Location, location, location. To some, this is a real estate mantra by which to live, but for me it's the best way to key in on offensive production. Where a hitter is placed in the lineup can have as much to do with their success as their recent performance, overall talent level and opposing pitcher matchup. The context of who’s hitting around them in the order can help determine how opposing teams will pitch to them throughout a ballgame. Also, the league in which a hitter plays can have a significant impact on their projected success on a given day.
In general, it’s profitable to target hitters in the top half of their lineups, with extra attention to those hitting third and fourth. The better hitters slot into these heart-of-the-order spots, so there’s more likely to be runners on base for RBI opportunities and capable hitters behind to knock them in and score runs. Additionally, you get a better chance for an extra at-bat compared to picking guys in the lower half of the order. An extra at-bat can give a hitter an extra 25 percent of production (5 at bats vs. 4). It may not always materialize into big points, but MLB is all about chances and opportunities. You would always prefer taking an NBA player that goes to overtime for a chance to boost their score, right? Targeting 1-5 hitters as a guideline achieves the same result long-term.
An underrated factor in determining success on a specific day is a player's protection in the lineup. Miguel Cabrera started off slow, but since Victor Martinez has hit so well in the spot behind him, pitchers have had to start respecting Martinez by giving Cabrera better pitches to hit. It's more conventional to look at quality hitters behind a guy in the order as a means to knock him in, but the reality is that it can also give him better pitches to hit. Players hitting second, third and fourth have the best protection overall (but obviously varies based on personnel by team).
American League vs. National League
Analyzing lineup slots is a much different approach depending on the team and league (or ballpark in the event of interleague play). The DH has a veritable effect on Daily Fantasy Baseball in how we view a given lineup. Right now, 11 of 15 teams in the NL have scored below 190 runs. However, 11 of 15 teams in the AL have scored more than 190 runs. Last season AL teams averaged 702 runs on the year compared to just 649 among NL teams. AL games play up and down the order so much smoother without the pitcher's spot throwing a serious roadblock in offensive production.
The eighth spot in the order is the easiest to compare between the leagues. In the NL, teams rarely have to give the eighth hitter anything decent to hit in the first six innings because the pitcher's spot is due up next. This can hurt the eighth hitter a couple of ways. First, it limits his at-bat production since there can be runners on base but teams are more inclined to walk him to face the pitcher. Second, even if the eighth hitter gets on base, the pitcher is a very likely out behind them and scoring a run becomes that much more difficult. This effect extends to the seventh hitter to a lesser extent as well. Meanwhile, in the AL there are guys like Alcides Escobar, who has seen the majority of his at-bats in the eight or nine hole with no diminishing returns. There are no “automatic outs” before or after him (insert Mike Moustakas joke here), so Escobar is able to get on base, steal and score much easier than if he played in the NL. The only way I can see taking a No. 8 hitter in an NL game is if it's a short slate of games and/or the guy is minimum price and you need it to fill out the rest of your roster with perfect targets (and just hope he scores positive with a walk and a single or something).
Leadoff hitters are the others strongly affected between leagues. After the first inning, NL leadoff hitters have the pitcher hitting in front of them. A quick search helped me find that in 2011 pitchers as a whole hit just .128. Sure there are some outliers (Wainwright leading the way this year with an 8-for-24 clip), but clearly that is more exception than the rule. When there are runners on and two outs with the pitcher up, the inning will hardly ever get to the leadoff guy for an RBI chance. When the pitcher leads off, it's usually going to be one out bases empty for the leadoff spot, which also reduces his chance of scoring a run even if he reaches. AL leadoff hitters can have guys like Escobar hitting in front of them getting on base 33 percent of the time and swiping 12 steals. That's a big part of how Brian Dozier has knocked in 25 runs on a measly .257 average while hitting first for the Twins this year. Out of Dozier’s 11 homers this year, nine have been solo shots, which means the 7-9 hitters have gotten on base and created 14 additional RBI for him.
The Yankees (195), Nationals (186) and Diamondbacks (187) have all scored close to the same run totals on the season thus far. Brett Gardner has hit in the leadoff for New York 98 times this year with a .296 average, five doubles, one triple, three home runs and 14 RBI. Denard Span has hit leadoff for the Nationals in 166 at-bats for a .265 average with 10 doubles, three triples, one homer and 11 RBI. Gerardo Parra has 145 at-bats in the leadoff role with a .269 average, six doubles, two triples, four homers and 11 RBI. Despite seeing 50-70 more at-bats, Parra and Span still can't top Gardner in the RBI category, even though they've accumulated similar extra base hit totals. There’s no way that the differential in batting average is the only factor here; it's because Gardner is in an AL offense with more guys on base while Parra and Span are held back significantly with the pitcher spot in front of them.
Reminder: The FanDuel $200,000 Ultimate Survivor contest starts on Monday. The entry fee is $200, but there’re Satellites running through this weekend for as little as $2 to win that full entry. For more information and strategy specific to the FanDuel Survivor format (75 percent of the field advances each round), take a look at last week's subject column here