Lineup analysis is usually banal so I tend to avoid it, but this is one of the few times I will belabor a point about an aspect that is not necessarily broke, just not completely efficient.
Evan Longoria is the Rays’ best hitter. In order to maximize his offensive talents, the ideal scenario is for him to come up with less than two outs and runners on base. Since baseball is a turn game, teams really can only control for whom bats in an inning during the first. As such, the Rays should take to batting Longoria fourth. Not for a little while either, but permanently.
This is not just a theory either, as the numbers support it. Not some fancy numbers either, but basic facts and ratios. Take all of Longoria’s first inning plate appearances while batting third and fourth and break them down by base-out state. The results will look something like this:
While batting third, Longoria comes up to empty bases 54% of the time and two outs roughly 50% of the time while always batting in the first. Batting fourth, those percentages shift to 7.2% and 59% while batting in the first less often. Runners are in scoring position only 24.4% of the time when Longoria comes up while batting third, whereas they are in scoring position 59.1% of the time he comes up when batting cleanup. In more concise terms: Longoria may bat less in the first inning while hitting cleanup, yet when he does bat in the first, those at-bats will hold more meaning and should leverage his skill set better.
It is difficult to find downside with Longoria batting fourth. When he does come up with the bases empty and two outs in the first, it means the Rays already have a run on the board. If Longoria comes up and fails with men on and two outs then the inning ends, as it would with him batting third. Longoria reaching with nobody out in the second inning also ups his likelihood of scoring versus reaching with two outs in the first as well.
Perhaps the only negative externality in making the move is costing Longoria 18 plate appearances over the duration of a season. Otherwise, it seems like the smart approach to take.
Update: I’ve added these two charts to help clear up some confusion:
Basically, Longoria comes up with nobody out a little more often (and with two outs a little less often), as well as with the bases empty slightly less often. Those are overall numbers as well, not just the first or second inning.
The second chart shows his plate appearance breakdown by inning. He’s coming to the plate in the first a little less often (which is a given, since the third place hitter always comes to the plate during the first inning) and he’s also coming up more often in the eighth and ninth innings, albeit with a little less shine in the seventh. Depending on who you’d rather face the other team’s best relievers, that’s probably a good thing.
I’d also add that this is empirical data and the percentages are unlikely to repeat exactly heading forward. Even if Ben Zobrist (or whomever bats second) replaces Carl Crawford’s production for the most part, there’s still going to be factors that change the percentages — stolen bases and triples, for instance.