When the Indians signed Mark Reynolds to a one-year, $6 million contract there were a lot of arguments about his high strikeout rate (32.6%) and low batting average (.235). The counterpoint was that these negative attributes were balanced by a high walk rate (11.9%) and home run power (181 career HR). Now the question remains: Where is the ideal spot in the batting order to take advantage of Reynolds’ right-handed power bat?
In his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Baltimore Orioles, Reynolds has hit .235/.332/.475 with a .349 wOBA and a 109 wRC+. He has played for Bob Melvin, A.J. Hinch, and Kirk Gibson while playing with Arizona and Buck Showalter while in Baltimore. Most of the time these five managers felt that Reynolds fit best hitting either fifth or sixth in the lineup:
As a hitter drops in the batting order so does the opportunity to drive in runs. A hitter loses approximately 18 plate appearances for each spot he is dropped in the order over the course of the season, and plate appearances with runners in scoring position are usually 25% of a player’s total chances. How a hitter takes advantage of these opportunities with runners in scoring position will show up in the players RBI total.
Is there a reason why Reynolds hit 37 home runs in 2011 but only drove in 86 runs or hit 23 home runs in 2012 while only driving in 69? In both years, over half of his plate appearances came in the bottom third of the lineup. In 2011 he spent 97 games in the seventh, eighth, and ninth spots in the lineup while in 2012 he played 71 games in the bottom of the order.
Did he take advantage of the opportunities when presented to him? In his career he has been very productive with RISP, hitting .256/.360/.507, but in 2011 he wasn’t very good when presented the opportunity to drive in runs, posting a poor slash line of .207/.306/.507 with only 5 home runs in 144 PAs. Despite a much lower RBI total in 2012 he actually hit much better with RISP, hitting .286/.389/.581 with 7 home runs in 126 PAs.
Several studies have been conducted to examine “clutch” performance, often as defined by the ability to hit with RISP. The general conclusion is that given a sufficient sample size of plate appearances most players’ overall performance with RISP will closely match their overall body of work. Reynolds, however, has hit slightly better with RISP, posting a career slash line of .256/.360/.507 over 962 PAs when compared to his overall career line of .235/.332/.475. From looking at his RBI total with the Orioles in 2011 and 2012 the general conclusion is that in both years the opportunity to drive in runs was limited and in 2011 he failed to take advantage of the opportunities.
Another statistic that stood out was his ability to hit with men on base compared to his performance with the bases empty. In his career with men on base he owns a slash line of .257/.354/.507 in 1594 PAs while with the bases empty he has a career slash line of just .217/.313/.449. His ability to hit better with men on base than with the bases empty has been a consistent trend over his career with the exception of 2009. Most hitters seem to hit slightly better with men on base than with the bases empty—over the last three seasons, batters have OPSed .745 with men on base compared to .708 with the bases empty.
In order to see how Mark Reynolds fared during the same 3 year period relative to other hitters I used the Day-By-Day database at baseballmusings.com and set the minimum plate appearances for each split at 300 plate appearances. Over the 2010-2012 seasons Reynolds’ OPS was .154 points higher when hitting with men on base (.862) than with the bases empty (.708). Out of the 308 qualified players, Reynolds’ OPS differential was good for 23rd-highest. Interestingly, Reynolds’ split was good for just third among Indians players, behind Asdrubal Cabrera (.188 points) and Michael Brantley (.164 points).
In Baseball Between The Numbers there is a chapter titled: Was Billy Martin Crazy? The title was in reference to a game in 1972 when Billy Martin, then managing the Detroit Tigers, put the starting nine names in a hat and drew them out to make up the lineup card. The strategy worked as the Tigers defeated the Indians 3-2 in Game 1 of a doubleheader before the traditional lineup got crushed 9-2 in the rematch.
The chapter focuses on how the decisions of who hits where in the lineup increase or decrease the run scoring ability of the lineup. The conclusion drawn is that OBP is the most important variable—even moreso than slugging percentage or batting average. Given any group of nine hitters, the batting order that scores the most runs is the one ranked in order of descending OBP. Give the hitters who make the fewest outs the most chances to bat, and you’ll score more runs.
Using 2012 OBP as a guide the optimal starting lineup would thus be: Carlos Santana (.365), Nick Swisher (.364), Michael Bourn (.348), Michael Brantley (.348), Asdrubal Cabrera (.338), Jason Kipnis (.335), Mark Reynolds (.335), Lonnie Chisenhall (.311), and Drew Stubbs (.277). Chances are pretty slim that Terry Francona will ever use Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher at the top of the order and I doubt that we see too much of Michael Bourn in the No. 3 spot. Each player will be utilized in the lineup to maximize his particular skill set as well to minimize a weakness.
Other weaknesses to be considered when determining where to hit him in the lineup are his career contact rate and his increased groundball rate. His career contact rate is only 64% but in 2012 it increased to 69%. Unfortunately this increased contact translated into more groundballs, not big flies clearing the fences. His career groundball rate is 36% but it’s been slightly higher the last couple years. Rather than the desired home runs the increased ground ball rate led to 11 double plays in 2011 and 19 in 2012. Most fans get frustrated by double-play balls and strikeouts, and Reynolds gave the fans plenty to dislike.
Reynolds’ propensity to strike out and his grounders eliminates him from consideration for the top four spots in the lineup. Hitting in the fifth or sixth spot may bring him to the plate with the likes of Nick Swisher, Carlos Santana, or Jason Giambi at first base, none of who will be put in motion to avoid potential double plays. However, either spot would provide him with the desired opportunity for plate appearances with men on base.
Ideally, Michael Brantley—who, like Reynolds, excels at hitting with men on base—would be put in the No. 6 hole. But unlike the free-swinging Reynolds he is a high contact hitter (91% career) who despite a GB rate of 47% in 2012 hit into only seven double plays. He is not a good basestealer (66% career success rate) but his speed is adequate enough to put him in motion while the free swinging Reynolds is at the plate.
Hitting Reynolds seventh in the lineup would maximize his power, and looking at the rest of the roster it would increase his chances of hitting with men on base while minimizing his double-play tendencies with a faster runner hitting ahead of him in Brantley. Hitting lower in the order should also take the pressure of Reynolds and allow him to try to maximize his power potential rather than try to become a more contact conscious hitter.