Much has been made of Andrew McCutchen’s transition to the second spot of the batting order since spring training. This happens fairly often when forward thinking front offices and managers shirk baseball tradition. In this case, the Pirates had the audacity to try their best hitter in a position outside of the three hole that’s normally designated for that player. The theory behind the idea was to find an opportunity for Cutch to get more plate appearances with runners on base. Convention suggests that you see the most runners ahead of you hitting third or fourth, but computer models seem to place the emphasis on the second spot in the batting order. The same optimized lineup suggests putting your highest on-base percentage guy first, speed be damned, followed by your best hitter. The fourth and fifth spots are your next most important places in the lineup followed by the once sacred three.
If the computer models are right, then how have managers been getting it so wrong for so long? In theory, they’ve been batting their best hitter in a position where they should be batting their fifth. Granted, it wouldn’t be the first time traditionalists have been wrong in baseball, but this does seem to really blow convention out of the water. Hitting with runners on, even if they’re not in scoring position, is important as it changes the way a pitcher of throws the ball and the positioning of fielders behind them suddenly becomes fortuitous for the hitter. There’s a hole between first and second base that wasn’t there as the defensive team holds the runner on. Anyone would want their best position player in the lineup in the spot where they’ll have their best opportunities to hit with traffic on the base paths, but is the Pirates best player hitting in the best position?
So far on the young season Cutch’s traditional counting numbers don’t seem to be leaps and bounds better. If the second spot in the order leads to more opportunity it, hasn’t exactly translated into traditional counting numbers. McCutchen is currently sixth among Pirates regulars in RBI(s) and tied with reserves Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez. He’s not hitting great, but he’s off to a better start than 2015. With more theoretical runners on and a decent start, one would think he would be driving in more runs.
Before I get into the numbers and that small, small sample size I’m working with, I do want to make one note as to why I might like McCutchen in the two-hole better than before. In the event that the eighth man in the line up gets on base to lead off the inning and the pitcher bunts him over to second, the Pirates will have two cracks to get him in. Now one of those cracks will be taken by Andrew McCutchen. I don’t have data to suggest that happens often enough to be worth anything and don’t care to find it. It’s anecdotal, but for me it’s worth mentioning.
Here’s what I did. I went through the batting order and decided to see which spots have been getting to the plate with runners on base most frequently. I looked at the first eleven games of the season and gave each spot in the lineup a “one” in the event that someone was on base when they stepped into the box. If no one was on base, I gave him a “zero”. Consider this a less sophisticated digital model than the one that suggested Cutch hit second in the first place. I didn’t take into consideration where the runners were positioned on the field. After all, the argument that’s been made for the optimized lineup isn’t so much where the runners are when they are on base.
Why eleven games? Well, that’s how many games that the sky was falling.
As it turns out, the second hole in the batting order has had runners on a shade over 50% of the time. In a vacuum that sounds great but the Pirates have also been getting on base at a higher rate than other teams, tops in all of baseball before their 9-3 shellacking of the Brewers on Sunday. Here’s reality, only the lead off position and the ninth spot have come to the plate with fewer runners on for the Pirates. Everyone else has been coming to the plate with runners on better than 50%. Who’s the greatest beneficiary of the lineup as it’s currently composed? Josh Harrison and the seventh spot because the two guys in front of him, Francisco Cervelli and Gregory Polanco, are getting on base more often than anyone else on the team. Moving Cutch to seventh isn’t an option as that will reduce the number of plate appearances he’ll get considerably.
To the most pressing point, how much better is the three than the two so far? David Freese and the three-hole have been coming to the plate with runners on just over 60% of the time. It’s not as if McCutchen is bloating Freese’s opportunities with his early season on base percentage ranking only 7th among the Pirates regulars. Having someone like Cervelli or Polanco getting on base at a high rate following John Jaso at the top of the order would likely give McCutchen in the three-hole plenty of chances that he’s not getting, as he’s only hitting behind one position player after the pitcher.
I appreciate the notable flaws of this argument and that the sample size is very small. I’m not suggesting that the Pirates should can Cutch in the two now and more time might be needed before they can really make a decision. Considering how frequently players are getting on up and down the line up, the Pirates are getting and will continue to get their runs by walking and singling their opponents to death. That’s okay, but you still want your best hitter up with the most opportunities to produce runs and the jury’s out on whether or not the current lineup structure will provide the best opportunities for McCutchen. Maybe the traditionalists are right this time. It seems like that for now. I, and other Pirates fan,s will keep a close eye on the situation as the season progresses so rather than make conclusions in this paragraph, so let’s close with a “to be continued…”