In one of the most influential books in the field of advanced analytics in baseball The Book: Playing the Percentages written by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin, one of the topics covered was optimal lineup construction.
Your three best hitters should bat somewhere in the #1, #2, and #4 slots. Your fourth- and fifth-best hitters should occupy the #3 and #5 slots. The #1 and #2 slots will have players with more walks than those in the #4 and #5 slots. From slot #6 through #9, put the players in descending order of quality.
So how did the Rays deploy their lineup?
1st: .273/.361/.509 142 wRC+
2nd: .255/.330/.439 115 wRC+
3rd: .210/.299/.346 81 wRC+
4th: .276/.352/.481 131 wRC+
5th: .240/.319/.404 103 wRC+
6th: .242/.330/.418 110 wRC+
7th: .223/.285/.428 97 wRC+
8th: .244/.303/.459 110 wRC+
9th: .215/.301/.366 90 wRC+
The Rays most productive hitters hit first and fourth. They were the most productive leadoff hitters in the game by wRC+ and the fourth spot ranked third. Next comes the number two hitter. So the Rays did great by putting their best hitters in the #1, 2, and 4 spots in the lineup.
The Rays lineup stayed productive down to the 9th spot in the lineup, but the line that sticks out the most is the Rays third hitter had the worst production in the lineup. When batting third, the results were lean. Nelson Cruz (.229/.299/.466, 106 wRC+ over 148 plate appearances), Austin Meadows (.085/.200/.094, -9 wRC+ over 135 plate appearances), and Wander Franco (.252/.306/.409, 101 wRC+ over 124 plate appearances) were the three players who had over 100 plate appearances batting third.
Cruz and Franco weren’t great but they were fine. It comes down to the underperformance of Meadows. In the 465 plate appearances where Meadows wasn’t batting third, he was the team’s best hitter putting up a .277/.349/.564 line and 148 wRC+. Part of this is due to Meadows batting third a significant amount of time against left-handed pitchers. 70.4% of his plate appearances while batting third came against left-handed pitchers compared to 20.2% of his plate appearances while hitting anywhere else in the lineup. The results weren’t expected to be this bad even with a large platoon split, but it is what we observed that tanked the results for the team batting third.
Franco was also protected a bit by hitting him third when he was first called up. It is an important spot in the lineup but not as important as the #1, 2, or 4 hitter. Once the Rays acquired Cruz he was penciled into the #2 spot where he hit .330/.390/.509 and put up a 152 wRC+ over 123 plate appearances.
The Rays philosophy looks to be to put a good hitter at #3 but one that doesn’t have a good matchup that would promote them to the #1, 2, or 4 spots in the lineup. The Rays have taken this to the extreme especially against left-handed starters where Meadows or Brandon Lowe take the disadvantageous matchup most days.