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AngelsWin.com Today: AngelsWin.com 2017 Season Primer Part XV: Lineup Construction

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By @ettin, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer

Before we dive into the projected probable lineups for 2017 it would be good to have a conversation about lineup optimization, batted ball data, balls in play, and hitter contact.

In 2007, a groundbreaking baseball novel, The Book, was written by three esteemed statisticians, Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin. The Book took long-held baseball traditions, such as lineup optimization, platooning, and batting/pitching match ups for example, and placed a spotlight on them to determine if they are really true or need an updated approach and strategy.

One chapter of that book speaks to a topic relevant to the Primer series regarding lineup optimization. Rather than spell out everything The Book says it would be easier to point you to a tidy summation written here by Sky Kalkman in 2012. Take a moment to go read it so that the following discussion makes more sense.

In regard to the Angels let us examine what The Book’s authors suggest for each spot in the lineup and which players on the team best fit the mold against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers.

If you stick strictly to the authors recommendations the lineups might look something like the following:

 photo Figure1_zpskiw6vuvw.png

Per Baseball-Reference.com, in 2016, the total number of plate appearances for hitters that reached on error (ROE) via ground balls, fly balls, line drives, and bunts are noted below:To be clear you could make good arguments for and against the placement of these players in different spots of the order. One lineup randomization might prefer Trout hitting lead-off while another might like him in the 2-hole. What virtually all the systems agree with is that Mike Trout should be in the Top 3 to maximize his production.

There are also other factors to consider in this lineup optimization discussion including balls in play, batted ball data, and quality of contact.

2016 League Totals and Averages by Hit Type
 photo Figure2_zpso6p5o6dp.png          

Ground balls are the most likely type of hit, by far, to produce an error by the opponent’s defense. Whether the defender takes their eye off the ball, does not field it cleanly, takes a bad route, or succumbs to the pressure to throw it efficiently and quickly to the appropriate bag, ground balls are the #1 source of errors in baseball by a huge margin. However ground balls are also the least productive type of hit.

These facts are likely the primary drivers of why teams prefer ground ball pitchers with infielders playing strong defense behind them because the tradeoff of errors for double plays and low tOPS+ has probably been proven to be the best in-game strategy (although Dipoto might have felt differently with the fly ball staff he had in his final years).

When you break BABIP apart into its constituent components it becomes readily apparent that line drives are hands down the best type of hit a batter can execute at the plate as seen above. Bunts and ground balls are a distant 2nd and 3rd with fly balls bringing up the rear.

Your ideal hitter should be one that hits a high percentage of line drives and ground balls while limiting fly balls. The only time this might not be as desirable is if you have a really big bat in your order (high ISO, above average exit velocity) who can regularly make the ball leave the park. Recent research into launch angles supports the line drive argument as the ideal angle at contact generally falls somewhere between 15 to 25 degrees to maximize quality of contact (barreling the ball).

As part of the research put into the Primers the author has plunged deep into the statistical abyss in search of information and data to support the idea that Billy Eppler has a strategy in place for the offense and there is some evidence that indicates, yes, there is one.

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe recently published one of his weekly articles and at the end of that article he pointed out that over the last 10 years strikeouts have increased year to year with 2016 being the highest strikeout rate per 9 innings ever recorded (8.03 K/9).

This immediately caught my attention because prior to reading that article, while visiting Baseball-Reference.com, I exported a bunch of data including Balls Put in Play/Strikeouts (I/STR) and Contact% for the entire League in 2016.

If you sort by a minimum of 50 plate appearances and I/STR, three Angels players, Simmons, Escobar, and Revere, appear in the Top 20. In fact every Angels hitter, except Mike Trout and Danny Espinosa, are above League average and the Angels as a whole led all teams at 31.4%.

The Angels were also ranked 2nd lowest in Swinging strikes without contact on a per strike basis at 15% and also ranked 2nd in total contact rate at 79.8%. In regard to the former, it is considered the best method of striking a hitter out.

Essentially what this is saying is that in an era of baseball where strikeout rates are consistently rising, primarily due to pitchers throwing harder, Angels hitters are more efficient at making contact, swinging only at pitches in the zone, and putting the ball into play on a per strike basis. It is a counter-method to employ against rising strikeout rates.

The next question should be is this a good thing?

Putting the ball in play is always a good goal. It is better than striking out. The potential problem is that if you do not have a good all-fields approach or you make soft contact, you will hit the ball into defensive shifts or weakly bounce it right into the hands of the opponent’s defense, possibly even resulting in a double play.

A hitter with a high I/STR needs to have some combination of bat manipulation, ability to barrel the ball, hitting ability to all-fields, decent exit velocity, or speed to make those balls in play turn into actual hits.

We constantly hear from hitting coaches about teaching players a good “up-the-middle line drive approach” in combination with good athleticism. This certainly is not a new concept but only in the last few years have modern day measurements and statistics proven out and supported this long held adage.

All of this conversation leads back to Billy Eppler’s construction of the 2017 lineup and what we can expect in terms of offensive performance from the 25-man roster.

About 70% of the pitchers in baseball are right-handed. This of course means 30% are left-handed. This simply means that teams, in general while ignoring the specific percentages of handedness within their own Divisions, want to have more hitters that perform well against right-handers than they do left-handers.

Typically this takes the form of looking at a hitters platoon splits, which we did above, and determining how good their splits are, over preferably large sample sizes, to get a more accurate read on expected player performance.

In a lot of cases you find that left-handed batters tend to perform better against right-handed pitchers and right-handed batters tend to perform better against left-handed pitchers. This is simply a general rule of thumb and there are exceptions to it like Kole Calhoun in 2016 (and notably over his Minor League career too).

In order to continue it would be best to take a snapshot of individual Angels player offensive contributions by handedness over the last three seasons as seen in the table below.

Please realize that some players like Carlos Perez and Jefry Marte have not been in the Majors that long so their career numbers are shown to date. Others like Kaleb Cowart, Ryan LaMarre, and Nolan Fontana either have a limited history of at-bats or no Major League experience at all so the author has made best-guess projections based on Major and Minor League history:

 photo Figure3_zpsmsuhijcl.png

That offensive performance was obviously above average and if the Angels had not suffered such devastating injuries to their pitching staff and bullpen it may have been enough to get them into the playoffs.In 2016 the Angels offense was ranked 9th overall in Major League baseball with a wRC+ of 100. By handedness the Angels ranked 10th versus LHP with a wRC+ of 101 and ranked 12th versus RHP with a wRC+ of 99.

The question now becomes can the Angels at least maintain that level of performance or, better yet, improve it for the 2017 season?

So with this thought in mind let us start building and examining the projected lineup by placing our core four of Trout, Pujols, Calhoun, and Simmons in their likely hitting spots vs. LHP and RHP, respectively:

 photo Figure4_zpso6hlmwgs.png

Simmons will likely hit out of the 9-hole this year because of his ability to put the ball in play, as mentioned above, and as an above average base runner to hopefully be driven in by the top of the lineup when he does manage to get on-base. If Andrelton is able to carry over his 2nd half performance and raise his isolated power a bit he could turn into a new version of Yunel Escobar which would be immensely useful.So first of all the order you place your hitters in will probably not make or break your season. As Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register noted batting order generally doesn’t overtly impact the season (unless you completely mismanage it of course).

Eppler and Scioscia are not likely to break the mold of success that drove the 2016 lineup and will probably run Trout, Pujols, and Calhoun back-to-back-to-back against LHP and slide Kole down a spot against RHP (mostly due to Cron probably hitting 5th as we will discuss below). Update: Based on late spring returns it appears Scioscia will run Calhoun out of the 2-hole which is not ideal but should produce above average results.

Some, such as the authors of The Book, would argue that Trout belongs in the 2-hole since he is the best hitter on the team and they would probably be right.

Trout is a unique specimen who is an excellent hitter and hits for significant power. He is without a doubt a run creator and producer all wrapped up in one. However his ability is so great that he can hit anywhere in the top of the order and he will add value with the differences in position being minimal.

Mike produced a wRC+ of 170 in 2016, so the 3-hole seems to be the best combination of plate appearances and run-producing opportunities but it defies statistical logic to a degree. The author would make a strong argument that when the team faces a LHP, they should put Trout in the 2-hole and have Escobar hit 3rd but we are discussing what Scioscia is likely to do not me, so Mike will hit 3rd.

Based on all of that the Angels need to decide who is leading off and who hits out of the 2-hole if Mike is permanently in the 3-hole.

Escobar did an excellent job hitting leadoff last year and it is possible Eppler and Scioscia do not want to upset the apple cart by having him hit second.

However the numbers do not support this argument if you believe, as Eppler clearly does, that Maybin’s revamped swing mechanics, as discussed in Part XI of the Primer series, are legitimate improvements.

It is the author’s recommendation that, despite his early Spring Training struggles, Cameron should start the season hitting leadoff based on his recent returns.

Maybin is an efficient base stealer against RHP with a career 83.6% success rate (65.8% vs. LHP). However based on some old research found here stolen base success rates, as related to run production, should vary based on who is at the plate.

Basically if you have a power hitter or a high walk rate player at the plate, the stolen base success rate needs to be higher because, in the case of the former, a home run will drive in the runner anyway and, in the case of the latter, stealing a base and then having the batter walk defeats the purpose of the steal.

Yunel Escobar does not walk much and does not strike out much. He gets on base through his excellent contact ability to spray hits around the field. Having Maybin on-base in front of him not only brings down Cameron’s minimum stolen base success rate (about 63% in front of Yunel) it also allows Scioscia to harken back to the good old days of the hit and run and going first to third.

If Maybin can recreate at least a .340 OBP from both sides of the plate (he was .384 and .383 respectively in 2016) and use his speed too tactically and selectively steal bases in front of Escobar, the top of our order will have a dynamic impact on early run scoring for the team.

Basically it breaks down into a percentage game of scoring at least one run in the 1st inning of any game. If you put Mike in the 2-hole and have, say, Escobar hit in front of him, the odds that Yunel will even be on-base in the 1st inning is about 35%.

By having both Maybin and Escobar hit in front of Trout you are raising the odds of one of them being on-base from about 35% to 57%. Maybin is an efficient base stealer so if he gets on-base he will likely have the green light on most days to try and take second base in front of Yunel (if he is not already there!). Notably you could substitute Ben Revere here with the same general results as he has a very high stolen base success rate against RHP. Additionally Escobar is fantastic at hitting singles and doubles so this should create a lot of situations where Trout comes up to the plate with runners in scoring position.

Under this assumption let us update the lineups vs. LHP and RHP, respectively:

 photo Figure5_zpssvupmhn2.png

Logically if they are getting to Albert often the Angels probably want to set up their next best group of hitters for follow-on innings behind Pujols.The top of the lineup on both sides looks pretty strong based only on these running averages. If Maybin recreates his 2016 magic, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols will have plenty of RBI opportunities in 2017. In fact if the Top 3 in the order play to these 3-year running average OBP numbers, Pujols should come up in the 1st inning approximately 75% of the time with at least one runner on-base (or more) or one or more of the hitters in front of him have already scored.

This top four of the order should be able to threaten opposing pitchers on a regular basis. If the team is not getting to Pujols in the 1st inning often then clearly there is something wrong that needs correction.

Against both sides you could make a logical argument that Calhoun should hit out of the 5-hole and The Book agrees with a hitter like him. It is likely that Kole would be the leadoff hitter to start a subsequent inning after the first four have batted and we all know that he is capable of hitting both at the top and middle of the order. He ranks 3rd on the team in total hits plus walks (regular and intentional) plus hit by pitches on a per plate appearance basis so he is productive. This versatility allows him to hit anywhere which certainly appeals to Scioscia and Eppler (and is yet one more reason why they extended him).

C.J. Cron, as we discussed in Part VI of the Primer Series, has had fairly wide platoon splits across his career, hitting a wRC+ of 119 vs. RHP and 91 vs. LHP.

Although Kole appears to be a reasonable choice, Scioscia will probably put Cron in the 5-hole against RHP to create a double home run threat to drive in the top of the order. If Christopher continues to struggle against LHP as he did last year (wRC+ of 79) the Angels could have Jefry Marte step into a platoon role with him.

C.J. will likely be given the opportunity to hit against both sides of the mound to start the season until he succeeds or plays himself into the platoon but for the purposes of this exercise we will pencil Jefry in against LHP.

Luis Valbuena is nearly a clone of Cron with a little more positional and defensive versatility. He too puts the ball in the air a lot especially against RHP so you can simply substitute one out for the other as needed and achieve the same goals. The primary difference for Luis would be as a possible 2 or 3-hole hitter against RHP as his OBP is superior to Cron’s giving Scioscia a little more lineup flexibility.

Danny Espinosa has hit LHP a lot better than RHP over the course of his career. He will likely pick up a full season’s worth of at-bats playing at the keystone so we will pencil him in against both sides hitting out of the 7-hole.

Espinosa could possibly hit higher in the order vs. LHP (for instance hitting in front of Marte) but against RHP he will likely be relegated to the back of the lineup along with Perez and Simmons where any production those three create will simply be “bonus” runs for the team. The Book agrees with placing a player like Danny in the middle-back of the order who has some base stealing capability to hit in front of singles hitters like Perez or Simmons.

Finally the Angels currently have Martin Maldonado and Carlos Perez as their projected tandem behind the plate. As seen in the splits chart above Martin hits LHP better (wRC+ of 95) while Perez hits RHP better (wRC+ of 76).

To finish off this projected lineup we will pencil in both Maldonado and Perez leaving us with the following projected lineups:

 photo Figure6_zpsdvwxpgba.png

Now to be clear they will not hit that mark in all likelihood. Injuries and replacement players will probably bring down that 108 number down about 5%-7%. Also, technically, this number could fluctuate based on the number of plate appearances each hitter receives but the impact should be minimal once the 5%-7% attrition reduction is applied.First of all to be distinct, there are certainly cases to be made of placing other Angels hitters in the spots above. Nothing is sacrosanct this is just a discussion

This leaves the Angels with an approximate combined projected wRC+ of 108 for the 2017 season.

When you consider the Angels ended 2016 with a wRC+ of 100 there is an above average probability that the 2017 squad will outperform their numbers from last season which would be a positive outcome for the team’s playoff aspirations.

The offensive upgrade in LF actually makes a significant difference compared to what we rolled out last season. Maldonado should provide increased production against LHP.

Beyond those two areas the only remaining one the Angels could potentially upgrade offensively is Carlos Perez against RHP but payroll may limit the team from executing on that initiative. Hypothetically if the Angels acquired a catcher like Miguel Montero, who has a career wRC+ of 108 vs. RHP, it would be a big upgrade offensively over Perez but that type of move might not be in the cards. A free agent like Matt Wieters might have made sense as well, as was discussed here, but that move no longer appears to be in the cards.

In the end the Angels should excel, as they did in 2016, against left-handed pitching. Against right-handers the Angels will have to consolidate their on-base and run producers into the top and middle of the order to create optimal scoring opportunities and just be happy with whatever they can squeeze out of the bottom of the order on a daily basis.

Eppler’s strategy is to have the team utilize a line drive, all-fields approach with the goal of reducing strikeouts and putting the ball into play through high, efficient contact rates, particularly on balls in the zone. Many teams want this approach but the Angels are the ones executing it well right now.

The bottom line is, barring injuries or poor performance, the Angels have the capacity to be a Top 10 offense again in 2017.

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This three true outcomes article at FanGraphs: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-leagues-continuing-march-towards-three-outcome-baseball/  supports the notion in my thoughts regarding Eppler's strategy to lineup construction: http://thesportsdaily.com/angels-win/angelswin-com-2017-season-primer-part-xv-lineup-construction/

Basically in an era of increasing strikeouts, Eppler has put together (and will almost certainly continue to do) a group of hitters that are good at making contact, particularly when they see strikes (which they are seeing more of = hits on a per strike basis). Hitters that can take a walk or put the ball in play with an all fields approach are the counter to these blossoming 100mph heater relievers.

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