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The Year of the Superlineup

In 2016, starting pitchers have to answer a frightening question: How do you beat an offense that goes eight batters deep?

Elias Stein/Getty Images
Elias Stein/Getty Images

Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays went 40–18 after the non-waiver trade deadline. Here’s why: They put together a lineup that had the speedy Ben Revere (.354 OBP with Toronto) leading off, followed by Josh Donaldson, José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, Troy Tulowitzki, either Justin Smoak or Chris Colabello (depending on the platoon situation), then Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar, and finally Ryan Goins. That’s a good on-base guy with elite speed followed by four guys who can absolutely ruin your life, followed by two guys with power, an OK hitter and kind of a crappy hitter. Those nine obstacles are an American Ninja Warrior stage.

There’s a difference between a great lineup and a deep lineup. You can post good overall numbers and score a lot of runs on the strength of three or four good bats; the Angels are doing it this year. To give an extreme example, the 2004 Giants had a 104 OPS+ as a team despite having only a few above-average hitters. Because when one of those hitters is Barry Bonds (.362/.609/.812), it doesn’t really matter who else is in the lineup. But a deeper lineup presents a different challenge: pitchers have to bear down at all times, and rallies can start at any point. Several teams in 2016 have followed Toronto’s lead and created the latter.

While the list below is not exhaustive, let’s look at four of MLB’s best, and how you might beat a group that looks unbeatable.

Boston Red Sox

Best Lineup: Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz, Hanley Ramírez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Travis Shaw (or Aaron Hill), Brock Holt, Sandy León.

Strengths: Overall, Boston has by far the game’s best offense, sporting a 117 OPS+, which is about what Andre Dawson hit over his entire career. Want to know what it’s like to face the Red Sox? Just imagine a lineup full of Andre Dawsons. Unsurprisingly, Boston has also scored 30 more runs than any other team in baseball, thanks to a group that is both top-heavy and deep. David Ortiz, at age 40 and in his final season, is inexplicably the best hitter in baseball, while 23-year-old Xander Bogaerts has a .329/.388/.475 line, and 32-year-old Dustin Pedroia’s back up to near-peak production, with a 111 OPS+. They’re also the league’s top running team: 59-for-69 in stolen base attempts, for a stellar 85.5 percent success rate.

Weaknesses: Red Sox catchers have slugged only .355 this year, so you can attack whoever’s behind the plate, then … umm … wait until your own offense has the chance to hit off Clay Buchholz?

Boston also suffers from a pretty serious platoon split. The team as a whole hits righties and lefties about the same, but the Red Sox’s left-handed hitters lose 229 points of OPS against same-handed pitching, while righties suffer by 92 points. Bradley, for instance, is 251 points worse against lefties than righties, Shaw takes a 252-point hit, while Ortiz drops 432 points from righties (1.207 OPS) to lefties (.775). No doubt the recent acquisition of Aaron Hill is meant to give Shaw a platoon partner to at least start to remedy the situation.

The bad news for opposing teams is that Bradley and Ortiz are still league-average hitters even against lefties, and Boston on the whole still hits all pitchers well. Even left-on-left, Boston’s worst matchup on aggregate, the Sox have the 12th-best wRC+ (86) in baseball. The good news is that if you’re smart with your relief matchups late in games, you can at least blunt the tip of the spear.

Chicago Cubs

Best Lineup: Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Javier Báez, Addison Russell

Strengths: One thing you might notice about this “best lineup” is that manager Joe Maddon hasn’t actually used it yet. (Dexter Fowler went down injured before Willson Contreras came up from the minors.) But the real story is this team’s positional flexibility.

Kris Bryant’s played six positions, Javier Báez five, and Ben Zobrist three. Contreras has also played three positions, and while shortstop Addison Russell hasn’t had to play second base, he could if he wanted to. The upshot of this is that Maddon can pick his eight best hitters for each individual game — or inning, if he feels like substituting — and put them on the field regardless of position. Discovering fluidity of position revolutionized soccer in the 1970s and basketball in the past decade, and while baseball is by nature more regimented, being able to ignore defensive position when constructing a lineup is still an advantage. The other teams on this list can’t do that to the extent that Chicago can.

Once you crack this lineup open, Rizzo (.299/.416/.591) and Bryant (.286/.384/.578) have been as good as any set of teammates in the league, Zobrist (.283/.388/.467) is having his best season since 2012. Contreras (.305/.387/.561) has been off to a hot enough start that Maddon’s hit his rookie catcher cleanup 10 times in 23 games. Everyone on this team can either get on base or hit for power and about half of them can do both. The result is a National League team that beats every American League team — except Boston — in OPS+ (110) and runs scored (460).

Weaknesses: Oddly enough, it’s the team’s most expensive player, a guy with a career .351 OBP, who’s coming off two straight six-win seasons: Jason Heyward. Since his stellar rookie season in 2010, Heyward hasn’t progressed the way he was supposed to, particularly in terms of power. This year, he’s slugging only .337. He’s still got an above-average OBP, but the power’s just not there at the moment. And if Heyward’s hitting at the back of the order with some combination of Russell, Contreras, and Báez, there is a path back to relative safety for a pitcher. The Cubs’ youngsters strike out a lot — all three of those players have strikeout rates in the mid-20s, which puts them in the bottom quarter of big league hitters. Now, Russell, Contreras, and Báez all possess the power to punish mistakes, but if you’re smart and you don’t hang anything, you can get through the bottom of the Cubs’ lineup, though that only means you have to face Bryant and Rizzo again.

Washington Nationals

Best Lineup: Ben Revere, Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa

Strengths: Bryce Harper (130 wRC+) has been the third-most productive hitter in this lineup so far this year. I don’t think there are two better hitters than Harper on the planet right now, but sticking him between Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos has turned into a bonanza of runs scored for Murphy and a bonanza of RBIs for Ramos. With the exception of Zimmerman, who’s been hurt on and off, and Revere, who’s followed up his outstanding stretch run in Toronto with a .268 OBP so far this year, everyone in this lineup typically hits for average and power, and you have to imagine that Zimmerman and Rendon (who has a 100 wRC+ this season after finishing fifth in MVP voting two years ago) will improve as the year goes on.

Weaknesses: Dusty Baker. It’s tough to complain about the improvement from Matt Williams’s Flying Circus last year to Baker’s more professional, less throat-grabby outfit this year. That said, Revere — who’s been bad enough on his own to drag the Nationals’ aggregate wRC+ below average — has led off 50 times, and fellow center fielder Michael Taylor (69 wRC+) has led off 30 more times. That not only puts Washington’s worst hitters in line to hit the most, it often brings that amazing 3–4–5 of Murphy, Harper, and Ramos to the plate with one more empty base and one more out on the scoreboard. Lineup construction doesn’t usually make or break a team, but this is an extreme case. Putting Trea Turner in the lineup full-time, bumping Revere down to eighth, and moving Werth — who at age 37 can at least still get on base — to leadoff would put Murphy and Harper in a position to hit with men on base more frequently.

Texas Rangers

Best Lineup: Shin-Soo Choo, Ian Desmond, Nomar Mazara, Adrián Beltré, Prince Fielder, Rougned Odor, Jurickson Profar, Elvis Andrus, Robinson Chirinos

Strengths: Power. Considering that the Rangers’ best lineup includes four guys who came up as middle infielders, you might not think that, but even the little guys have some pop. The team leader in home runs is Odor, who’s listed at 5-foot-11 because he’s a liar. Chirinos, ostensibly this lineup’s light-hitting catcher, is slugging .493 and has a career isolated power of .188. And beyond the contributions from Ian Desmond and a handful of other stars, what makes Texas particularly tough to pitch to is Elvis Andrus. He has always been a good defensive shortstop, but he’s never been a good hitter. This year, however, Andrus is hitting .294/.349/.422, which is pretty good for anyone at any position. Rather than relying on his teammates to carry his iffy bat, Andrus is now a true positive, which means manager Jeff Banister can take his lineup seven or eight quality bats deep.

Weaknesses: It hurts to say this, but Prince Fielder. Ever since they started getting good in 2010, the Rangers have scored runs in bunches despite getting very little production from first base and DH. Mitch Moreland is at least providing power, but Fielder continues to hit in the middle of the order despite hitting like, well, Ben Revere. A DH who hits .216/.296/.343 just won’t cut it, and Fielder’s presence is doubly harmful because he’s keeping either Ryan Rua (.272/.350/.457) or 22-year-old horse-man Joey Gallo out of the lineup. It’s incredibly easy to find at least an average hitter to DH, and the Rangers already have one, but their deference to a veteran on a big contract has prevented them from using him.