12 February 2012
So, as you can obviously see, I decided to test this. Before I report the numbers, here was a little bit about my method. First, I figured that Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, and Jhonny Peralta shouldn't be part of this discussion. They each have defined roles, and there really isn't a debate that they should be in the lineup as much as possible (Avila, of course, will need periodic rest, but that's really a one-to-one situation with Gerald Laird that isn't part of this discussion). For everyone else, there's either a debate about whether they're the best option at the position (Ryan Raburn vs. Ramon Santiago at second base, for example), or if they're a good candidate to fill the DH spot on occasion.
For defense, I selected a UZR/150 for each player. In most cases this was their career average at each position, but in some situations where defense is obviously on the decline (Brandon Inge, for example), I used the most recent couple of years. I came up with the following list:
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For offense, I used the last three years of wRAA (weighted runs above average) versus lefties and righties for each player, and normalized it to a per plate appearance rate. I figured a total of 50 games (200 plate appearances) versus left handed starters and 100 games (400 plate appearances) versus right handed starters, because (1) it made things nice and easy, and (2) to allow for 12 somewhat random lineups. I also estimated that 3/4 of the plate appearances would come against the handedness of the starter, and 1/4 would come against opposite-handedness (to acount for some variety of relief pitching).
Here's what I came up with as the most optimum starting lineups (listed with runs above average). I'm pretty much ignoring Andy Dirks as an option versus lefties. He hit well in only 31 plate appearances last year, but that's not good enough to really get a handle on his true talent versus southpaws (he hit much worse in over 200 PAs versus righties). I'll show every combimation that I came up with that is within five runs (half a win) of optimum.
Versus Left Handed Starters (50 games)
These were clearly the two best lineups. Moving Cabrera to third and inserting Delmon Young at DH came out to 34.5 runs, which was good for third best. Also interesting to note that playing Raburn at second base (instead of Santiago) and Delmon in the outfield in either of the two above tables would result in the loss of nearly 10 runs (that's a full win in only 50 games!).
Versus Right Handed Starters (100 games)
The next best lineup option against righties that's not included would be using Raburn at DH and allowing Dirks to play in the outfield with Boesch. This lineup projects to be 50.3 runs above average. Using Delmon Young as the DH is fifth best, at 48.8 runs.
The unfortunate thing in all of this is not only is it sub-optimal to play Delmon in the outfield, but it's sub-optimal to play him with any regulator at all (and they decided to bring him back at $6.5 million!?). It wouldn't be the worst thing ever to use him at DH every now and then in order to keep everyone happy (no one is volunteering for the full-tim DH role), but probably not more than 50 games or so (and even that feels like pushing it a lot).
Surprising to me was how good it actually looks to put Brandon Inge in the game. It's the obvious move versus lefties, but it's probablly optimal against righties too (I'll admit I've been wrong about this). No, Inge isn't particularly good, but the haters are probably wrong about him needing to be cut (although, using three years of hitting data probably skews his numbers against righties a bit high, so feel free to knock those lineups down a couple of runs).
After looking at all of this, my recommendation would be to: split the DH duties between Cabrera and Fielder aganst lefties -- approximately 25 games apiece. DH Brennan Boesch 50 times against right handed pitchers, DH Cabrera and Fielder about 10 times each against righties, and DH Young about 30 times versus righties. Use the remaining 12 games to give guys "a day off". Also, never use Raburn at second base ahead of Santiago, and never use Delmon Young in the outfield ahead of Raburn, Dirks, or Boesch. Finally, I can't really find a good use for Don Kelly -- he just doesn't hit well enough to ever deserve a starting spot.
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.