Pujols is great, but on this team he shouldn't be the cleanup hitter
Tony La Russa dropped Albert Pujols to the No. 4 spot to increase his RBI chances
Each spot in the lineup is worth about 18 plate appearances over a full season
With the right personnel, the move might make sense; but that's not the case here
The Cardinals are 2-0 with Albert Pujols batting cleanup, therefore the decision to move him out of the No. 3 spot he had been in for almost seven consecutive years was a success.
If only baseball were that simple. Tony La Russa's move to shake up his lineup by sliding his best hitter down one spot cannot be gauged by the Washington Nationals' inability to score runs and his own pitchers' skill in exploiting that weakness. It cannot even be gauged by the Cards' offense over those two games, which hasn't exactly resembled Sherman marching on Atlanta. No, you have to take a look at the whole picture, at what La Russa is trying to do -- maximize run-scoring -- and whether the decision gets him there.
Now, the very best sabermetricians --- no, not me, you want the second door down on the left -- will tell you that lineups matter far less than you think. The difference between the best and worst possible lineups is about 50 runs a season, and the range among the reasonable options is a third of that. On the other hand, 15 runs is worth a win-and-a-half, and in most seasons someone misses a playoff spot by less than that, so chasing the marginal runs is a worthwhile exercise. I tend to be a bit of a heretic on this issue, not convinced that the models used to come up with these numbers capture all the elements of lineup construction, particularly platoon balance. I think that lineup construction is more important than the studies allow.
For the Cardinals, it's all about Albert Pujols. He is the best player in baseball and the dominant hitter in that lineup. La Russa's gambit of hitting the pitcher eighth, which seems radical but has met with approval from the stat guys to the tune of a handful of runs per season, is designed to maximize the number of base runners when Pujols bats (as it was previously by La Russa in St. Louis for Mark McGwire), without costing Pujols any at-bats. Each spot in the lineup is worth about 18 extra at-bats a season versus the spot behind it, so you want your best hitters hitting as high in the lineup as possible. (This is one reason why many lineup studies suggest that the best hitter bat second, enabling him to both drive in the leadoff man and get on base for more of the team's good hitters.)
By batting a position player ninth, which he has tried for 16 games this year, La Russa can increase the number of men on base for Pujols. Where that idea has failed is in the execution; Brendan Ryan, the Cards' most common No. 9 batter, is hitting .162 with a .467 OPS. Those are Ken Griffey Jr. numbers that have done little for Pujols' RBI opportunities. He's just 25th in MLB in plate appearances with a runner on base, and 11th in total number of runners on base when he comes to the plate. The idea in moving Pujols down one spot is to put another player in front of him who can reach base, increasing the chance that he'll come to the plate with runners on and maximizing the value of his power. The cost is that Pujols will bat about 18 fewer times than he would have otherwise, those 18 plate appearances being handed to Matt Holliday, but if Pujols can bat in higher-leverage situations, you may score more runs than you would have otherwise.
The problem, again, is in the execution. La Russa's first two lineups with Pujols batting fourth were a mess. The basic principles of lineup construction are: get your best players up as often as possible and have your on-base guys in front of your power hitters. The following list shows the OBP rank, in lineup order, of the eight Cardinals' starters on Monday night:
6 (Felipe Lopez)
4 (Ryan Ludwick)
2 (Colby Rasmus)
3 (David Freese)
7 (Yadier Molina)
8 (Skip Schumaker)
This is a disaster. La Russa is taking at-bats away from Albert Pujols so that he can have Pujols bat with more runners on base, then batting his two highest OBP guys other than Pujols directly behind him, ensuring that they can never be on base for him. (Tuesday night's lineup flipped Nos. 5 and 6, so the same issue existed.) The problem isn't that Matt Holliday is getting at-bats that Pujols isn't; it's that Felipe Lopez (.316 OBP) is getting at-bats that Colby Rasmus (.390) isn't. The lineup that La Russa created does little to address the stated goal, and in fact, is highly suboptimal.
For the Cardinals to score more runs, they have to get Rasmus in front of Pujols. David Freese's usage isn't the problem here; his rank above aside, he's not clearly better than Holliday or Ludwick. Rasmus, though, has all the skills to be a No. 2 hitter in a good lineup. The other decision is on Lopez; La Russa, for all his innovation, has rarely tried nonconventional leadoff batters, sticking to some extent with the notion that leadoff men have a certain shape and size, and play certain positions. This team, however, has a center fielder with power and a collection of middle infielders with low OBPs. The manager has to find a different solution.
With the right personnel, it might make sense to bat Pujols fourth. The 2010 Cardinals do not have that personnel. They don't have so many OBP guys that they can sacrifice Pujols' at-bats with an eye toward having more of the remaining at-bats be in higher-leverage spots. With that in mind, here's the optimal Cardinals lineup:
It's a little right-handed through the middle, which was inevitable once the team signed Holliday. It's also a little surprising to see Freese so high, but with none of the middle infielders hitting, there's a lack of options. Lopez bats ahead of Molina to create an effort at balance, and we return the pitcher to the eighth spot as a nod to getting more runners on for Pujols. The Cardinals are going to be susceptible to good right-handed relievers because of the lack of a lefty bat in the middle of the lineup, so they have to maximize their run-scoring in the first six innings.
Lineup creation is a mix of art and science, with more than a little psychology thrown in. The most important factors, however, are simple: get your best players the most at-bats and have your power guys bat with runners on base. La Russa's current lineup does neither of these things and should be discarded in favor of one that hews to these principles.