On Lineups and the Eighth Inning

With 30-plus exhibition games in the books, it’s time to finally (finally!) think about the regular season. With the opener just days away, Ned Yost revealed his probable Opening Day lineup on Wednesday.

Alex Gordon – LF
Mike Moustakas – 3B
Lorenzo Cain – CF
Eric Hosmer – 1B
Salvador Perez – C
Brandon Moss – DH
Paulo Orlando – RF
Alcides Escobar – SS
Raul Mondesi – 2B

The first thought is this is about the most optimal lineup Yost could probably produce, given the personnel. Gordon has always been the Royals best option at leadoff and it was inspired when the Royals manager moved him to the top of the order a few years ago. Moustakas flourished in the number two spot in 2015. If Cain can perform to his potential, he’s a capable, if underrated, number three hitter. The top third feels solid. Perez and Moss represent the thunder potential in the middle of the order. The big issue for the moment is how the bottom third will perform. This could be where rallies go to die. Still, it’s a very good lineup with the best hitters getting the most plate appearances.

Just for fun, I inserted the lineup, along with PECOTA projections in the Baseball Musings lineup tool. It estimates that this particular batting order will score 4.12 runs per game. That’s close to what they scored per game last year. (4.17) That’s still below league average, but it’s not difficult to remember, PECOTA hates the Royals.

Not really. The projections are just underwhelmed with the individual offensive potential. Again, this is why the systems (it’s not just only PECOTA) are estimating a sub-.500 season for the Royals.

The Lineup Analysis tool formulates the best (and worst) lineups based on the players and their OBP and slugging percentage. Here are the top five Royals lineups.

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What’s interesting is that the consensus on Gordon as the ideal man to hit at the top of the order. Moss is the pick at cleanup because he’s projected to lead the team in slugging. Mondesi and Escobar are the dead weight at the bottom. Obviously, the tool doesn’t take into account the handedness of the batter. Yost would never sign a lineup card that had Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas and Moss – four lefties – at the top of the order.

The lineup tool says, given the personnel and the projections, the Royals best lineup would score 4.22 runs per game. The worst lineup (with Mondesi and Orlando at the top of the order) would plate 3.89 runs per game. That’s a difference of 0.33 runs per game which ends up being over 53 runs per season. Remember, those are the extremes. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Still, it’s fun to kick around a batting order before the season starts and Yost gave us an early Opening Day present by putting it out there. It’s a good lineup. The only worry is that Gordon will struggle out of the gate and within a few weeks Escobar is back at the top of the order because “He’s just comfortable there.” Or some such nonsense. It’s extremely important that Gordon gets off to a strong start.

Then there’s the matter of the back of the bullpen. On Wednesday, Yost announced that the eighth inning would belong to Joakim Soria. As good as the lineup is, this is an odd choice, given that Matt Strahm will pitch out of the bullpen. Although, if this qualifies as a surprising development, you must be new to following the exploits of one Ned Yost. He values his roles and favors the veterans over the younger players. Soria has the track record. He’s been The Closer. That gives him favored reliever status, last season be damned.

Yes, Soria struggled last year. His 9.2 percent walk rate was the highest of any season, except 2013 when he was returning from his second Tommy John surgery. His 23.2 percent strikeout rate was the lowest of his career. Those two sentences neatly encapsulate the concerns that Soria is on the downward slope of his career. Contrast that to a young pitcher who projects to land in the rotation within a year, who punched out 34 percent of all batters and kept the ball on the ground when it was actually put in play, and it’s frustrating that Strahm isn’t the automatic choice here.

The Royals seemed to back off the idea that Soria is the designated eighth inning guy later in the day, saying they would mix and match and lean toward matchups when deciding who takes the ball as the setup man, but let’s be real. Yost enjoys having his guys in set roles. It’s not a coincidence that his best seasons as manager came when he carried basically three closers on his roster. Automatic bullpen. The idea now that he will mix and match the arms in the bullpen, particularly in the seventh and the eighth can be cause for concern.

Like the desire for Gordon to come out firing at the top of the lineup, the same could be said for Soria, wherever he pitches. It was clear he wasn’t controlling his pitches last year and that his confidence by the end of the year was shot. New year, new you as they say. Soria needs to avoid the early season meltdown to validates Yost’s early decision.

The lineup is good, the bullpen decision doesn’t feel right. We’re just a couple days away to see how it will all work.

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