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Optimizing the White Sox Playoff Lineup, for Game 1 and Beyond

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Comparing The Book’s batting-order principles and Tony La Russa’s brain.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I’m writing this article at the extreme risk of being thrown into the “lineup micromanagers” section of White Sox Twitter, because that’s exactly what’s forthcoming.

The logic that drives this lineup formulation comes from the renowned baseball analytics book, The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball in which Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin devote a chapter to addressing optimal batting order strategy.

Back in July 2020, I attempted to use this same framework to optimize Ricky Renteria’s Opening Day lineup. I proposed Yasmani Grandal as the leadoff hitter and relegated Tim Anderson, who was the reigning American League batting champion at the time, to the 6-spot. I didn’t feel like Anderson’s projected slash line of .276/.308/.437 was right for the leadoff spot on a playoff-hopeful team. Of course, he’d go on to laugh at all of those who were calling for massive BABIP regression like myself and hit .322, repeating the career-high .357 OBP that he set in 2019.

But today, I still don’t feel like he’s the best option at the very top of the lineup given the other options that Tony La Russa has at his disposal.

This becomes an interesting way to look at the potential White Sox lineup if La Russa followed The Book’s principles, instead of treating the batting order as some kind status signaling, i.e Anderson leading off because he’s won a batting title and “gets the party started,” or José Abreu batting third as the reigning MVP, etc.

As the Sox head to Houston to open up the ALDS against the Astros on Thursday, this is the lineup card I would hand the umpires.

  1. Yoán Moncada (3B) .263/.375/.412, .347 wOBA, 122 wRC+

As his slash shows, Moncada had a very nice offensive season. He’s hit mostly second and third this season, while seeing the 6-slot more often down the stretch.

Moncada’s career-high 13.6% walk rate and .375 OBP ranked 10th in the league among qualified hitters. He ranked third in both stats on his own team. Despite Grandal leading the team in walk rate and OBP, I’ve pivoted away from him leading off due to his 132-point ISO (isolated power) advantage over Moncada. The leadoff hitter sees the most plate appearances with bases empty of any position in the lineup, so I don’t want my best power hitter in Grandal there.

Moncada is a better fit due to his lack of power this year, while still getting on base a ton. His above-average speed, while not quite as good as when he debuted, will also be taken advantage of, as the leadoff hitter is most often able to leverage his speed on a single or double.

Even with all the excitement that Anderson brings to the White Sox and to the game of baseball, Moncada was a marginally better hitter than Anderson, and he had a 37-point OBP advantage on him. Also, like Grandal, TA has hit for more power than Moncada this season, so moving him down towards the middle of the order would allow the team to get more out of his power.

What do I think the likelihood of La Russa moving Anderson off the leadoff spot is? Zero, because the idea of a different leadoff hitter was actually a joking matter a month-and-a-half ago.

2. Luis Robert (CF) .338/.379/.567, .399 wOBA, 157 wRC+

The Book says that the No. 2 hitter should always be better than the No. 3 hitter. Why? Because when looking at the run values of each offensive outcome (modified by number of PAs per game), the value of a base hit is higher for the No. 3 hitter, and the value of an out is not as impactful. When comparing the 2-spot with the other most important spot in the lineup, the 4-spot, The Book says that both hitters should be of similar quality, but that the No. 2 hitter should draw more walks while the No. 4 hitter should be the better slugger.

So why isn’t Grandal in the 2-spot, with Robert fourth? After all, Grandal’s 159 wRC+ was the highest on the team, his insane 23.2% walk rate led the major leagues, and Robert out-slugged Grandal by 47 points. I like Robert here because there is still value in the platoon advantage. Splitting up righties Robert, Anderson and Abreu with Grandal could potentially dampen the effect of a dominant, right-handed reliever.

I also have Robert ahead of a good, singles/doubles hitter in Anderson, which allows Robert to leverage his stolen base opportunities. When Robert is on first base, he’s going to score on most extra base hits. However, running the risk of a stolen base attempt to get into scoring position becomes more enticing when 70% of the next hitter’s base hits are singles and only 4% of that hitter’s PAs will end in a walk. Even aside from stolen bases, Robert can’t show off his legs when the hitter behind him homers, or even doubles or triples when he’s already in scoring position.

Moncada’s and Robert’s .375 and .378 respective OBPs, and their speed hitting in front of one one of the top singles hitters in baseball, creates situations where each player’s offensive traits are now maximized.

3. Tim Anderson (SS) .309/.338/.469, .345 wOBA, 120 wRC+

I don’t think La Russa would dare move Anderson out of the leadoff spot, but he should for the sake of scoring runs. Based on the joke that Tony played on him back in August, I’m not sure how Tim would take this lineup “demotion.” He seems to take pride in leading off for this team, and I don’t think trying this experiment and likely messing with the team’s psyche is necessarily the right move heading into the playoffs. However, for the sake of the fairly important aspect of run scoring, Tim’s offensive profile doesn’t fit well in the leadoff spot given the other players on the roster. Of the hitters I would have in Thursday’s lineup, Anderson had the fifth-highest OBP and the seventh-highest wRC+ this season.

TA would only see about 0.2 PAs per game less in the 3-spot versus leading off, and now roughly 47% of his PAs would come with a runner on base versus only 37% in the leadoff spot. If I had to get TimAnderson to buy into the idea of moving down to third in the order, that’s where I would start.

4. Yasmani Grandal (C) .240/.420/.520, .402 wOBA, 159 wRC+

Grandal’s offensive profile would play nicely pretty much anywhere. He gets on base more than anyone is baseball except for Juan Soto and Bryce Harper, and he had the 14th-highest ISO for any hitter with at least 250 PAs this year. This alignment, rather than Grandal second and Robert fourth, helps both the platoon advantage and it allows Robert to leverage his speed more than if he was hitting ahead of Abreu.

5. José Abreu (1B) .261/.351/.481, .354 wOBA, 126 wRC+

The Book says that your lineup’s best three hitters should slot into the 1-, 2- and 4- slots, and we’ve accomplished that. It also says your No. 3 and 5 hitters should be the next best two of the deployed nine. The No. 2 and 4 hitters should also be of roughly the same quality. The No. 5 hitter holds a slight run advantage on singles, doubles and triples over the No. 3 hitter, while the No. 3 hitter holds the advantage on homers. My lineup here doesn’t exactly bear this out, with Abreu being more of a home-run threat than Anderson.

However, shifting Abreu from his usual 3-spot down to the 5-spot moves him from the position with the most double play opportunities per game to the second-lowest, behind only the leadoff spot. Abreu’s league-leading 28 GIDPs were frustrating to watch — and probably even more frustrating to hit into. Anderson only grounded into five double plays, even with an 8% higher ground ball rate than Abreu. Anderson’s 32% sprint speed advantage over Abreu helps TA turn potential GIDPs into fielder’s choices, but Anderson also just hasn’t hit with a runner on first and less than two outs as much as Abreu.

Abreu is still going to find himself in plenty of potential double-play opportunities with Grandal walking as much as he does. Abreu posting his highest ground ball rate since 2015 and pulling the ball more than he did in his MVP season is what’s causing the twin killings, no matter who’s hitting ahead of him.

6. Gavin Sheets (DH) .250/.324/.506, .352 wOBA, 125 wRC+

7. Eloy Jiménez (LF) .249/.303/.437, .317 wOBA, 101 wRC+

For the 6-9 spots in the order, I don’t need to break down each position individually because The Book tells us to simply stack your remaining hitters from best to worst at this point. I’m still considering the platoon advantage here, which is why I’m sliding Sheets ahead of Jiménez, but even if I wasn’t, Jiménez posted a 70 wRC+ in 101 PAs in September and October while Sheets posted a 145 wRC+ in 80 PAs through the same span. Once the game gets into Houston’s bullpen, the more we can create favorable platoon matchups given the three-batter-minimum rule, the better. Sheets is put into a better position to succeed late in games when he’s surrounded by hitters who fare better versus left-handed pitchers than right-handed.

8. Leury García (2B) .267/.335/.376, .312 wOBA, 98 wRC+

The 8- and 9- slots are less about where they’re hitting and more about who these hitters are. Since César Hernández was acquired, he’s posted the Danny Mendick-esque slash of .232/.309/.299 (70 wRC+), with negative six Defensive Runs Saved to boot. Over the same span, García hit .306/.358/.431 (118 wRC+) with essentially an equal defensive effort, albeit with García playing a lot less innings at second base.

The logic here is to simply ignore that fact that Hernández was the one brought in to provide an upgrade over the García/Mendick tandem at second, and ride the hot hand into October.

9. Adam Engel (RF) .252/.336/.496, .354 wOBA, 127 wRC+

Deciding who plays right field in Game 1 of the ALDS will be an interesting decision for La Russa. If Brian Goodwin’s back is healthy, his left-handed bat provides the platoon advantage against presumptive Game 1 starter Lance McCullers Jr., as McCullers had a 4.01 xFIP against lefties as opposed to .340 against righties. He did dice up Goodwin pretty good in their last meeting on July 16, with three strikeouts in three PAs, but Goodwin took McCullers deep as an Angel last season.

The problem with trying to neutralize McCullers’ nasty slider with a left-handed hitter is that he also has a nasty curveball for them as well. He makes his money with these two pitches. When looking at Engel’s and Goodwin’s numbers against right-handed breaking balls this season, Engel had a .232 xwOBA with a 47% whiff rate, while Goodwin had a .322 xwOBA with a 31% whiff rate.

Since the start of August, Goodwin has hit just .188/.303/.297 (72 wRC+), after a .246/.331/.433 (111 wRC+) before that. Engel played in only six games after returning from his most recent IL stint and there was a lot of swing-and-miss, but he still put up a respectable .278/.316/.444 (107 wRC+) line.

In the end, with Goodwin likely not being 100% healthy and Engel providing a significant speed and defensive upgrade (the importance of the latter advantage cannot be overstated enough), I would roll with Engel. He’s 1-for-4 against McCullers lifetime, with a single.

Hey! Engel looked pretty good against this breaking ball from McCullers way back in ... 2018.

Whenever Framber Valdez starts for Houston, I would change the lineup and batting order to look like this:

1. Luis Robert (CF)
2. Yasmani Grandal (C)
3. Tim Anderson (SS)
4. José Abreu (1B)
5. Eloy Jiménez (LF)
6. Yoán Moncada (3B)
7. Andrew Vaughn (DH)
8. Leury García (2B)
9. Adam Engel (RF)

With everyone healthy, the White Sox are a robust offensive team with dangerous hitters from top to bottom of the lineup. Thus, any lineup maneuvering isn’t going to make or break their chances to have offensive success in the playoffs.

For instance, I know the White Sox could win a championship with Tim Anderson leading off every playoff game. However, making a change could net them an extra run or two in a given game which could obviously end up being the difference between a win and a loss.