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What’s in a lineup, anyway?

Exploring consistency in an era of unique lineup cards

Anthony Rizzo and Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees during the 2022 ALCS Photo by Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images

2022 wasn’t a good year for the Detroit Tigers, although they set a little baseball history — running out 161 different offensive lineups, the most ever for an AL team in a single season. You came into the clubhouse and virtually every single day, you were hitting in a different spot. I learned this thanks to Effectively Wild’s “Stories we Missed” episode, which touched off a wider conversation about how inconsistent lineups have gotten across the game.

Teams give more rest days than ever, meaning players cycle in and out of the lineup regularly. In 2022, only two qualified hitters appeared in all 162 games, and again only two in 2021, while two decades ago we would regularly see seven or eight. In 2002, a qualified hitter averaged 148 games, and in 2022 that was down to 143. We’ve also changed the ideas of what lineup spots mean — 20 years ago Aaron Judge would hit third or fourth, and while he still sees time in the three-hole, he just spent almost of all of 2022 leading off or hitting second.

All of this means that teams shift their lineups around more than any other point in the game’s history:

Baseball convention would say this is problematic — the leadoff hitter is the leadoff hitter because he’s the leadoff hitter, and disrupting that is going to get players all messed up. It’s true, too, that in 2022 there was a negative correlation between unique lineups and offensive performance:

It gets difficult to work this backward past 2022, because before the implementation of the universal DH, NL teams would often see 160ish different lineups a season. However, in 2021, we saw among AL teams this same trend — more unique lineups has a negative correlation with offensive output, as one increased the other tended to decrease.

So on the face of it, you’d want to have as few unique lineups as possible...but I think this is one of those times when correlation is separate from causation. In 2021, the Astros, Rays and Jays boasted the three best offenses in the AL, running out 133, 158, and 133 lineups respectively. Last year, the top three offenses in the game were the Dodgers, Yankees and Atlanta, with 123, 147, and 130 unique lineups.

The driver of offensive performance is having good hitters, and that’s where I think this negative correlation comes from. Yes, bad offenses are going to run out more lineups on average, because Oakland trades away every player with more than two years of service time, and the Nationals strip their team for parts, and the Tigers can’t get their arms around their rebuild.

Conversely, as long as you don’t have any injury issues, if you’re Atlanta or Houston or the Dodgers, you have guys already in designated roles. Take Atlanta, for instance, who had the third-fewest unique lineups in 2022 and the third-best offense. One of the benefits of their “let’s just extend everyone” strategy is a stable roster, and as long as everyone’s healthy, a correspondingly stable lineup.

This isn’t to say that moving guys around has zero effect. Anecdotally, it does seem like Gleyber Torres behaves differently hitting in the “heart” of the order. His groundball and strikeout rates bulge when he’s hitting 3-4-5, so it’s at least possible that he’s doing too much, trying to be a conventional, heavy-hitting, “middle-of-the-order” stick and focusing on that rather than a gap-to-gap approach that he appears to take when he’s hitting sixth or so.

Still, although inconsistent lineups has been a common complaint about Aaron Boone’s management style, I don’t think it’s that big an issue. The problem with the Yankees over the past couple of seasons has been less about moving guys around the lineup, and more that just half the lineup isn’t that intimidating. If you only have three or four real impact bats, that’s going to cost you more runs than if Aaron Judge leads off one day and bats second the next.