Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On hitting Buxton ninth

It took Byron Buxton 10.7 seconds to go home-to-third
on his eighth-inning triple Monday night.

Bill James once observed that there are more than 269 quadrillion possible lineup combinations out of a 25-man roster -- 741 billion possible sets of nine players out of the 25, and 362,880 options for batting order for each of the 741 billion. And that's not getting into defensive alignments.

The numbers start shrinking once you start ruling out having Trevor May, Glen Perkins and Mike Pelfrey in the lineup together, of course. But 269 quadrillion is a humbling number. Writes James (in his Guide to Baseball Managers):

The first point to make ... is that we can never really be sure what the optimal lineup is. The number of options is so large that it overpowers even the largest and most sophisticated computers. The only way to approach the problem is by whittling down the theoretically possible selections into those which seem reasonable, and then evaluating what seem to be the prime alternatives.

On Monday night, Paul Molitor hit his pitcher (May) eighth and Byron Buxton ninth. Buxton, of course, is as highly regarded a prospect as they come; May appears to be about as good a major-league hitter as I would be. Yet Molitor had reasons for putting Buxton ninth, and I assume those reasons will prevail again today at the Twins wrap up this visit to a National League venue.

The day will come when we look back on Buxton's arrival and laugh at the idea of hitting him ninth, But right here, right now, Molitor has two missions: Win games, and break Buxton into the majors. He calculates that he serves both by playing Buxton but limiting his exposure to major league pitching. And until Buxton starts recognizing breaking pitches out of the zone and laying off them, Molitor is absolutely right. (Buxton's triple Monday came on a fast ball, and I bet he doesn't see a fast ball strike this afternoon.)

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