Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 5: Lineups, Runs and RBI

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To this point, this column has focused exclusively on trying to predict and validate HRs and batting average. There is a reason for this--modern sabermetrics tend to reject the idea of a "clutch RBI guy" and therefore do not bother inventing predictive metrics for it. Runs and RBI are team dependent stats, and are unhelpful in ascertaining a given player's real value.

That might work for stat heads, but fantasy owners frequently see 40 percent or more of a player's value tied to his RBI and run totals. We have to care about them. Drafting hitters from strong offenses can help pad the totals, but an even bigger advantage can be found by looking at a player's slot in the batting order.

In the table below, each batting order slot's PAs, RBI, and Runs are presented from the 2015 season. The final number is simply R + RBI, an approximate measure of that slot's overall value to a fantasy team.

Slot      PAs         RBI      R           RBI+R

1ST     22,469    1,870    2,924   4,794

2ND    21,913    2,222    2,844   5,066

3RD    21,435    2,760    2,723   5,483

4TH   20,957    2,949    2,549   5,498

5TH   20,472    2,568    2,260   4,828

6TH   19,971     2,158    2,046   4,204

7TH   19,404    1,956    1,891    3,847

8TH   18,810    1,748    1,806    3,554

9TH   18,196    1,423    1,604    3,027

Each batting order slot loses around 500 PAs compared to the slot before it. If we divide this total by the 30 current MLB clubs, we get a difference of around 17 PAs between consecutive hitters on one team. That may seem insignificant, but it compounds. For example, there is an average of 34 PAs separating a team's leadoff man from the three hitter. Counting stats like Runs and RBI require opportunity to accumulate, and hitters earlier in the batting order have more opportunity. Bear this in mind when comparing similarly skilled players on draft day.

RBI are highest from the cleanup spot, and trend downward in both directions from there. Leadoff hitters only get more RBI than the eighth and ninth spots despite the largest PA total. This is because they never have runners on base before their first PA of the game, and need to rely on the weaker 8 and 9-hitters to get on in front of them after that. Since good hitters are usually clustered early in the order to maximize their PAs, leadoff men get minimal help from their teammates in producing RBI.

Runs peak at the leadoff slot and decrease from there. This decrease is not linear, as only 80 runs separate the first and second spots while 289 separate fourth and fifth. For this reason, fantasy owners want to stick to the early batting order slots where teams cluster their best hitters if possible. Leadoff guys have the most opportunity and the team's best hitters hitting behind them, so they score a lot of runs for the same reason they do not register many RBI.

Finally, the R+RBI column refutes the idea that a team's heart of the order is 3-4-5. It is actually 2-3-4, the only lineup slots to exceed 5,000 combined R+RBI. The leadoff spot is also desirable for its Runs, while the 5th is only okay and the others weak. This means that a player in the middle of a weaker offense may outproduce a player on the periphery of a stronger one. Platoons, injuries and lineup shuffling can change these numbers, but in general the earlier the slot, the better for fantasy purposes.

The only counting stat left is stolen bases. A player's success rate must hover around 70% to keep the green light, as otherwise he is costing his team runs overall. Players that consistently fail to reach this benchmark, such as Starlin Castro (50% in 2015, 62.5% career), are poor bets to steal a lot even if they've swiped 20 in the past.

To conclude, counting stat production depends on opportunity and team support. Players that bat early in the order tend to get more of both, though leadoff men give up RBI potential for increased runs scored. This concludes the offensive portion of learning to use sabermetrics for fantasy purposes. Next time, we'll move to the mound and try to understand what the heck FIP is, and why it sometimes has an x in front of it.


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