale, but that was with two of their best hitters, Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson, out of the lineup. 

Once all players are available, Snitker presumably will send out the lineup he debuted Friday at Arizona. He moved Ronald Acuna from fourth in the order to first; Ozzie Albies from first to sixth; Dansby Swanson from sixth to second, and Josh Donaldson from second to fourth. The moves weren’t about any one player, Snitker said, but rather an attempt to generate more offense with runners on base 

If that’s the goal, then Snitker still is using the wrong batting order. It’s not just him. Nearly every major league manager uses a lineup based on conventional wisdom, but not one optimized to score runs. The details for that case can be found in the influential book, um, “The Book,” by Tom M. Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman and Andrew E. Dolphin. 

It should be noted that, according to “The Book,” even a lineup constructed to sabermetrics standards would “squeeze one or two runs out of each batting slot, or about 10 to 15 runs over 162 games, by optimization.” That’s about one more expected win, which is worth something. But you can see why a manager would be reluctant to use a strategy with small effects when it leaves him open to criticism. 

Still, Snitker’s new order is not ideal for the Braves. The biggest problem is that, per “The Book,” the three best hitters (as measured by Weighted On-Base Average) should be in the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 slots. Acuna and Donaldson qualify. Swanson does not, despite his improved hitting. 

Instead, Freddie Freeman should be in one of those slots instead of batting third, like he has for most of his career. Home runs are much more valuable in the No. 4 hole, and the No. 2 batter gets more plate appearances. I’d put Freeman fourth because outs are costlier there than at No. 2 and he’s always had a very high on-base percentage. 

In some ways, Acuna’s power isn’t maximized at No. 1, but the slot is best suited for the batter among the top three who gets on base a lot. Donaldson meets the criteria for a good No. 2 hitter in “The Book.” He has the best career walk rate among the top three Braves hitters, and in the No. 2 hole, Donaldson can expect more PAs than at No. 4. 

As for the rest of the top of the order, the No. 5 batter should be better than the No. 3 batter. That contradicts traditional thinking. But the numbers show that the No. 3 batter, on average, hits with fewer runners on base than Nos. 4 or 5 and outs made by the No. 5 batter are more costly than those made by No. 3. 

Home runs are more valuable at No. 3 than at No. 5, so I’d hit Swanson and his newfound power stroke third. Nick Markakis fits well in the No. 5 slot because of a high OBP that includes lots of walks and doubles. 

“The Book” says the Nos. 6, 7 and 9 holes should be filled with batters in descending order of quality. It says National League teams should bat the pitcher eighth, with the increased plate appearances by a poor hitter more than offset by the top of the order getting more plate appearances with runners on base. Hitting the pitcher eighth would make even more sense for a Braves lineup with Acuna and Donaldson’s power at the top. 

Using that criteria, and looking at current form, I’d say catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers should hit sixth whenever they start. Put Ozzie Albies seventh and Ender Inciarte ninth. 

So, a sabermetrics-optimized Braves lineup likely would be: Acuna, Donaldson, Swanson, Freeman, Markakis, Flowers/McCann, Albies, the pitcher and Inciarte. Snitker’s new lineup is: Acuna, Swanson, Freeman, Donaldson, Markakis, Albies, Flowers/McCann, Inciarte and the pitcher. 

Snitker’s lineup is fine. The biggest problem I see is Swanson at No. 2 and Freeman at No. 3. But Donaldson still is in a good slot and moving Swanson up from sixth is the right call. It’s not a “perfect” lineup but, again, a perfect lineup probably is only good for one win. 

Maybe the Braves will start scoring more runs with this new batting order and come to believe the batting order is the reason why. If so, perhaps that boost in confidence is worth more than the statistically optimal lineup for scoring runs.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.