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.
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.
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
|by pos.||G||# plyrs||2008||G||# plyrs||2007||G||# plyrs||2006||G||# plyrs||2005||G||# plyrs|
|by pos.||2004||G||# plyrs||2003||G||# plyrs||2002||G||# plyrs||2001||G||# plyrs||2000||G||# plyrs|
|by pos.||1999||G||# plyrs||1998||G||# plyrs||1997||G||# plyrs||1996||G||# plyrs|
Batting order leaders – St. Louis Cardinals – 1996 through 2008
|Order||G||# plyrs||2008||G||# plyrs||2007||G||# plyrs||2006||G||# plyrs||2005||G||# plyrs|
|Order||2004||G||# plyrs||2003||G||# plyrs||2002||G||# plyrs||2001||G||# plyrs||2000||G||# plyrs|
|Order||1999||G||# plyrs||1998||G||# plyrs||1997||G||# plyrs||1996||G||# plyrs|