Pujols is great, but on this team he shouldn't be the cleanup hitter
The Cardinals are 2-0 with
If only baseball were that simple.
Now, the very best sabermetricians --- no, not me, you want the second door down on the left -- will tell you that lineups matter far less than you think. The difference between the best and worst possible lineups is about 50 runs a season, and the range among the reasonable options is a third of that. On the other hand, 15 runs is worth a win-and-a-half, and in most seasons someone misses a playoff spot by less than that, so chasing the marginal runs is a worthwhile exercise. I tend to be a bit of a heretic on this issue, not convinced that the models used to come up with these numbers capture all the elements of lineup construction, particularly platoon balance. I think that lineup construction is more important than the studies allow.
For the Cardinals, it's all about Albert Pujols. He is the best player in baseball and the dominant hitter in that lineup. La Russa's gambit of hitting the pitcher eighth, which seems radical but has met with approval from the stat guys to the tune of a handful of runs per season, is designed to maximize the number of base runners when Pujols bats (as it was previously by La Russa in St. Louis for
By batting a position player ninth, which he has tried for 16 games this year, La Russa can increase the number of men on base for Pujols. Where that idea has failed is in the execution;
The problem, again, is in the execution. La Russa's first two lineups with Pujols batting fourth were a mess. The basic principles of lineup construction are: get your best players up as often as possible and have your on-base guys in front of your power hitters. The following list shows the OBP rank, in lineup order, of the eight Cardinals' starters on Monday night:
This is a disaster. La Russa is taking at-bats away from Albert Pujols so that he can have Pujols bat with more runners on base, then batting his two highest OBP guys other than Pujols directly behind him, ensuring that they can never be on base for him. (Tuesday night's lineup flipped Nos. 5 and 6, so the same issue existed.) The problem isn't that Matt Holliday is getting at-bats that Pujols isn't; it's that Felipe Lopez (.316 OBP) is getting at-bats that Colby Rasmus (.390) isn't. The lineup that La Russa created does little to address the stated goal, and in fact, is highly suboptimal.
For the Cardinals to score more runs, they have to get Rasmus in front of Pujols. David Freese's usage isn't the problem here; his rank above aside, he's not clearly better than Holliday or Ludwick. Rasmus, though, has all the skills to be a No. 2 hitter in a good lineup. The other decision is on Lopez; La Russa, for all his innovation, has rarely tried nonconventional leadoff batters, sticking to some extent with the notion that leadoff men have a certain shape and size, and play certain positions. This team, however, has a center fielder with power and a collection of middle infielders with low OBPs. The manager has to find a different solution.
With the right personnel, it might make sense to bat Pujols fourth. The 2010 Cardinals do not have that personnel. They don't have so many OBP guys that they can sacrifice Pujols' at-bats with an eye toward having more of the remaining at-bats be in higher-leverage spots. With that in mind, here's the optimal Cardinals lineup:
It's a little right-handed through the middle, which was inevitable once the team signed Holliday. It's also a little surprising to see Freese so high, but with none of the middle infielders hitting, there's a lack of options. Lopez bats ahead of Molina to create an effort at balance, and we return the pitcher to the eighth spot as a nod to getting more runners on for Pujols. The Cardinals are going to be susceptible to good right-handed relievers because of the lack of a lefty bat in the middle of the lineup, so they have to maximize their run-scoring in the first six innings.
Lineup creation is a mix of art and science, with more than a little psychology thrown in. The most important factors, however, are simple: get your best players the most at-bats and have your power guys bat with runners on base. La Russa's current lineup does neither of these things and should be discarded in favor of one that hews to these principles.