The Balancing Act
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of baseball discussions mentioning the need for a “balanced lineup.” It’s unsurprising, though, due to at least a decade-long emphasis at all professional levels on power pitching and hitting.
You’d expect some kind of ripple effect from all those 100-mph fastballs and escalating launch angles. But, when you start to think about it, a balanced baseball lineup isn’t just about having both power hitters and hitters who can shorten up on their swing for a well-placed single. It’s also about the ability to face both right- and left-handed pitchers. And, actually, it’s even about the individual capabilities of those sitting on the bench on any given day, giving the manager the option of sending up a specific pinch hitter — or sending in a particular pinch runner — at the most felicitous moment in the game..
As the New York Yankees are beginning to re-discover, a balanced lineup is also about tailoring the batters — and the order in which they hit — to the dimensions of the main stadium in which they’re playing. You could take this argument a step further, and say that the lineup needs to be tailored to the dimensions of as many as possible of the stadiums in which a team will be hitting most often. For each of the AL and the NL, that’s primarily 15 stadiums, with a ranking of most games and hit opportunities taking place at home, and then within the division, and only then throughout the rest of the league — including interleague games.
Hence, if a stadium plays deep, you would want hitters with decent BABIP percentages in your lineup; as fewer balls are likely to leave the stadium. Several stadiums have brought in the fences to cater to the era of the power hitter and the analytics-based baseball of the past couple of decades (examples include Citifield, LoanDepot Park, and Comerica Park).
Photo courtesy of the author. And you have to admit, it's a good one.
But dimensionally, LoanDepot Park, for example, still plays pretty deep and you might still want some hitters who bat for average in the Marlins’ lineup. And if a stadium plays small, you might want to more heavily weight your lineup toward power hitters.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards was known to be a hitter’s dream when it first opened; the balls flew out at a tremendous rate. But urban legend has it that the Hilton Hotel built in its windpath cut down on the ballpark’s home runs…and the Orioles, as well as the AL East, have been trying to respond accordingly ever since. The impact of the famed B&O Warehouse at Camden Yards on hitters’ attempts to leave the park has never been proven; but the warehouse has only been hit once by a home run since the stadium opened — by Ken Griffey Jr. during the 1993 Home Run Derby. That blast was measured at 465 feet, which once again represents how even what’s outside the park impacts what happens inside the park. In this age of 450-500 foot home runs, you’d think more than one homer would have hit the warehouse by now.
Some try to beat the shift, which by now has become endemic to the game, by hitting the ball the other way or laying down a bunt when necessary.
Now granted, an MLB general manager’s responsibilities go way beyond ensuring that in each season, the organization’s major league team has the most balanced lineup of the league’s 30 teams. But if a home stadium is built to have a particular type of hitter frequent the lineup, that’s got to be one of the primary lineup responsibilities on an ongoing basis. And at Yankee Stadium, one aspect of the balanced lineup is lefty hitters in the lineup.
Below, courtesy of @Tangotiger on Twitter, you can see a diagram of the dimensions of the notorious Yankee Stadium short porch. The dimensions painted on a stadium’s walls are not always exact — in fact, some of the numbers on various newer stadium walls were designed as a throwback to the stadium in which the team played historically. Nevertheless, both observationally and statistically, right field at Yankee Stadium plays shorter than does right field in the majority of MLB ballparks. Recent stats (provided by Statcast (Park Factors)) even provide the specifics of just how many ballparks a given home run might have left; and Yankee Stadium’s many “just cleared the fence” right field home runs would actually not be home runs in some of the league’s other ballparks. Thus, given hitters’ tendency to pull the ball more than ever in the era of analytics and the shift, if you’re building a true “Bronx Bomber” team, what that means is you need lefty power/pull hitters in your lineup.
Would you look at these dimensions?
But what about the dimensions of a stadium and the need for contact hitters in addition to power hitters? Basically, any balanced baseball lineup includes both contact hitters and power hitters. Your leadoff hitter will typically be a contact hitter, and then the pull and/or power hitters start to fill out the rest of the lineup till you hit the bottom one or two hitters — who are usually low average hitting, defensive players. But if the team plays in a stadium that has very unusual or particular dimensions, then even who the contact hitters are matters. Some contact hitters spray the ball all over the field (think DJ LeMahieu, on a good day). Some try to beat the shift, which by now has become endemic to the game, by hitting the ball the other way or laying down a bunt when necessary. But even some high batting average, contact-type hitters still really only pull the ball. And yet, if the ballpark plays as does Fenway Park, and you’ve got yourself a righty pull hitter who’s actually a contact hitter, that can pay great dividends.
So now here’s an image of Fenway Park for your consideration:
309'? Pssssss..... that's nothin.
What you can’t see well is the famed Green Monster. But what you can see is that the distance to left field is actually shorter than the distance to the right field short porch at Yankee Stadium. And that is a critical aspect to playing baseball at Fenway Park. How do the Red Sox capitalize on this? Well, the Red Sox need to consider two aspects of having the Green Monster in play: building a lineup that can use the Green Monster to its advantage on the offensive side of the game, and making sure that Red Sox outfielders are adept at playing the ball off the Monster.
Besides power hitting for home runs, Red Sox lineups try to keep the ball in play by hitting it off the Monster; whereas in other ballparks the ball would simply be caught at that short distance — or if low enough to the ground, fielded on the ground. We’ve all been witness to the incredible ricochets off the Monster that can turn a simple base hit into a double or even a triple, especially if not played completely cleanly. In fact, you could say that just as Yankee Stadium has “porch home runs,” Fenway Park has “Monster extra base hits.” So if I’m the Red Sox general manager, I try to build a lineup with not only power hitters on both sides of the plate; but also contact hitters who are going to capitalize on the existence of the Monster, which means most likely right-handed, pull-type contact hitters.
Hypothetically, we could journey through this kind of thought process for every ballpark in the league. Moreover, we could analyze whether each major league team’s minor league ballparks are dimensionally similar to the major league park, allowing for more specific development of the team’s projected major leaguers. It would be an interesting exercise — my bet, though, is that MLB teams are smart enough to have devised the analytics and the strategy for all of this already. But the next time someone tries to argue that the Yankees are fine with all right-handed power hitters, you can tell them not only history and tradition say the opposite — the walls of Yankee Stadium do, too.