Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and Torii Hunter (left to right) make up the top three in a dangerous Tigers lineup.
If a baseball lineup is like a puzzle, consider this the picture on the front of the box.
Every puzzle needs a point of reference to see how the pieces should fit, and that's what's laid out here.
Along with each position in the batting order—one through nine—comes an ideal approach or criteria that would come together to form the perfect lineup. This is spelled out below in bullet form.
Once the pieces are clearly defined and the puzzle is in place, the next step is to suggest the major league team that most closely fits the formula.
Since the point here is to focus on hitters, there will be no pitcher spot, because, well, no one likes to watch pitchers hit anyway.
The Perfect Lineup
- Gets on base via both plate discipline and contact skills
- Smart baserunner
- Possesses above-average speed
No. 2 Hitter
- Patient approach to get on base and allow leadoff man to steal, if needed
- Knows how to act as a leadoff hitter if No. 1 hitter fails to get on
- High contact rate and strong bat control, including hitting behind runner and with two strikes
No. 3 Hitter
- Best hitter on team
- Hits for both high average and power
- Focuses on waiting for and driving his pitch and does not expand zone
No. 4 Hitter
- Second-best hitter on team
- Hits for more power than No. 3 hitter but should be able to hit for average, too
- Ideally hits from opposite side of plate as either No. 3 or No. 5 hitter
No. 5 Hitter
- Primarily a power bat
- Aggressive yet disciplined approach to put ball in play with runners in scoring position
- Fly-ball tendencies
No. 6 Hitter
- On-base type willing to either work count and draw walks or sell out for home runs
- Potentially the DH
No. 7 Hitter
- High contact rate
- Line-drive tendencies
- Ideally a switch-hitter to prevent/present matchup problems late in games
No. 8 Hitter
- Aggressive approach with No. 9 hitter on deck
- Smart, quick baserunner who can get into scoring position once lineup turns over
No. 9 Hitter
- Likes to take pitches and make pitcher work
- Can make contact to pressure defense instead of being automatic strikeout
- Ability to bunt when needed
While it's feasible to construct the ideal batting order in theory, it's impossible to do so in real life. For one thing, lineups are prone to change frequently based on matchups, injuries and hot streaks. For another, not every team has eight or nine regular everyday starting players to begin with.
That said, which MLB team comes closest to meeting the criteria defined above?
The Tigers actually have a very settled order, as the first five spots are almost always the same and there's only minimal variation from No. 6 through 9. What's more, there's a good variety of approaches (contact vs. power, patient vs. aggressive, ground ball vs. fly ball, etc.) and solid righty-lefty balance.
Which lineup is baseball's best one through nine?
That makes Detroit arguably the best fit for our ideal one-through-nine as described above. Here's the breakdown:
1: Austin Jackson CF (Righty)—Speedy and athletic, Jackson currently leads the majors in runs scored after cutting his strikeout rate from 27 percent in 2011 to 22 percent last year while simultaneously improving his walk rate from eight to 11 percent, all of which led to a career-high .377 OBP.
2: Torii Hunter RF (Righty)—This veteran's so-so plate discipline isn't ideal for a No. 2 hitter, but he consistently makes hard contact—he recently achieved career hit No. 2,000—and is batting .375 currently (second in the majors), which helps him post respectable OBPs and drive in runs.
3: Miguel Cabrera 3B (Righty)—The best hitter in baseball is utilized correctly in the three-hole, which gets him as many quality plate appearances as possible, allows him to maximize his freakish ability to make contact (14 percent K rate since 2010), hit for both average (.375 this year, .319 career) and power (30-plus homers/doubles each of past six seasons) and sandwiches talent around him.
4: Prince Fielder 1B (Lefty)—Almost as great as Cabrera but more of a three-true-outcomes type (walks, strikeouts, homers), as he's averaged 104 walks, 117 whiffs and 37 homers over the past four seasons (not to mention, 113 RBI) and is on pace for similar numbers in 2013. The fact that he's a lefty to Cabrera's right-handedness is a bonus.
5: Victor Martinez DH (Switch-Hitter)—The quote-unquote "professional hitter" who brings balance to the heart of the lineup with his switch-hitting is aggressive but makes a ton of contact (11 percent career K rate) and hits line drives to the gaps (30-plus doubles every single full season) to knock in runners (100-plus RBI in four of seven full seasons). Even amid his slow start (.207 BA), he's maintained those base skills.
6: Andy Dirks LF (Lefty)—The jury is still out on this 27-year-old, but he's shown the ability to do a bit of everything from hitting for contact or power to handling both lefties (.282 BA, .763 OPS) and righties (.282, .767). His career numbers over about one full season worth of plate appearances: .282/.334/.432 with 93 runs, 32 doubles, 15 homers and 67 RBI.
7: Jhonny Peralta SS (Righty)—Not a polished approach, but he fits well in the lower third of the order because of his power—both the over-the-fence kind (20-plus homers four times in eight years) and in-the-gaps kind (30-plus doubles four times in past five years)—allowing him to do damage before the pitcher gets to the bottom of the lineup.
8: Alex Avila C (Lefty)—While he may never replicate his career season of 2011 (.295 BA, 19 HR, 82 RBI), the approach is sound (13 percent career walk rate), and he does good work against right-handers (.265/.362/.446), who make up the majority of pitchers.
9: Omar Infante 2B (Righty)—Puts the ball in play all the time, as his 11 percent strikeout rate since 2010 shows. That makes him a good situational hitter, and one who's capable of turning the lineup over again or even getting the job done himself better than most other No. 9 hitters.
Which lineup do you think is a better match for the criteria above? Let me know on Twitter: @JayCat11