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MLB Trade Deadline: Lineup Spot & Team Opportunity Impact

The trade deadline unofficially was kicked off on Sunday, when the Rays acquired Nelson Cruz and the Padres nabbed Adam Frazier. Fantasy managers will always be quick to scrutinize trades through the lens of fantasy - and that's good, we should be looking for any edge we can find. However, it's possible that we sometimes overstate the environmental changes in terms of how much impact they have on statistical production.

In NBA and NFL, the context of the team you play on makes a big difference. You see mediocre players go to a different team where they blossom into an elite fantasy contributor because their new team makes them more conducive to fantasy output. This is still true in baseball but to a smaller degree.

I wanted to take a look into the 2021 data and see how "environmental changes" affect fantasy output. By "environmental change", I just mean going to a new team and/or spot in the lineup. Let's take a look.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball waiver wire pickups and weekly lineup resources:

 

Lineup Spot

You will hear a lot of talk about how a player will be hitting in a new spot in the order after joining their new team. That will lead to speculation about how it will affect their statistical production (namely runs and RBI, and also walk rate in some situations).

For the last couple years, I've been compiling a dataset that collects every box score generated from MLB games. In this dataset, I have marked down what spot in the lineup each hitter was in that game. That's given me the ability to generate insights about each spot in the lineup. Here's a table with the most relevant results that I've chosen for this piece:

I left out the ninth spot in the lineup because that gets really skewed with pitchers taking up about half the plate appearances in that spot. It's also unlikely that any of the fantasy-relevant players being traded have hit in that spot or will in the near future.

Plate Appearances

You see that for every spot you drop in the lineup, you lose between 0.11 and 0.14 plate appearances per game. The differences get wider as you get towards the bottom of the lineup, because those spots are pinch-hit for more often, and my data was using player stats rather than just lineup spot stats. But a good rule of thumb is just to subtract 0.12 plate appearances per slot.

What does that equate to? Well, each team has played right around 100 games, leaving 60 or so left. That means you can expect about seven fewer plate appearances for the rest of this season for each lineup spot demotion.

Let's take the most pertinent example, Adam Frazier. Frazier had been in the lead-off spot for 413 of his 428 plate appearances with the Pirates. He is unlikely to hit there for the Padres. If he would hit in the seventh spot for the rest of the year (this is somewhat likely, I think), that would take him down from 4.48 PA/G to 3.78 PA/G, a drop of 0.7 PA/G, which would cost him 42 plate appearances over the rest of the season with the Padres.

Now the fact that the Padres are a better lineup and get more plate appearances reduces that expectation a bit, and his hits are likely to result in more runs and RBI given the more talented hitters around him, but it certainly won't make up for all of that lost opportunity. Dropping that far in the batting order is significant, and will very likely affect counting stats negatively.

Runs and RBI Rate

These two stats are more correlated to what team you're on rather than what lineup spot you hit in, and we'll get to that in a bit. However, lineup spot does make a difference on these as well.

You can see in the table that for each lineup spot, I found how many total bases a hitter has needed to score one run or drive in one run. Unsurprisingly, hitting in the lead-off spot makes it easiest to score runs. Hitters have needed just 2.679 total bases to score a run. Those numbers form a bit of a bell curve as you go down, as you see that more bases are required to score a run in the middle of the lineup before they start coming down again towards the bottom. Basically, you want to be in front of those three and four hitters who produce the most runs, and the further away you get from them, the fewer runs you can expect to score.

RBI is a mirror opposite of runs, with the lead-off spot being the worst spot for RBI and the four to five spots being the best. The first inning likely explains a lot of this, I think. The only way to get an RBI in the first at-bat of the game is with a homer, and if you're a three or four hitter batting in the first inning, there's probably already an out or two which makes it less likely for you to score a run. I would imagine that if you ignored the first inning, these numbers would all get much closer together, but of course we cannot just do that.

Walk Rate

I couldn't really control this one for individual player ability like the rest, so what you see in the table is probably not telling you much of a legitimate story. However, it is interesting that the walk rate pops up from 7.9% in the seventh spot to 8.6% in the eighth spot. That is definitely attributable to the pitcher batting directly behind about half the league's eight hitters.

Is that relevant for fantasy purposes? Probably not, but I thought it was interesting to note!

 

Team Context

Here are some of the same numbers we looked at above but broken down by team instead of lineup spot. You can sort through each column if you want.

These numbers are much more subject to change than the lineup spot numbers since we're talking much more about individual players in this space.

Let's take that Frazier example again. With the Pirates so far in 2021, it's taken 3.32 total bases per run and 3.54 per RBI. With the Padres those numbers are 2.84 and 2.99. The Pirates are dead last in that category, and the Padres are fifth in both. That will make Frazier's many singles much more valuable for fantasy purposes, especially if he hits near the top of the lineup (it's possible this is the case against right-handed pitching, but we'll see).

The best place to be for scoring and producing runs are the White Sox, Dodgers, Astros, Rays, and Padres. All five of those teams figure to be buyers this week (and two of them already were!).

Here's a quick bonus data table. This shows the average plate appearances for each lineup spot for each team this year. You can use this to compare plate appearance opportunities when a player moves to a new team and/or spot in the lineup (you can search by team abbreviation in the search box there):


So there you have it. You can use these tables for reference when more hitters are inevitably traded this week, enjoy the deadline everybody!



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