The Pittsburgh Pirates’ willingness to explore progressive tactics to gain competitive advantage over large market teams has helped them make the playoffs three years in a row. If spring training is any indication, this season’s Pirates team will be no different. The Pirates have hired a new assistant to the General Manager focused on improving team fitness, they have eschewed much of their power for on-base percentage, and they have moved their best player, Andrew McCutchen, from his familiar third spot in the batting order up to second.
One of the primary goals of advanced statistics is to provide alternatives to baseball’s status quo. Within the more than one hundred years of baseball history, there is an underlying tradition that all too frequently goes unquestioned. There are so many things in baseball that are the way they are because they’ve always been that way. Things become automatic because teams are expected to play things by the book.
But this spring, the way that Clint Hurdle has been toying with the lineup might indicate that the Pirates have been reading The Book. That, of course, is referring to the extensively researched volume written in by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin that baseball stat heads frequently revere as something like a religious text since it was released in 2006.
Traditionally, the batting order has several roles built into each position in the lineup. The top spot of the order is reserved for speedy contact hitters. Second up is the bat control guy, whose sole job is to facilitate RBI opportunities for the heavy hitters later in the lineup. The team’s best hitter slots in at third while the boom-or-bust power sits at numbers four and five. The rest of the players are slotted into the bottom half of the order.
According to The Book, the old school has been doing it all wrong. Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin argue that the ideal spot in the batting order for the best hitter is number two. The first and most obvious benefit for batting McCutchen second is that the number two hitter averages about 30 more at-bats per season than the number three hitter. McCutchen is the Pirates’ best offensive player by a wide margin, so giving him more at-bats should absolutely be a priority.
Of course, increased at-bats are not the only goal. If that were the case, than McCutchen would have been batting leadoff for the past five years instead of third. Players of McCutchen’s caliber need to be put into situations where they can drive in runs. That is the logic behind the traditional best-player-bats-third lineup construction. But The Book argues that the second and third spots in the lineup offer similar opportunities for production.
For a real world example, take a look at McCutchen’s 2015 numbers compared to the MLB’s best number two hitter Josh Donaldson’s:
|Andrew McCutchen||Batting 3rd||2015||153||560||153||678||91||164||35||3||23||95||97||131||.293||.403||.489|
|Josh Donaldson||Batting 2nd||2015||136||537||136||620||108||163||35||2||38||113||67||109||.304||.382||.588|
Now, there are several variables to consider. Donaldson played for the Toronto Blue Jays, an American League team with a dominant lineup. But the fundamental point remains valid. Donaldson logged nearly as many plate appearances and at-bats in 136 games as a number two hitter than McCutchen did in 153 games in the number three spot. If Donaldson had kept the same pace for 153 games, he would have had 604 at-bats, 44 more than McCutchen.
For years, heavy hitters have been placed further down the lineup to increase their RBI opportunities. Hurdle said that he would be willing to trade 100 McCutchen RBIs for 60 more at-bats from the slugger. But Donaldson’s numbers indicate that a player batting second is not necessarily forfeiting his RBI opportunities.
Donaldson had more plate appearances and at-bats with runners in scoring position hitting from the two hole than McCutchen did hitting third. Even considering the inexact comparison, these numbers show that McCutchen will still frequently come to the plate with runners in scoring position in the number two spot.
Again, those stats are skewed thanks to Donaldson playing within an A.L. lineup that features a designated hitter instead of a pitcher. For a more accurate reading of what an N.L. player batting second as opposed to third might look like, let’s take a look at McCutchen’s fellow N.L. Central superstar Joey Votto. The Cincinnati Reds first baseman is one of the best hitters in baseball. He also split his time in the second and third spots of the Reds lineup last season.
|Joey Votto||Batting 3rd||2015||86||41||86||373||288||51||90||20||0||14||83||77||.313||.466||.528|
|Joey Votto||Batting 2nd||2015||70||39||70||320||255||44||80||13||2||15||60||57||.314||.450||.557|
Votto played 16 more games as the number three hitter than he did as the number two, yet all of his counting stats are pretty much equal. Batting second, Votto averaged 3.64 at-bats per game. Batting third, he averaged 3.35. That means that if Votto played 162 games last season in the second spot, he would have had 590 at-bats as opposed to 543 if he were to have batted third for a whole season. Why not give your best players more at-bats?
Another argument that The Book makes against a team batting its best player third is that the third spot in the order is far more prone to coming to the plate with two outs and nobody on. McCutchen found himself in that unenviable situation last season more frequently than anybody in the league other than Anthony Rizzo. Since 2010, McCutchen has come to the plate with two outs and nobody on more than any other player in baseball.
|1||Andrew McCutchen||2 out, 000||612||742||855||23||213||37||12||23||23||102||155||.287||.381||.462|
|2||Albert Pujols||2 out, 000||584||698||763||37||179||38||0||37||37||61||90||.256||.320||.470|
|3||Adrian Gonzalez||2 out, 000||572||685||747||25||171||38||0||25||25||57||150||.250||.312||.415|
|4||Robinson Cano||2 out, 000||526||651||702||28||167||26||2||28||28||47||105||.257||.311||.432|
|5||Ryan Braun||2 out, 000||523||640||712||29||177||43||3||29||29||67||148||.277||.349||.489|
In the past five years, McCutchen has had 742 at-bats with two outs and nobody on base. In that same amount of time, McCutchen has recorded 790 at-bats with runners in scoring position. That means that the ideal outcome of McCutchen coming to bat with runners on second or third base has occurred just 48 times more than the absolute worst at-bat scenario. That’s a pretty significant tradeoff.
Even if one argues that McCutchen fits better further down the lineup, the second spot of the order is certainly important. It is also a spot in the batting order where the Pirates have gotten below average production. Last season, Pittsburgh’s second hitter produced just 86.8 runs created which ranked 11th in the N.L. and below every other playoff team.
Moving McCutchen from the third spot in the lineup to the second seems like a no brainer. Whatever RBI opportunities that McCutchen might miss by batting third figure to be easily offset by an increase in at-bats combined with a decrease in plate appearances with two outs and nobody on. Even though The Book came out a decade ago, baseball is generally reluctant to accept changes to the tried and true traditions. If this works out for the Pirates, they might end up once again setting a trend.