It has been mentioned once or twice that Albert Pujols has a problem with ground balls. The Machine has been batting behind Mike Trout since 2012 and has grounded into 125 double plays in that time frame, tied with Miguel Cabrera for the lead over that stretch. Skimming over the fact that there is a 173-point difference between their On-Base Plus Sluggings for Pujols’ sake, that is still just absolutely horrible.
But what are you gonna do, right?
Pedro Moura argues that it doesn’t matter where Albert Pujols bats.
Not many, if any. Batting order position just doesn’t matter that much, despite the clamoring of fans all across this country. And to the extent that it does, the third spot is not as valuable as it’s believed to be.
Eleven years ago, three statisticians wrote a book about playing percentages in baseball. They called it “The Book,” and in it, they tackled all sorts of questions about structuring lineups, starting-pitching penalties facing a lineup a third time, etc. In terms of the importance of avoiding outs, they ranked the batting order positions this way, from most to least: 1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9.
Okay, so let’s play percentages.
Instead of examining the importance of avoiding outs with respect to lineup construction, let’s examine how often the greatest out-avoider of our day avoids those outs and how that relates to the double play issue of the lineup spot directly behind him. He’s already inserted into the lineup at the number 2 or 3 spot, regardless of what The Book says about him probably being ideal as the leadoff man due to his combination of high on-base percentage and speed.
It is easy enough to see that Mike Trout has a .452 on-base percentage. However, Trout has a propensity for getting to second base and beyond. So let’s cut a couple of steps and only look at singles, walks, and HBPs minus stolen bases and caught stealings. Then lets also subtract another five passed balls/wild pitches for fairness. That leaves us with a 27% clip at which Trout is standing on first when the outcome of Pujols’ plate appearance is complete. That is 105/385 plate appearances.
That is a high number of opportunities to ground into a double play from one baserunner alone. This doesn’t take into account Cameron Maybin, Ben Revere, Kole Calhoun, or someone from the bottom of the lineup standing there. This is also a high number opportunities to do nothing at all. Albert Pujols has been the king of GIDPs in his career and has also been a prince of just not doing anything at all with an overall 72.5% out rate.
Also, he is not fast. Just in case you needed another reason to frown.
Who, then, would be most suited to bat when a man is on first? In short, someone who hits the ball hard, to all fields at least a bit more than Pujols, and off the ground. It would also be really nice for them to be able to hit for some average.
No. Mike Trout cannot bat behind Mike Trout, and so we are left with
by a landslide.
Mr. Cron is third in hard-hit rate, pulls the ball more often than not but still 3% less than Pujols, and has the best line drive rate, lowest ground ball rate, and fourth highest fly ball rate of all Angels with at least 100 Plate Appearances with a .253/.311/.425 slash. Better yet, since the all-star break each and every one of those statistics is even better and his slash is an incredible .297/.361/.559! As if to back up my assertion, he has only grounded into 4 double plays this year, and only once since he started crushing it in the second half.
I don’t know if Cron is just one of those “second-half players,” but we absolutely need to ride the hot hand here. When, not if, Mike Trout figures it out again and isn’t playing with a stiff neck, we need someone to move him over and drive him in.
You have to give Luis Valbuena credit too. His peripherals are just as good as Cron’s, if not better in everything but line drive rate, and he has slugged .625 since the beginning of the second half. Of course he doesn’t hit for average, but if he were perfect, he would already be batting third (I would hope).
Both of these players have been amazing against opposite-handers, but decidedly below-average against same handers for the most part. But that second-half awesomeness keeps rearing its head in right-handed CJ Cron, as he has obliterated same-handed pitchers since July 16th to a slash of .321/.384/.538!
There is also marked value in having sluggers, especially those of the Valbuena mold, bat ahead of Pujols. Valbuena is rarely on first base and presents less of an opportunity for a rolled-over grounder to create a twin killing. Valbuena usually clears the bases when he manages to hit the ball.
Yunel Escobar will inevitably return and force Valbuena and Cron back into a platoon -- it should actually be Escobar and Valbuena in the platoon, but it won’t be -- at first, but the most ideal lineup card (that does not have Mike Trout leading off and requires Pujols to not bat too low or else his feelings will get hurt) should have, in my personal opinion, and definitely, absolutely, positively will not have something close to this order.
2. Mike Trout
3. CJ Cron
4. Luis Valbuena
5. Albert Pujols
6. Andrelton Simmons/Kole Calhoun
7. Kole Calhoun/Andrelton Simmons
8. Kaleb Cowart/Cliff Pennington/Martin Maldonado
9. Martin Maldonado/Cliff Pennington/Kaleb Cowart
What is striking to me is how much this lineup looks like a clone of what the Angels had in 2012. By comparison, here is an example of a randomly-selected lineup at that time.
1. Mike Trout - Speed/OBP guy
2. Torii Hunter - All-around good
3. Albert Pujols - Slugger
4. Mark Trumbo - Slugger who can’t hit for average
5. Kendrys Morales - Struggling veteran (but nowhere remotely near as bad as Pujols a la 2017)
6. Howie Kendrick - High average and okay slugging for middle infielder, lot of DPs
7. Alberto Callaspo - Struggling/Light-hitting veteran
8. Erick Aybar - Light-hitting middle infielder
9. John Hester - Catcher
That 2012 team, of course, also had the best late-career Weaver performance ever, so maybe it isn’t exactly the same thing, but that team went on to win 89 games, despite not making the Wild Card. This lineup has the potential for greatness.
I really don’t care what The Book says, personally, there are lineup constructions that can and will hurt a team. Scioscia is steadfastly using one of those lineups to pull the team toward failure. I only hope he realizes it before it’s too late. Sosh will be retiring soon (once more, altogether now! I hope!). It would be really nice for him to go out on a good note.