The Optimal 2020 Twins Lineup, According to PECOTA
Image courtesy of © Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsSigning Josh Donaldson as a free agent was the biggest offseason move in the history of Minnesota baseball, and it’s one of the great moves in recent memory in another category, too. An abiding joy of the hot stove league, one that long predates free agency, is the building of lineups on napkins and envelopes. Donaldson’s addition to an already stacked 2020 Twins lineup makes for some truly delightful dream-weaving, and surely set off a frenzy of such scribbling. Now, however, spring training has begun, and reality is rushing forward to blend into (if not overrun) our dream worlds. We have players in uniform, nagging injuries lurking, and projection systems spitting out hard, cold numbers that forecast each player’s 2020 season. Let’s shake off our dreams and memories of 2019, then, and use PECOTA projections to build the optimal Twins lineup for the year ahead.
Neither Richard Rodgers nor Oscar Hammerstein II ever made it to the top step of a big-league dugout, but “start at the very beginning” is still salient advice, so let’s follow it. According to PECOTA, the Twins’ rightful leadoff hitter for 2020 is Luis Arraez. While the system doesn’t entirely buy into Arraez’s .334 average or .399 on-base percentage from 2019, it boldly projects the sophomore to post the highest OBP of any Twin, and the only others even in the same range as Arraez hit for too much power to slot them in at the top of the order. Arraez’s excellent contact rate could be a minor liability elsewhere in the order, because of the risk of hitting into double plays, but at the top of the order, it’s just one way to drive an opponent’s pitch count up and give teammates an early look at their stuff.
Of the 304 batters who swung at least 500 times in the majors last year, Arraez had the seventh-highest rate of foul balls per swing. That’s not necessarily indicative of a great hitter; much depends on the way they get there. In Arraez’s case, however, it’s more feature than bug, keeping him in at-bats and perhaps giving the offense an early look at a starter’s third or fourth pitch.
Second in the order, where he’s batted frequently and comfortably in the past, would be Donaldson, whom PECOTA projects to nearly match Arraez’s OBP despite a strikeout rate roughly two and a half times higher. The system expects Donaldson to make up for a strikeout rate just north of the league average with a gaudy 13.9-percent walk rate, highest among Minnesota regulars. Donaldson projects for less power than Nelson Cruz or Miguel Sanó, but the patience and on-base skills he provides fit best in the two-hole.
Because of his extraordinary power (but less sterling walk rate), Nelson Cruz would be the optimal third hitter, according to PECOTA. The system forecasts a team-high .590 slugging average and a .304 isolated power that runs just behind Sanó for the team lead. The third spot in the order, because it is the most likely of any slot to come up with two outs and no one on base, should feature a batter who gets most of their value from their ISO, and shouldn’t feature someone who relies on walks. Cruz is just the right type of hitter for the job, and is especially perfect for it on this particular team.
Though Cruz has the best overall offensive projection, Sanó is projected to lead the team in WARP, and would be the optimal cleanup hitter, based on PECOTA. His projected 37.1-percent strikeout rate is less than ideal for a cleanup guy, which could steer one toward an argument for batting him second and Donaldson fourth. However, the system projects such majestic power from Sanó—and the top of the order has such a good expected OBP—that sliding him down to fourth (to maximize the results from having men on base when he bats) makes more sense.
Mitch Garver and Max Kepler have a nearly identical overall projection, in terms of production. The system forecasts Garver to be a slightly better hitter, on balance, thanks mostly to a higher forecasted batting average on balls in play (an area in which Kepler has always struggled), but it pegs Kepler for a considerably better strikeout rate. The raw data nudges things in Garver’s direction, but in acknowledgment of the fact that the three hitters above them will all be right-handed, Kepler should bat fifth.
Though neither has as strong a projected OBP as the four guys at the top of the order, both Kepler and Garver do project to walk often. That could make the seventh slot in the order an effective second cleanup hitter—a hitter who sees a huge number of runners on base when they step to the plate and is tasked with driving them in. That makes it a cozy fit for Eddie Rosario, whom the system projects to slug .506 and be solidly above-average, despite (surprise, surprise) a very low projected walk rate.
Conspicuous in his absence, to this point, has been Jorge Polanco, whom PECOTA projects to be the eighth-best hitter on the 2020 Twins. Even so, the system views him as a very well-rounded hitter, with a solid walk rate, very good strikeout rate, modest power and a solid BABIP. Almost any other team in the league would be thrilled to have a batter of Polanco’s quality, with his balanced skill set, even at the top of its order. Of course, all signs (from last season, and from the team’s remarks this winter) point toward Polanco hitting much higher than this, but if the lineup were constructed purely to maximize expected runs scored, he’d bat eighth.
That leaves Byron Buxton, for whom batting ninth will be neither a surprise nor an insult. PECOTA only foresees an 86 DRC+ for Buxton, making him the weak link in a lineup that otherwise ranges from 152 down to 106. Given his power (when Polanco is on in front of him) and his speed, however, Buxton can be a dynamic weapon, even without being an overall monster. Having his speed at the bottom of the order, especially, could catalyze the lineup for the next round—though PECOTA projects just a .288 OBP, which is why he has to remain down there.
A few caveats are necessary here. Firstly, of course, there is friction to some of these potential decisions, and that friction is likely to prevent them all from coming to pass. It’s hard to imagine Rosario and Polanco as the seventh and eighth hitters. Secondly, PECOTA does not code for or build its projections around handedness, so it can’t help us shake up the lineup based on the handedness or skill set of opposing starters. The projections are also vulnerable to error if the usage pattern of a particular player changes in an important way, for the same reason. It’s worth noting, in addition to all of that, that batting order doesn’t matter all that much, so fans shouldn’t take up torches and pitchforks if Kepler or Polanco break up the top of the batting order in some way not captured here.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that (like many old and beloved baseball practices and customs) the back-of-the-envelope lineup has been rendered somewhat obsolete. Modern lineups are typically highly fluid and modular, and the Twins’ lineup fits those descriptors even better than most. Marwin González, Alex Avila, and others will rotate into the lineup often, changing the optimal alignment of it, even without accounting for injuries or slumps. However, especially with Donaldson on board, it’s still great fun to dream on the set lineup this team could run out on a regular basis throughout 2020.
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