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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

La Russa’s lineups – a historical view


With the opening games of spring 2009 finally in the books, a large segment of the Cardinal Nation seem obsessed over the first lineups of the year penned by Manager Tony La Russa, hoping they might somehow magically unlock all the secrets of how the next five weeks will unfold.

I am not one of those all worked up, but one thing that all the lineup talk did do was to push me to dust off some unfinished work in the area of Cardinals regular season lineup combinations and batting orders. Recently, I wrote a couple of articles about this, “La Russa’s lineup combinations increasing” and “Quiz: Cardinals 2008 lineups and starts by position”.

This article takes those items back over La Russa’s years in St. Louis. As such, there is a lot of data. Some questions can be asked and answers at least theorized. If you are looking for a quick scan at a USAToday level of writing however, you may as well stop right now and move on. This is going to take some time to read and consume.

If you’re like me, you suspect that the Cardinals have been using increasingly large numbers of lineup combinations in recent years. We will be able to look at whether or not that is the case.

Coming in, I had hoped to be able to offer at least a theory about a possible correlation between set lineups and winning seasons. I am not sure I have that, but I decided to stop my thinking after some high level conclusions and share the data, hoping you’ll scan it and provide your own thoughts.

Obviously, this work does not take into account the quality and health of the 25 players available, two huge factors that influence any lineup over time.

Here, I will review season-by-season totals in two areas.

1) The first is a measure of defensive stability – the lineup denoted by starts by position. In other words, how many times are the same players starting at the same positions in the field? I will show six pieces of information for each of the 13 La Russa Cardinals seasons:

  • the team leader at all ten positions, including designated hitter
  • the number of starts for each team leader by position
  • the number of different players given starts at that position
  • the sum of the number of games started by all ten team leaders
  • the sum of the number of players given starts at all positions
  • the total number of team wins that season

The two sums offer great interest to me.

The sum of games started by all team leaders seem a great measure of how set the starting players by position, independent of their spot in the batting order, were all season long.

The sum of players given starts at all positions has two components – raw numbers of different players receiving starts and how often they were deployed at different places over the diamond. While this is not broken out, just the total itself can show stability, or lack of it.

2) The second area denotes offensive stability – via the batting order. Which players appeared most often in the order in spots one through nine? The yearly data presented is much like the above, with a couple of differences:

  • the team leader at all nine spots
  • the number of starts for each team leader by spot in the order
  • the number of different players given starts at that spot
  • the sum of the number of games started by all nine team leaders
  • the sum of the number of players given starts at all spots
  • the total quantity of different lineup combinations

While the last number, lineup combinations, could be considered a shorthand summary of the stability or volatility of the batting order, the detailed data offers a deeper view.

For example, what spots in the order see the most day-to-day change during the course of the season? Is it the same each year? Which players are moving around yearly and why?

Observations and conclusions

Before I risk overloading you with the data, I will offer some of my initial thoughts.

Starts by position

Observation 1a: From 2001-2005, the sum of the games started by the team leaders was always over 900, but dropped over each of the last three seasons to the lowest levels in the La Russa years.

Observation 1b: The total number of starting positions assigned to all players, 63, is the highest total for the team since 1999.

Conclusion 1: There is clearly a smaller core of everyday players set at their positions and an increase of players covering multiple positions. Does that have an impact on wins? What is the cause and what is the effect?

Observation 2: The back-up catcher(s) can often be overlooked, but on the average, he/they get well over one-third of the starts per season, 59 games to be exact.

Conclusion 2: Maybe Bryan Anderson getting 250 at-bats as the second catcher starting in 2010 would be the best use of his skills.

Observation 3: Left and right field see the highest number of different players as well as the lowest games started by the team leader.

Conclusion 3: Which infielders should we expect to be making their MLB debuts in the outfield during 2009? We are only two games into spring training and Joe Thurston has already done it (informally)!

Observation 4: Despite getting just 40 starts in left in two of the last three seasons, Chris Duncan has been the team leader there in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Conclusion 4: Considering all of his injuries, this surprised me.

Observation 5: Despite having 31, 59 and 30 starts in left, center and right fields respectively last season, Skip Schumaker was not the leader in terms of starts at any position. Will that change in 2009?

Conclusion 5: Even if he wins the job at second base, which I am not yet projecting, I have a hard time seeing Skip getting 130 starts there. Expect a revolving door at the position and for Schumaker to figure back in the outfield mix before too long.

Observation 6: In the eight years since 2001, seven different pitchers led the club in starts. The only repeater was Matt Morris (2002 and 2004). Ace Chris Carpenter has led the Cardinals in starts exactly once. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was during his Cy Young Award season of 2005.

Conclusion 6: Are you among those who believe the 2009 season hinges on a healthy Carpenter? Me too. He is paid like a workhorse, but injuries seem to preclude that becoming a continuing reality.

Batting order

Observation 7: The total number of different lineups deployed over the last two seasons, 153, is the highest during the La Russa era.

Conclusion 7: Lotsa’ lineup tinkering going on. Did it help gain more wins though? Can’t tell.

Observation 8: In terms of the totals, 2008 was actually a much less volatile season than 2007. The team leaders actually started more games than the La Russa average, 681 vs. 652, and the number of appearances by players anywhere in the order, 85, was close to the average.

Conclusion 8: It helps to explain why 2007 was such a struggle.

Observation 9: The number two spot in the order, recently a place where 13 different players were tried (in both 2006 and 2007), had just five different players written onto the lineup card there last season. However the team leader, Aaron Miles, had just 34 starts there, the lowest by a #2 seasonal pacesetter over the entire La Russa era.

Conclusion 9: La Russa is still looking for that #2 hitter offering “danger”.

Observation 10: Despite his status as a reserve, Miles was the leader at one position in the order each of the last three seasons.

Conclusion 10: I think the switch-hitter is going to be missed more than the front office appreciated.

Observation 11: Look at the progression of Yadier Molina steadily moving up the order, from eighth in 2005 to seventh in 2006 and 2007 to sixth last season. Also note in 2008 that he was the leader at both #6 and #7 in the order, a feat that is not as unusual as one might expect (Encarnacion ’06, Renteria ’04, ’02, ’00, Edmonds ’01, etc…).

Conclusion 11: The maturity of Molina as a hitter has been rewarded with a gradual step up in the lineup over time.

Observation 12: Albert Pujols was the team leader in starts at the cleanup spot in both 2001 and 2002.

Conclusion 12: The question of whether Pujols should bat third or fourth has come up again as it seems to each spring. While I don’t have a big problem with the order today, I do find it most interesting that La Russa is seemingly not acknowledging that he did for two seasons exactly what he does not want to do now – bat Pujols fourth.

Observation 13: Once Pujols vacated the cleanup spot, lefty Jim Edmonds and rightly Scott Rolen alternated the team lead there for five years until Ryan Ludwick claimed the most starts in the number four spot last season, but likely only because Rick Ankiel was injured.

Conclusion 13: If one wants to prematurely draw a conclusion from the day one of spring training lineup, then lefty Ankiel may be the hitter most often following the righty Pujols this season. To compete, Ankiel will need to stay healthy and productive.

The data

What follows is 13 years’ worth of data preceded by the averages covering 1996 through 2008.

Starts by position leaders – St. Louis Cardinals – 1996 through 2008

Starts Average 96-08 96-08
by pos. G # plyrs 2008 G # plyrs 2007 G # plyrs 2006 G # plyrs 2005 G # plyrs
C 103 3 Molina 114 3 Molina 102 3 Molina 118 2 Molina 111 3
1B 129 5 Pujols 140 6 Pujols 153 4 Pujols 142 5 Pujols 155 3
2B 107 5 Kennedy 74 5 Kennedy 75 6 Miles 72 4 Grudzielanek 132 3
SS 131 3 Izturis 110 4 Eckstein 113 3 Eckstein 119 4 Eckstein 154 2
3B 115 5 Glaus 144 6 Rolen 108 6 Rolen 141 3 Nunez 77 5
LF 87 8 Duncan 40 10 Duncan 91 6 Duncan 40 11 Sanders 78 8
CF 121 5 Ankiel 84 4 Edmonds 99 5 Edmonds 92 5 Edmonds 132 4
RF 85 7 Ludwick 106 9 Encarnacion 72 7 Encarnacion 111 7 Walker 78 8
P 33 10 Lohse 33 11 Wainwright 32 12 Marquis 33 9 Carpenter 33 7
DH 4 4 Stav/Pujols 3 5 Spiezio 6 2 Spiezio 5 5 Walker 6 2
totals 914 54 848 63 851 54 873 55 956 45
Wins 88 86 78 83 100
Starts
by pos. 2004 G # plyrs 2003 G # plyrs 2002 G # plyrs 2001 G # plyrs 2000 G # plyrs
C Matheny 110 3 Matheny 121 4 Matheny 96 3 Matheny 117 2 Matheny 117 5
1B Pujols 150 3 Martinez 126 2 Martinez 141 4 McGwire 87 8 McGwire 70 8
2B Womack 125 4 Hart 65 4 Vina 149 3 Vina 150 4 Vina 118 4
SS Renteria 149 2 Renteria 154 4 Renteria 147 4 Renteria 133 2 Renteria 144 4
3B Rolen 141 3 Rolen 152 4 Polanco 63 5 Polanco 93 3 Tatis 90 5
LF Lankford 43 8 Pujols 113 8 Pujols 101 5 Lankford 76 8 Lankford 105 8
CF Edmonds 141 4 Edmonds 118 6 Edmonds 132 5 Edmonds 140 3 Edmonds 138 5
RF Sanders 76 7 Drew 47 7 Drew 107 4 Drew 91 8 Drew 78 7
P Morris 32 8 Williams 33 9 Morris 32 14 Kile 34 9 Kile 34 6
DH Pujols 3 4 Martinez 5 4 Cairo 3 3 Bon/Pujols 2 4 Howard 3 5
totals 970 46 934 52 971 50 923 51 897 57
Wins 105 85 97 93 95
Starts
by pos. 1999 G # plyrs 1998 G # plyrs 1997 G # plyrs 1996 G # plyrs
C Marrero 77 3 Marrero 67 3 DiFelice 81 5 Pagnozzi 108 4
1B McGwire 150 8 McGwire 152 4 Young 68 6 Mabry 139 6
2B McEwing 85 5 DeShields 102 7 DeShields 137 6 Alicea 104 4
SS Renteria 140 5 Clayton 86 4 Clayton 145 4 Clayton 111 3
3B Tatis 147 5 Gaetti 78 5 Gaetti 127 7 Gaetti 130 4
LF Lankford 103 10 Gant 101 6 Gant 126 8 Gant 116 5
CF Drew 92 5 Lankford 137 3 Lankford 131 5 Lankford 142 5
RF Davis 48 8 Jordan 109 6 Mabry 61 9 Jordan 122 4
P Bottenfield 31 13 Mercker 29 9 Morris 33 13 An Benes 34 11
DH Dav/Dunst 2 4 McGee/Jor 3 4 McGee 3 4 none 0 0
totals 875 66 864 51 912 67 1006 46
Wins 75 83 73 88

Batting order leaders – St. Louis Cardinals – 1996 through 2008

Batting Average 96-08 96-08
Order G # plyrs 2008 G # plyrs 2007 G # plyrs 2006 G # plyrs 2005 G # plyrs
1 105 7 Schumaker 110 8 Eckstein 95 8 Eckstein 119 8 Eckstein 154 3
2 59 10 Miles 34 5 Duncan 45 13 Duncan 53 13 Walker 44 7
3 123 7 Pujols 143 6 Pujols 153 7 Pujols 142 3 Pujols 155 6
4 81 7 Ludwick 69 5 Edmonds 53 8 Rolen 92 5 Edmonds 78 10
5 71 10 Glaus 108 9 Rolen 74 12 Encarnacion 62 7 Rolen 32 13
6 52 12 Molina 64 14 Encarnacion 27 16 Encarnacion 43 13 Grudzielanek 54 13
7 58 12 Molina 41 13 Molina 61 14 Molina 65 12 Taguchi 42 11
8 67 11 Loh/Loo/Wel 31 15 Miles 19 19 Miles 57 7 Molina 79 7
9 35 12 Izturis 81 10 Ryan 28 15 Marquis 32 11 Carpenter 32 11
totals 652 87 681 85 555 112 665 79 670 81
Lineups 134 153 153 140 139
Wins 88 86 78 83 100
Batting
Order 2004 G # plyrs 2003 G # plyrs 2002 G # plyrs 2001 G # plyrs 2000 G # plyrs
1 Womack 125 6 Hart 59 8 Vina 149 4 Vina 150 6 Vina 118 6
2 Renteria 53 9 Drew 46 11 Polanco 65 7 Polanco 120 7 Renteria 89 9
3 Pujols 153 5 Pujols 135 7 Edmonds 70 8 Edmonds 69 10 Edmonds 120 9
4 Rolen 110 5 Edmonds 71 8 Pujols 125 6 Pujols 94 7 McGwire 62 8
5 Edmonds 82 9 Rolen 111 5 Martinez 58 8 Edmonds 66 9 Lankford 57 11
6 Renteria 67 10 Renteria 73 9 Renteria 69 7 Paquette 46 9 Paquette 39 13
7 Sanders 57 12 Martinez 42 11 Renteria 50 10 Renteria 96 10 Renteria 42 12
8 Matheny 90 8 Matheny 102 10 Matheny 77 9 Matheny 104 7 Matheny 98 9
9 Morris 31 11 Williams 31 14 Morris 31 17 Kile 33 13 Kile 33 9
totals 768 75 670 83 694 76 778 78 658 86
Lineups 126 126 112 112 134
Wins 105 85 97 93 95
Batting
Order 1999 G # plyrs 1998 G # plyrs 1997 G # plyrs 1996 G # plyrs
1 Renteria 46 8 Clayton 63 11 DeShields 117 5 Clayton 64 8
2 Renteria 53 12 DeShields 51 12 Gant 48 16 Lankford 72 11
3 McGwire 150 6 McGwire 152 5 Lankford 72 11 Gant 81 7
4 Lankford 85 10 Lankford 82 4 Lankford 57 10 Jordan 77 6
5 Tatis 92 10 Gant 48 11 Gaetti 60 11 Gaetti 68 11
6 Renteria 28 14 Mabry 47 11 Mabry 50 12 Mabry 69 11
7 Castillo 71 12 Marrero 24 14 Difelice 78 12 Pagnozzi 89 8
8 McEwing 57 9 Lampkin 28 20 Clayton 54 19 Alicea 79 7
9 Bottenfield 30 15 Marrero 29 8 Morris 33 13 An Benes 34 11
totals 612 96 524 96 569 109 633 80
Lineups 140 144 147 110
Wins 75 83 73 88

Related articles:

La Russa’s lineup combinations increasing

Quiz: Cardinals 2008 lineups and starts by position”.

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