Batter Up!

The season can't start until the lineup card is filled in, and that's a lot more complicated than you would think
April 03, 2005

Batting order is to a manager what wet clay is to a potter. It can take any number of shapes in the search for some elusive perfection. That's why Texas Rangers manager Buck Showalter keeps a notepad suction-cupped to his windshield. On the drive home after a game he starts scribbling ideas for the next day's work of art.

"People tell me, 'The traffic in New York must have been terrible,'" says Showalter, who managed the Yankees from 1992 through '95. "I say, 'I didn't mind at all. I got a lot of work done.'"

Casey Stengel, another former Yankees manager, would spread 12 lineup cards on the desk in front of him like a man playing solitaire. On each he would write the names of his two certainties--Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle--and then fill in various names in various places. After mulling his choices and imagining how they would play out, Stengel would pick the lineup that felt best.

More recently, after the Seattle Mariners had signed free agents Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson this winter, manager Mike Hargrove sat down and wrote a prospective batting order. Then he tried another one. And then another. And another. This continued for a while. Hargrove estimates that he stopped after about 100 tries. "And you know which one I liked the best?" he says. "The first one."

Hargrove didn't come close to weighing all his options. Once a manager decides which nine players to start, he can pick from among 362,880 possible batting order combinations. If he were to consider playing each of the 25 players on his roster at each of the nine positions in the field, a manager would have 269,022,818,211,840,000 possible lineup cards. Even New York's traffic isn't that bad.

Ever since Alexander Cartwright decreed in his rules of baseball in 1845 that the players on each team would take turns batting in an immutable order, the batting order has been one of the game's great sources of angst for players and managers, and grist for sportswriters and fans--much of it unnecessarily so. For if the batting order is part science and part art, the scientific part tends to make the whole exercise look terribly overrated.

Mathematical studies over the past 40 years have found differences in reasonable batting orders to be negligible. The studies show that it is much more important whom you play than how you order them. Basically, as long as you don't do something stupid, such as batting your pitcher leadoff--or Washington Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman second (box, below)--the difference between a lineup based on a manager's gut feeling and one that a supercomputer would statistically regard as the optimum has been found to be anywhere from two to 16 runs over a full season. That's it. (Statheads generally equate an extra 10 runs a season with one win.)

As if to prove the point (though in reality, he did so to break a slump), former manager Billy Martin more than once let his starting nine pick their spots in the batting order by drawing numbers out of a hat. He did so on Aug. 13, 1972, in the first game of a doubleheader, while trying to snap his Detroit Tigers' four-game losing streak. Detroit won 3-2 as cleanup hitter du jour Ed Brinkman, who hit 60 home runs in 6,045 career at bats, drove in the tying run and scored the game-winner. Martin returned to his conventional lineup in the nightcap, and the Tigers lost 9-2.

Two seasons later, when he was managing the Rangers, Martin let pitcher Ferguson Jenkins bat instead of using a designated hitter. Jenkins, one of the better-hitting pitchers of his day, broke up a no-hitter with a single in the sixth inning, scored the first run and won 2-1.

In 1964 a retired metallurgist named Earnshaw Cook espoused in his book Percentage Baseball that a manager should order his hitters from best to worst. He figured that such an arrangement would produce 11 more runs over a season.

Pirates manager Bobby Bragan tested that idea for 40 games in the 1956 season. (His team went 16-24, marginally worse than its 50-64 record in other games.) Bragan tried a version of it again with the '66 Braves--Felipe Alou enjoyed the best season of his career hitting leadoff--but Bragan was fired in August. "The way I hit that year," Alou says, "if I'd batted fourth, I would have had 140 RBIs, not 74."

"I think about my lineup a lot," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. "My Number 1 priority is to protect the people who need to be protected. That means hitters who are patient behind guys who aren't as patient. Because if you have a good, patient hitter behind an anxious hitter, that anxious hitter is going to get pitches to hit.

"Of course, I remember one year in September when it would take me 20 minutes or more every day to decide on a lineup. And then every day, it seemed, I'd look up in the bottom of the first inning and we'd be losing 5-0 and I'd think, Why did I waste all that time?"

As sabermetrician Bill James wrote in his book The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, "You take any two reasonable batting orders for any team, put them on a computer and play a hundred seasons, and you'll find they score just as many runs one way as they do another."

Of course, in his next hundred breaths James cannot resist laying out rules for his own optimal lineup. He advocates, for instance, disregarding the saw about filling the second spot with guys who move runners ("the number of runs you generate by 'moving runners' is essentially zero") and advises using a line-drive hitter, not a power hitter, in the fifth spot. Not that it matters, mind you.

The problem of playing the Sims lineups game is that the computer assumes a player's production remains the same no matter where he hits. Managers find that laughable. They must constantly deal with players' likes and dislikes about where they hit in the order--to say nothing of hot and cold streaks, injuries, matchup pros and cons, and other flesh-and-blood elements that invite change--and that goes even for the manager of the team that won the World Series last year.

Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona would prefer to bat third baseman Bill Mueller second. But Mueller told Francona that he dislikes that spot and is more comfortable hitting much further down. "That's O.K. with me," Francona says. "It's crazy to force them into a spot where they're not comfortable. I spend a lot of time talking to the players, and the big thing is comfort level. You want your guys feeling good about themselves.

"The biggest problem I have is Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz both want to hit third. Well, only one can hit third. One of them will tell me every week that he wants to hit third."

The batting order carries such psychological heft that it helped grease Sammy Sosa's ugly exit out of Chicago. The slugger complained after last season that Cubs manager Dusty Baker had disrespected him by incrementally dropping him from third to sixth. Former Yankee Kenny Lofton groused last year when he found out that Torre wasn't going to bat him leadoff--before the first game of the season.

Indeed, spots in the batting order have such an acquired emotional value that pitchers sometimes adjust the way they pitch to a player according to where he hits. "I prefer to hit leadoff," Oakland A's centerfielder Mark Kotsay says. "Pitchers are going to come after you. When you hit third, even if the count is 2 and 0 or 3 and 1, they may still throw you a changeup or breaking ball. Nobody gives in to the number 3 hitter."

Baseball writers love the batting order, because every tweak to it is a built-in story to carry them through spring-training or pregame assignments. That's why managers have learned to notify players of any significant changes in the order before the media is allowed in the clubhouse 3 1/2 hours before the game. It's also why former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams, who notoriously changed lineups then simply posted them without explanation, fell out of favor in the Boston clubhouse.

In truth, though, there is little order to the batting order. Changes are the rule, not the exception. Managers typically use more than a hundred different lineups over the course of the season. Batting orders are so fungible that few players last long in one spot. For instance, excluding the 16 number 9 spots among National League teams, which are normally filled by starting pitchers, there are 254 lineup spots among the 30 clubs. Last year only 39 of them, or 15%, were filled by players with enough plate appearances in that spot to qualify for the batting title (3.1 plate appearances per game played by the team). The other 85%--including every spot below cleanup--are wholly unstable, which is why most players need to check the lineup card every day.

Actually, teams typically deploy six copies of the lineup per game: one posted in the clubhouse, one posted in the dugout, one given to the opposing team, one given to the home plate umpire, one held by the bullpen coach and one kept by the manager. Only the one in the dugout is created on a standard-issue form supplied by Major League Baseball--the better for possible resale value, of course. Several of those have even made their way to the Hall of Fame in recent years, such as ones for the 2000 opening of Detroit's Comerica Park and the game that same year in Miami in which six Florida Marlins sat out in protest of the Elian Gonzalez immigration case.

For clubhouse postings, the New York Mets use a board with player nameplates that a coach slides into the respective batting order spots. The nameplates, though, did not include the players' position on the field, which was why former manager Art Howe violated one of the sacred codes of filling out a lineup: Never let a player, especially a veteran, find out from the media about a change in his status. Howe had listed catchers Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips in his lineup, which was then posted on the board. It was news to Howe, however, that the board did not show positions. His oversight and failure to tell Piazza that he was playing first base that night meant that Piazza found out from reporters. (Shortly thereafter the Mets started writing the positions on tape applied to the nameplates.)

The manager, or more often one of his coaches, fills out the four cards for the opposing team, umpires, his bullpen and personal use. Until about five years ago it had been common practice for teams to use cards that made carbon copies. Now many teams use laptop computers to print these pocket-sized cards of their own design. The Angels, for instance, print the ground rules of the stadium in which they are playing on the back of the card. The Rangers use white cards for home games and blue for road.

When Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen publicly berated Showalter last season for what he considered to be his overbearing ways, one of his examples was Showalter's lineup card. It is neatly printed by bench coach Don Wakamatsu and, unlike most teams', also lists reserves with uniform numbers, separating position players and pitchers and listing each group in alphabetical order. Guillen's handwritten card lists only his nine-man order and starting pitcher. (Showalter took offense last July when, before a game against the Rangers, Guillen presented umpires with a lineup card that included player photos and apocryphal e-mail addresses.)

During games players will check the larger, standard-issue card in the dugout to know when it is their turn to hit. A coach typically fills out this card. "Before a game we triple-check to make sure the card in the dugout matches the one we hand in [to the umpire]," Showalter says. "A manager's worst fear is batting out of order."

Alas, the batting order can still be troublesome even after the game has begun, as Baker discovered last year when he became the most recent manager to suffer the indignity of having players bat out of turn. Baker says that in the top of the seventh inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds he signaled for a double switch, but home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor didn't see him. After Ramon Martinez doubled in the bottom of the seventh, the Reds protested. Bucknor ruled Martinez had batted out of order, removed him from the bases and called the proper hitter, pitcher Kent Mercker, out.

Baker stormed from the dugout and earned his ejection with a major rant at Bucknor, during which he threw the offending lineup card to the ground. The next day, like every other day, he would try again--a fresh hunk of wet clay in his hands.

Batting Order Breakdown

•A spot-by-spot guide p. 52

•Memorable moments in history p. 54

•Where should Barry Bonds hit?p. 56

Leading Man

A leadoff hitter's job is to get on base, and who does it better than Ichiro Suzuki? p. 58

Perfect Order

After sifting through all the data, Tom Verducci assembled the ultimate lineup p. 60

Bad Blood

Red Sox-Yankees tops SI's list of the game's 20 most contentious feuds p. 66

Scouting Reports

Team-by-team analysis with projected lineups and Player Value Rankings p. 68

Memorable Moments in Batting Order History

Memorable Moments in Batting Order History

Oct. 7, 1905

The weekly magazine Sporting Life first uses the term "lineup" to describe the order in which batters take their turn at the plate.

April 14, 1914

Boston Braves manager George Stallings (below), coming off a fifth-place finish, decides to try the novel concept of platooning his outfielders. The six primary outfielders combine to hit .259, and the Braves go on to win the World Series.

May 6, 1926

The first use of the term "Murderers' Row," to describe the meat of the Yankees' lineup, is credited to The Sporting News. The '27 team, arguably the best in baseball history with (above, from left) Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri and Babe Ruth, rolls to a World Series win.

Jan. 22, 1929

The Yankees announce that they'll become the first team to make numbers a permanent feature of their home and road uniforms. New York's regulars are assigned the numbers that corresponded to their spots in the batting order. Thus leadoff man Earle Combs is number 1, Mark Koenig 2, Babe Ruth 3, Lou Gehrig 4, Bob Meusel 5, Tony Lazzeri 6 and Leo Durocher 7, followed by three players who split the catching duties: Johnny Grabowski (8), Benny Bengough (9) and Bill Dickey (10, but changed to 8 when he becomes the full-time starter the next year).

July 9, 1940

At Sportsman's Park in St. Louis five National League pitchers, including winner Paul Derringer (left), combine for the first All-Star Game shutout, 4-0, allowing only three hits to an American League lineup that includes seven Hall of Fame hitters (Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams).

June 18, 1950

Player-manager Lou Boudreau (left) strikes batting-order gold as his Indians score an American League-record 14 first-inning runs in a 21-2 drubbing of the Philadelphia Athletics.

June 8, 1961

At Cincinnati's Crosley Field the heart of the Milwaukee Braves' order--Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock and Frank Thomas--become the first foursome to hit consecutive home runs when they each go deep in the seventh inning. The Braves still lose to the Reds 10-8.

Sept. 27, 1963

Houston Colt .45s manager Harry Craft (below) fields an all-rookie starting lineup in a 10-3 loss to the Mets at Colt Stadium. Craft uses 15 rookies in all, including four who make their major league debuts and one, Jay Dahl, who makes the only big league appearance of his career.

Sept. 8, 1965

Hitting out of the leadoff spot, the Kansas City Athletics' Bert Campaneris (right) starts the game at shortstop but plays all nine positions in nine innings against the California Angels. Campaneris goes 0 for 3 with a walk, then leaves the game in the ninth after injuring his shoulder in a collision at home plate while he is catching.

July 3, 1966

Atlanta Braves righthander Tony Cloninger (above) has perhaps the greatest day ever for a National Leaguer batting ninth, hitting two grand slams and getting the win in a 17-3 victory over the Giants.

April 6, 1973

The Yankees play the Red Sox in Fenway Park in the American League season opener, and for the first time in major league history the batting orders do not include pitchers. Ron Blomberg (right), the first designated hitter, bats sixth for New York, and Orlando Cepeda, Boston's DH, hits fifth.

June 23, 1982

With his A's having lost seven of eight, manager Billy Martin (right) literally pulls his lineup out of a hat (actually one of his players does the honors) for the fourth and final time. Though the ploy worked in Martin's three previous tries, this attempt (with Rickey Henderson batting eighth) results in a 1-0 loss to the Royals.

June 11, 1988

The Yankees' Rick Rhoden becomes the first pitcher to start a major league game as a designated hitter. The righthanded-hitting Rhoden is used by manager Billy Martin because his hitters are struggling against lefthanded pitching. Rhoden hits a game-tying sacrifice fly in a game New York eventually wins 8-6.

July 9, 1998

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's lineup against the Astros features pitcher Todd Stottlemyre, a career .218 hitter, batting eighth, ahead of rookie second baseman Placido Polanco. It is the first time a pitcher has batted anywhere but ninth in the starting lineup since Steve Carlton hit eighth, ahead of shortstop Bud Harrelson, for the '79 Phillies.

Sept. 20, 1998

Before a game against the Yankees, Orioles manager Ray Miller delivers his lineup card to home plate umpire Greg Kosc. The card lists Ryan Minor batting sixth and playing third base. It is the first Orioles lineup card since May 30, 1982, that does not have the name of Cal Ripken Jr. (left) written in as a starter.

Aug. 8, 2004

By batting cleanup against the Astros, Expos outfielder Terrmel Sledge gets at least one start in all nine spots in the order during his rookie season. (He hit ninth in an interleague game on June 13 at Seattle's Safeco Field.) Three American League players--Jose Cruz Jr., Dave Dellucci and Bobby Kielty--started a game in every spot in the order in '03.

Oct. 3, 2004

Pirates catcher Jason Kendall (below) makes his final appearance of the year in the leadoff spot, going 0 for 4 against the Cincinnati Reds. Kendall finishes the season with 475 at bats as a leadoff hitter. No other catcher in the last 30 years has appeared as often in the leadoff spot. (Paul Lo Duca is next with 189 for the 2001 Dodgers.)

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Tim Mantoani; BACKGROUND ALTERED BY SI IMAGING PROCEED WITH CAUTION Changes in the lineup are sometimes costly, as Cubs manager Dusty Baker can attest. COLOR PHOTO COLOR PHOTOJOHN IACONO (MLB LINEUP CARD) IT'S IN THE CARDS Only one of each club's six lineup cards per game is the official MLB version (left); the rest are of team-specific design. COLOR PHOTOBRAD MANGIN (RANGERS' CARD) IT'S IN THE CARDS Only one of each club's six lineup cards per game is the official MLB version (left); the rest are of team-specific design. COLOR PHOTOAL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES CAN'T GO WRONG Whether he uses Ramirez (on first) or Ortiz (batting) in the 3 spot, Francona has a lethal one-two punch. TWO B/W PHOTOSNATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY (2) B/W PHOTOCORBIS B/W PHOTOAP B/W PHOTOTSN/ICON SMI B/W PHOTO B/W PHOTOAP B/W PHOTONATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY COLOR PHOTOPAUL KENNEDY COLOR PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON COLOR PHOTODAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)