It's Too Early to Worry About Where Jason Heyward Hits

Jason Heyward's scintillating start to this season has defied even Braves fans' outlandish dreams for him. He's got a .302/.423/.581 triple-slash (for reference, that's a higher on-base percentage than Albert Pujols and a better slugging percentage than Joe Mauer), three homers, and 15 RBI. It's that last statistic, though, that has Atlanta Journal-Constitution scribe Mark Bradley wondering if Heyward should be moved up from the seventh spot in the order.

⇥I asked someone who wears a Braves’ uniform, “How much longer can you go with Jason Heyward batting seventh?” And I figured this person, who has always been candid with me, would say, “Not much longer.” But he surprised me.⇥⇥

⇥Stop and think for a minute, he said. Heyward has 15 RBIs batting in the seventh spot. That’s really good. (No other Brave has more than eight, and the one who does — sixth-place hitter Yunel Escobar — drove in five runs on Opening Day.) Say you move Heyward up to sixth or even fifth: He might have a few more ribbies, but at what overall cost?⇥⇥

At what overall cost? Well, it might produce fewer runs, and might produce fewer wins. It could also produce more runs and more wins. Baseball's funny and capricious like that. 

But speculating about lineups with little analysis of them is certainly a bit of a setback for baseball understanding.

Bradley uses some shaky logic in pointing out that the Braves' lineup hasn't done much -- no, putting Heyward in front of the scuffling Troy Glaus doesn't automatically mean that Heyward's going to get walked -- but his sin is of omission. Sabermetricians have done work on the tricky task of optimizing a lineup, and found that this where the lineup slots rank in terms of importance of avoiding outs, which we can take to mean on-base percentage:

⇥#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9
So let's do some optimization with the Braves.
    ⇥
  1. Martin Prado (.500 OBP) 
  2. ⇥⇥
  3. Eric Hinske (.400) 
  4. ⇥⇥
  5. Brian McCann (.477) 
  6. ⇥⇥
  7. Chipper Jones (.395) 
  8. ⇥⇥
  9. Jason Heyward (.423) 
  10. ⇥⇥
  11. Nate McLouth (.333) 
  12. ⇥⇥
  13. Yunel Escobar (.288) 
  14. ⇥⇥
  15. Matt Diaz/Melky Cabrera (.222/.245) 
  16. ⇥⇥
  17. Pitcher

In this lineup, the struggling Glaus gets benched, and the poor outfield platoon of Diaz and Cabrera, both of whom have been awful at the top of the order, become easy outs at the end of it. It works well, logically, because if Prado can reach base literally half the time, that sets up the Braves nicely at the beginnings of games, and makes for rough starts for opposing pitchers, and because putting your worst hitters at the top of the lineup makes practically no sense.

This would, theoretically, be a better lineup, and there are other tweaks -- you could flip the speedy Escobar with the slower McLouth to help a little more -- . Also, the Braves' lineup looks a lot better when examining on-base percentage, because their patience has been tremendous -- the team draws walks in 13.5% of plate appearances, best in the majors -- and though a horrific .233 team batting average looks really bad, the Braves have managed to go 7-5 despite underperfoming career averages at the plate.

But sabermetricians would also note that, for Pete's sake, we're 12 games into the baseball season and lineup optimization isn't a cure-all. It helps to have the best lineup possible, sure, but Cabrera and Diaz not making outs one in three times instead of almost one in four would help, and McLouth raising his batting average over the Mendoza Line would, too. Letting more than a tenth of the season play out before coming to a conclusion would also be a good idea, but small sample sizes are the only sample sizes available, and Heyward's even harder to predict as both a rookie and an atypically patient slugger.

This is analysis-light spitballing on an off day, and there's a fun aimlessness in that. But the Braves organization and their observers have long been devoutly traditional and slow to accept sabermetrics into their perspectives on baseball.

It should worry Braves fans that there is cause for alarm in the media, because that demonstrates a rush to judgment that doesn't work well for baseball. But the lineup shouldn't worry Braves fans much at all: it's too early to make completely accurate assertions here.

↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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