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Ozzie Smith in a modern-day batting lineup

Updated: Mar 21, 2018

An internet rabbit-hole led me to Bob Keegan's 1957 no-hitter for the Chicago White Sox, which led me to observe that Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio led off that afternoon for the victors even though he had an OPS barely north of .600 that season. Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, and Larry Doby were all good-to-great hitters and they were all batting behind Aparicio. Not that this was unusual. Even though Aparicio was inducted into Cooperstown primarily on the strength of his glove, he batted near the top of the order a lot. In fact, 86 percent of Aparicio's 11,230 career plate appearances came from the lead-off spot or as the number two hitter. Aparicio retired with a .653 OPS.

It's silly to look back on a game that happened over 60 years ago and be surprised that it wasn't played exactly the same way as today. That caveat aside, not having one of your worst hitters in an optimal lineup spot seems, I dunno, kind of obvious? But things were different back then. If you could bat at least .250, and were skinny and fast (Aparicio was listed at 160lb and stole over 500 bases), the conventional wisdom was that you should be near the top of the lineup.

And another reason we shouldn't expect a game from 60 years ago to look like the game today is because games from 30 years ago looked remarkably different. Hell, games from probably ten years ago even. We know this because the Cardinals had their own better version of Luis Aparicio. They had Ozzie Smith.

Similar to Aparicio, 75 percent of Ozzie's 10,778 career plate appearances were from one of the two top spots in the lineup. It's true that Ozzie was a better hitter than Aparicio, but not by much. He retired in 1996 with a .666 OPS, and a 90 wRC+, compared to 83 for Aparicio. His value was obviously elsewhere. Ozzie ranks 56th all-time by FanGraphs' WAR metric for position players and not a single player in front of him has a career wRC+ under 100. It takes a bit of time to find a player under 100 behind him, too. You have to drop exactly 100 spots to number 156 where you'll find Jimmy Rollins and his career wRC+ of 95. So to reiterate this point, Ozzie's defense was so good, he remains the most valuable position player in baseball history by a mile for below-average hitters.

Because the game has changed though, and we're currently in a data-driven age in which books have been written on lineup optimization, it's fair to conclude that if Ozzie was on the 2018 Cardinals he would not be batting in the first or second spot (unless, of course, #Mathenaging). But for the sake of wasting time, let's say prime Ozzie and not Paul DeJong was in line to be the starting shortstop this season, where would he bat?

Save for one forgettable season in 1990, it's worth noting that during his prime seasons, Ozzie wasn't the slouch at the plate that some people might think he was. From 1984-1992, Ozzie hit .278/.360/.348, with a wRC+ of 103. Certainly you can take a look at the slugging and see that he didn't hit a lot of home runs during that stretch (16, in fact!), but he did a pretty good job of getting on base by taking 2.14 walks for every strike out. I wouldn't want a player who is pretty much a zero home run threat to get the most plate appearances, and I think I share that opinion with most everyone, but if a manager decided to bat Ozzie leadoff in 2018 it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world from an on-base standpoint.

Still, I think I would construct the lineup like this:

1. Fowler (S)

2. Pham (R)

3. Carpenter (L)

4. Ozuna (R)

5. Ozzie (S)

6. Gyorko (R)

7. Molina (R)

8. Wong (L)

Some have argued to put your fourth best hitter in the fifth spot, and Ozzie is not the fourth best hitter here, but, and I expect some push-back here, I like the idea of a moderately-high OBP guy setting the table in the middle of the lineup for moderately-high power guys like Gyorko, and to a lesser extent Molina. His switch-hitting would help the Cardinals with their platoon problem, too. Whatever the case, you can bat Ozzie anywhere and I'd be giddy just at the idea of him and Wong turning slick double plays.

Last thing, Matt Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus wrote the following about Omar Vizquel last November in his worthwhile newsletter Penning Bull, the crux of which was that Vizquel was perhaps being undervalued in the hysteric lead-up to the vote on his Hall of Fame candidacy:

Another thing happening is that Vizquel racked up a bunch of negative offensive value during his career that isn’t his fault. Only four players in baseball history have batted at least 6,000 times from the second spot in the batting order: Derek Jeter, Nellie Fox, Smith, and Vizquel. For so much of baseball history, the most important spot in the batting order has been assigned to players who weren’t qualified for it, and Vizquel is by far the most prominent example. If he’d batted ninth every day for those juggernaut Indians teams of the 1990s, as he ought to have, he’d have about three more wins on each of his WAR totals, just on the basis of having batted so much less often.

Same thing is true with Ozzie. Aparicio, too. Had Ozzie batted further down the lineup, be that fifth or even lower, he might have accrued more actual value from a WAR standpoint because he wouldn't have been dinged as much for all those years he was a below average hitter. (Although take a look at some of those dreadful Cardinals lineups circa 1990 and maybe that changes the analysis a bit.) Frankly, none of this is a huge deal as lineups themselves aren't a huge deal, and Ozzie Smith on the 2018 Cardinals is just a made-up fantasy so I can write a bunch of words, anyway. So consider all of this just another example of the evolution of the game, and the need for real baseball to begin so I'll have less of an excuse to write about Cardinals who retired over twenty years ago.

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