A.J. Ellis is most likely going to bat 8th in 2012. Why? Because that’s simply what non-elite catchers do. Don Mattingly hasn’t quite come out and said it, but in each of the 25 games Ellis has started, he’s hit either 7th or 8th. Ellis is probably going to hit something like .245 with little or no power, and so you’ll stick him at the bottom of the order without a second thought – as you do.
Except… we should know better than that by now, right? Ellis has one real offensive skill, one he could potentially be quite good at: getting on base. Where there’s obviously value in that no matter where in the lineup a batter hits, that particular skill is somewhat less useful in the 8th spot in the order. Think about the various scenarios that could play out if Ellis gets on base from the 8th spot, as we hope he often does.
With two outs
Ellis gets on base. Pitcher (assuming it’s too early to pinch-hit) ends the inning something like 85-90% of the time, thus wasting Ellis’ achievement.
With one out
Ellis gets on base. Pitcher attempts to sacrifice Ellis to second, causing out #2. With two outs, Ellis scoring depends on Dee Gordon (.325 OBP in 2011) or Mark Ellis (.288 OBP) bringing him in, and for both to avoid making outs before Matt Kemp gets up.
With no outs
Ellis gets on base. Pitcher attempts to sacrifice Ellis to second, causing out #1. With one out, Ellis scoring depends on Gordon or Mark Ellis bringing him in, and for at least one to avoid making outs before Matt Kemp gets up.
Assuming Gordon leads off (which Mattingly has already said he will) and Mark Ellis hits second (which hasn’t been confirmed yet, but he’s a veteran second baseman in a lineup without an established #2 hitter, so of course he will), the 8th place hitter is likely to hit directly in front of three of the four worst OBP hitters in the lineup, excepting only Juan Uribe. As you can see, in order for A.J. Ellis, potentially one of the three best OBP hitters in this lineup (and think about that for a second) to be on base for Kemp or Andre Ethier to bring him in, you’re going to need to count on several hitters who specialize in making outs to do exactly the opposite.
It just doesn’t make sense, and that’s not only in thinking through scenarios like the ones above. The numbers back this up, as we can see from XeiFrank over at Dodger Sims, who ran various lineups through 100,000 different games to come up with the most optimal lineup.
And without any further ado, here is the Dodgers best lineups vs LHP and RHP. Note that in this exercise, I used the 2012 Zips Projections for all Dodgers hitters.
vs LHP Lineup vs RHP Lineup A.J. Ellis A.J. Ellis Andre Ethier Andre Ethier Matt Kemp Matt Kemp Juan Rivera James Loney James Loney Juan Rivera Juan Uribe Juan Uribe Mark Ellis Mark Ellis Dee Gordon Dee Gordon Pitchers Spot Pitchers Spot
You can also see that the best spot for Gordon is 8th; not only does that make sense because of his potential on-base difficulties, but it also allows him the best opportunities to steal. With the pitcher following, you can give Gordon an eternal green light, hoping that a steal and a sacrifice could immediately turn Gordon singles into triples. That may not be the same strategy if he’s on base ahead of the heart of the lineup, because the last thing you want to do is have an inning end with Kemp at the plate because Gordon got thrown out stealing.
Now, even though I would put Gordon lower in the lineup, I haven’t spent too much time worrying about it. It hasn’t seemed worthwhile, because we’ve always known that Mattingly would have him lead off; while that may not be logically ideal, I can’t argue that the idea of him flying around the bases as Kemp & Ethier drive him home is pretty fun to think about out, and there’s not an immediately obvious alternative that a second-year manager could really go with.
But dumping A.J. Ellis at the bottom of the order while letting Mark Ellis hit 2nd, well, that’s a pretty less-than-optimal use of resources. For a team that is expected to have all sorts of offensive issues even if everything goes as planned, it’d behoove them to deploy the weapons they have in the best alignment to promote success. Of course, as XeiFrank notes, the overall impact here is probably only around 1-2 wins, since lineup alignment generally doesn’t have as much impact as we like to think it is. But for a team that most expect to be in the 82-86 win range, and especially with the possibility of a second wild card being available this year, one or two wins could be monumentally important. Let’s hope Mattingly has the courage to go against the grain and go with a the more non-traditional lineup that might lead to additional offense.
* Andre Ethier’s in camp, and he’s being a peach, as usual.
* Minor injuries to unimportant pitchers: Dylan Hernandez reports that Shane Lindsay and Ryan Tucker have each been shut down, and Eric Stephen expands that Lindsay is dealing with a lat, while Tucker has a sore neck.