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Building a batting order for the 2015 Rays

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks the first day of real baseball. Sure it's Spring Training baseball, but those are the Tampa Bay Rays on the field playing a team that is not some minor-league squad. Baseball is here.

So let's build ourselves a lineup.

What We Know

There are only two expectations for the coming season. We know that Evan Longoria prefers batting third in the line up, which we will discuss further down the page, and we know that Kevin Cash plans to drop Desmond Jennings out of the lead-off position. And that's about it.

There's also historical items. Asdrubal Cabrera has a long history of batting second, and John Jaso enjoyed a good deal of success batting near the top of the lineup with the Athletics. The Rays have long deployed Longo fourth. With all that in mind, let's roll.

Lineup

In order to make this work, I'm going to have to make a few assumptions. Based on players' option status, I'm going with the 25-man roster that enables the Rays to keep the most guys in their organization the longest, with the one caveat of promoting Steven Souza to start the season.

C: Rene Rivera, Curt Casali

INF: James Loney, Asdrubal Cabrera, Nick Franklin, Evan Longoria, Logan Forsythe

OF: Steven Souza, Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, John Jaso, David DeJesus, Brandon Guyer

Now what do we do with all these players?

The Book

Every discussion about building a batting order should start with Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin's study on the importance of each batter, which can be found in The Book.

The basic strategy, as savvy readers will already know, is to bat the most important hitters in the lineup second and fourth. The research shows that the best balance between getting your top hitters more plate appearances and the getting them the highest-leverage plate appearances (meaning with runners already on base) occurs in these two slots.

For the same reasons, the cleanup and leadoff hitters are considered more important in a standard lineup than whoever is hitting third. I was not always convinced that third is a less-important spot than fourth, but some research by R.J. Anderson persuaded me.

Put these rankings together, and your batting order by talent looks like this:

4, 2, 5, 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9

It can occasionally be correct to bat your worst hitter eighth and the expected eighth hitter ninth, in order to set the table for the good hitters at the top of the rotation, and that traditionally comes into play when the pitcher is hitting, or you have Jose Molina.

The Book isn't Gospel

The difference in run expectancy between a fully optimized lineup and a slightly inefficient lineup is incredibly small. This means that playing it by The Book isn't necessarily the right choice, if it will hurt the team in other areas. To demonstrate, I've constructed a lineup by The Book for each handedness of opposing pitcher.

These lineups use a expected platoon splits, as generated by a tool developed by Ian Malinowski and Jason Hanselman, that incorporates Bojan Kopravica's splits regression research. The numbers are currently built off Steamer projections.

No. Pos. Player Hand
Proj. wOBA
vs. RHP
1 RF Steven Souza R .318
2 3B Evan Longoria R .333
3 LF David DeJesus L .317
4 DH John Jaso L .338
5 1B James Loney L .324
6 SS Nick Franklin S .309
7 CF Kevin Kiermaier L .309
8 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .303
9 C Rene Rivera R .282
BN Desmond Jennings R .304
BN Brandon Guyer R .299
BN Logan Forsythe R .283
BN Curt Casali R .272

I think you can see the problems here. It is extremely unlikely that Desmond Jennings is sitting on the bench very often, just as it is unlikely for James Loney to do the same, even if the numbers on offense suggest it as a possibility.

The Rays value both run creation and run prevention, so taking two of the team's better fielders off the field for marginal offensive gains isn't going to happen.

No. Pos. Player Hand
Proj. wOBA
vs. LHP
1 LF Brandon Guyer R .320
2 RF Steven Souza R .341
3 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .315
4 3B Evan Longoria R .358
5 CF Desmond Jennings R .330
6 DH Logan Forsythe R .311
7 C Rene Rivera R .303
8 1B John Jaso L .292
9 SS Nick Franklin S .286
BN Curt Casali R .289
BN James Loney L .285
BN David DeJesus L .275
BN Kevin Kiermaier L .273

Another defensive alignment could have Jaso in the outfield, as big man Souza has ability to cover at first base.

Raise your hand if you really think John Jaso will be playing left field against lefties. Put your hands down, everyone. No he won't.

Trusting the Gut

Let's ignore the statistical optimization for a second to see where we land. If the star player on the Rays prefers to bat third in the order, should we hold him back? Will batting him in a position he feels less comfortable make him perform worse?

Furthermore, where do guys like Asdrubal Cabrera and Steven Souza Jr. fit?

As a switch-hitting solid-contact guy, Cabrera profiles as a traditional number two hitter in the lineup, who can avoid the strikeout and move a speedy leadoff man over to scoring position. Steven Souza, on the other hand, looks to be a much-needed source of power. Those guys traditionally hit in the middle of the order where they can provide protection for each other.

John Jaso, meanwhile, belongs near the top of the order as a strong offensive presence with on-base skills. But if you bat him at the top of the lineup, you're losing out on the speed that's traditionally valued there. But if the Rays drop him down in the lineup, they lose plate appearances for one of their best bats.

In the all-gut lineup, Cabrera's better baserunning wins him the leadoff position, despite his less-than-ideal recent OBP, while Jaso fills the second spot against righties, and it falls on James Loney to provide lineup protection, as he often has in his time with the Rays.

Lastly, let's treat the ninth spot as a second leadoff spot, and fill it with speed, while keeping the catcher eighth.

No. Pos. Player Hand
Proj. wOBA
vs. RHP
1 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .303
2 DH John Jaso L .338
3 3B Evan Longoria R .333
4 RF Steven Souza R .318
5 1B James Loney L .324
6 SS Nick Franklin S .309
7 CF Kevin Kiermaier L .309
8 C Rene Rivera R .282
9 LF Desmond Jennings R .304
BN David DeJesus L .317
BN Brandon Guyer R .299
BN Logan Forsythe R .283
BN Curt Casali R .272

The struggle here is pulling David DeJesus from the line up, but if we the current roster construction and priorities for top defense in the outfield, and if Souza makes the roster from day one, then we're left with the above.

Playing the same game with left handed batting and striving to maintain consistency with the lineup, as Kevin Cash has indicated will be a priority in his clubhouse, my gut arrives at the following:

No. Pos. Player Hand
Proj. wOBA
vs. LHP
1 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .315
2 CF Desmond Jennings R .330
3 3B Evan Longoria R .358
4 RF Steven Souza R .341
5 LF Brandon Guyer R .320
6 DH Logan Forsythe R .311
7 1B James Loney L .285
8 C Rene Rivera R .303
9 SS Nick Franklin S .286
BN John Jaso L .292
BN Curt Casali R .289
BN David DeJesus L .275
BN Kevin Kiermaier L .273

But I don't manage the Tampa Bay Rays.

Kevin Cash does. So how does all of this jive with the first lineup he built?

Spring Training Indications

Today is the first Spring Training game of the season, so we have a real lineup to look at.

Setting positions aside, we have Jaso-Cabrera-Longoria grouped to gether, but in the to 2-3-4 spots of the lineup. How likely is that to continue during the regular season?

You might think it's too early to read anything into it, but we do have these details courtesy of Marc Topkin's morning column:

3B Evan Longoria will hit fourth, with INF Asdrubal Cabrera in front of him and 1B James Loney behind him, and that appears to be the plan for the regular season, albeit with OF Desmond Jennings fifth at times.

Longoria has preferred the No. 3 slot, but after talking with new manager Kevin Cash and team officials he said he will willingly hit cleanup.

"I've always said, and as far back as when Joe (Maddon) was here, if that's what makes the lineup better, if that's what gives us the best chance to win on a nightly basis, then I'll hit wherever you ask me to hit," Longoria said. "They feel that the way our lineup shapes up that that's the best way, and I agree with that."

So it seems the Rays agree with Tango and Co. and the aforementioned Anderson research: batting fourth is simply the best place for your best hitter.

Then there's the matter of leadoff. Cabrera's speed might have some advantages, but if he's aged out of his position at shortstop (as may or may not be the case), then perhaps he's aged out of his above-average baserunning as well. You know who hasn't lost speed yet? Steven Souza.

So in the short term, I certainly see immediate benefits in allowing Souza to hit at the top of the lineup, and slotting Longoria into the fourth spot in the order. Here's how that plays out against each handedness:

No. Pos. Player Hand
Proj. wOBA
vs. RHP
1 RF Steven Souza R .318
2 DH John Jaso L .338
3 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .303
4 3B Evan Longoria R .333
5 1B James Loney L .324
6 SS Nick Franklin S .309
7 CF Kevin Kiermaier L .309
8 LF Desmond Jennings R .304
9 C Rene Rivera R .282
BN David DeJesus L .317
BN Brandon Guyer R .299
BN Logan Forsythe R .283
BN Curt Casali R .272

Now let's put a similar spin on facing southpaws, and try to keep the lineup as consistent as we can.

To get Brandon Guyer into the lineup, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the Rays would be willing to platoon first base between Steven Souza and James Loney. I do not think that is likely, but it does sneak Brandon Guyer into the lineup and gives us the following.

No. Pos. Player Hand
Proj. wOBA
vs. LHP
1 CF Desmond Jennings R .330
2 1B Steven Souza R .341
3 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .315
4 3B Evan Longoria R .358
5 RF Brandon Guyer R .320
6 DH Logan Forsythe R .311
7 C Rene Rivera R .303
8 LF John Jaso L .292
9 SS Nick Franklin S .286
BN Curt Casali R .289
BN James Loney L .285
BN David DeJesus L .275
BN Kevin Kiermaier L .273

Well that just doesn't look right at all.

All of this is not close to final, if Guyer or DeJesus is traded in the near future, then it's likely another piece like Tim Beckham is added to the mix and changes our lineup expectations. However, if there is one takeaway, it's that this process exposes some weaknesses in the Rays offense when facing southpaws. I'm sure we'll dig into that more this Spring.

Putting that aside, which strategy do you think is best for the 2015 Rays? Vote below!