A common question I receive from youth coaches is how to put together a batting order. After responding privately a few times, I think this is a big enough discussion for a post. About five or six years ago, I personally spent a lot of energy in putting together my batting lineups, changing them every game or two to "optimize our team’s run scoring potential." I remember being frustrated because every time I changed the order for a game I would have the wrong type of batter up in a key situation and if I had left the lineup like the last game I would be in a better situation. Eventually, I settled on a batting order where I group players by results and then make small changes every four or five games.
How Much Does Your Batting Order Matter?
Actually, the order that you bat your players has much less of an impact on the number of runs your team scores than many realize. In the book, Baseball Between The Numbers, the authors tested the batting order theory and came to the conclusion that for a professional major league team using the optimal batting order versus the worst batting order over a 160 game season would win only one more game. The main conclusion drawn was that who is in the lineup is much more important than where they bat.
Building Traditional Batting Order
A traditional batting order recommends that your list your players in descending order based on highest “on base percentage (OBP).” Therefore, your first batter has the highest OBP. The second batter has the second highest OBP. The third batter has the third highest OBP and so on down through the order.
The rational behind this lineup positioning is that you want the highest OBP batters to get the most at-bats. Over a season, the top of the order will get about 15% more at-bats than the middle of the lineup while the bottom of the order will get about 20% less at-bats than the middle. This style of batting lineup gives the players with the highest probability of reaching base safely the most at-bats in a particular game and more at-bats throughout the season, which gives your team more base runners and more chances to score.
Adjusting the Batting Order Based on Player Skills and Results
I follow the traditional batting order philosophy but I make a few changes based on player skills and results. Once I have built a batting order, I will usually only adjust it every four to five games, which is about every one and a half weeks for the high school season or before every tournament (but not during the tournament).
Here are the adjustments I make:
Top Two Batting Positions: List the players in descending order based on OBP. From the top half of the list, pick the fastest and smartest base runner for position one. Also from the top half of the list, pick the fastest runner with the lowest strikeout to at-bat ratio for position two. (Strikeout to at-bat ratio is the number of strikeouts divided by total number of at-bat including walks, hit-by-pitch, reach base on error, hits, ground outs, fly outs, ….). The reason for this choice is that I want the players who get the most at-bats to put pressure on the defense by getting on base regularly and intelligently using their speed to get around to home. In the second position, I want someone who will put the ball in play and force the defense to properly execute and be forced to make choices.
Middle of the Batting Order: I follow the traditional batting order where I rank the players by on-base-percentage and then fill-in their positions accordingly. Occasionally, your team will have a player with a very high OBP but a low batting average. This happens when a player is walked or hit-by-pitches significantly more than the average player. In this case, I will move them down and place them in the order based on their batting average.
Last Two Batters: For the last two batters, I vary from the traditional lineup. I actually put my lowest OBP hitter or slowest runner in the second to last position. If you are batting nine then they are put in the number eight position. Batting ten, then I will put them in the number nine spot. I got this idea from Baseball Between The Numbers. The justification for this order switch is: 1) very rarely is the last batter in a game the second to last hitter. Since the last two batters get the same number of at-bats per game, the desire to give your best hitters the most trips to the plate does not factor into this decision. 2) Since my best hitters are at the top of the order, I have a higher probability of having an average to above average runner on base when the lineup turns over. This increases the probability of giving the first two batters in the lineup a runner on base when they come to bat the second, third, and fourth time with the opportunity advance a base runner or score them with a big hit.
Here is a quick recap:
- Position #1: the fastest/smartest base runner with above average OBP
- Position #2: the fastest base runner with above average OBP and lowest strikeout to at-bat ratio
- Middle of the order: ranked by OBP in descending order
- Next to last batter: lowest OBP or slowest runner in the lineup (weakest hitter)
- Last batter: next to lowest OBP with a little more running speed (second weakest hitter)
My final reminder is not to over think or make changes in your lineup too frequently. The run differential between the best and worst lineup that you put together is very very small. The biggest boast in your run production comes from who you have in the lineup much more than where they are positioned. Every player will have a bad game. What you want is to put the consistently best hitters at the beginning of the batting order so they will get the most at-bats over the entire season.
Leave me a comment on how you put together your lineup.
photo credit: palindrome6996
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