Who Bats First?

The Chicago Cubs, as you probably saw, led off Anthony Rizzo on Tuesday. It was the first time in Rizzo’s career that he led off the game, and he had a lot of fun with it. In batting practice, he called his shot, told teammates that he would hit a home run on the first pitch.

He did not do that. The first pitch by the Mets Zack Wheeler was roughly a foot high and another foot outside.

He blasted the second pitch for a home run instead.

The home run seemed to ignite the stagnant Cubs, who tied a season-high with 14 runs — more runs than they had scored in their previous five games combined.

Bill James, among many others, have done extensive studies that show lineup construction to be kind of irrelevant when it comes to scoring runs. I mean, sure, there are some basic rules. You don’t want to put your worst hitter at the top of the lineup (despite the Kansas City Royals’ insistence on shoving Alcides Escobar up there). And you would generally like to have your best hitters clustered together near the top of the lineup so that they get the most at-bats and can feed off each other.

But beyond that … beyond that, the numbers suggest that the difference between one lineup and another is so small as to be statistically insignificant. We as baseball fans talk about it … and fight about it … and rage about it … because it’s fun. But does it really matter?

Well, yeah, maybe it does matter. But not for scoring runs.

Maybe it matters precisely BECAUSE we all talk about it … and fight about it … and rage about it.

First, let’s talk about some numbers. There is some pretty simple math here — the higher in the lineup you hit, the more plate appearances you will get. That’s obvious.

In 2016:

Leadoff: 754 PAs

Batting 2nd: 737 PAs

Batting 3rd: 718 PAs

Cleanup: 702 PAs

Batting 5th: 686 PAs

Batting 6th: 669 PAs

Batting 7th: 650 PAs

Batting 8th: 631 PAs

Batting 9th: 611 PAs

So as you can see, the difference between the leadoff hitter and the seventh place hitter is is about 100 plate appearances a year — or four plate appearances a week. That’s not nothing, but it’s not all that much. If we could concentrate the energy spent in columns, on talk shows and in sports bars rampaging about a leadoff hitter who should be hitting seventh or a seventh-place hitter who should be leading off, we could probably power Beijing. And all over four lousy plate appearances a week.

Of course, lineup construction is not ALL about getting the hitter to the plate more. You also would like to get your best hitters to the plate with runners on base. The spot in the lineup with the fewest runners on base is, of course, the leadoff spot. The correlation between spot in the lineup and number of runners on base generally looks like this (though it can vary slightly from team-to-team):

Leadoff: Fewest runners

Batting 2nd: Fourth-most runners

Batting 3rd: Second-most runners

Cleanup: Most runners

Batting 5th: Third-most runners

Batting 6th: Fifth-most runners

Batting 7th: Sixth-most runners

Batting eighth: Seventh-most runners

Batting ninth: Eighth-most runners

As I’m sure you expected, most of the runners on base cluster between the 2nd spot and the 5th spot. There’s a reason we call it the “cleanup spot.”

These are the two biggest factors in determining how to set up a lineup — getting your best hitters the most chances and getting your best hitters the most opportunities with runners on base. In an ideal world, you would have a leadoff hitter and probably a second place hitter who don’t hit with power but get on base all the time — walk, hit-by-pitch, catcher interference, doesn’t matter, just get on base. And then your next three hitters would be your best hitters, the ones who can hit with the ball power and consistency.

That’s the ideal. But generally speaking, there just aren’t THAT MANY great hitters around. And, as mentioned, the numerical difference between the utopian lineup and, say, your 15th-best lineup, is almost nothing.

So why does it matter? I think it matters because we care. That’s all. Fans care. Managers care. Players care. What’s the first thing we wonder about when we play baseball? “Where am I hitting in the lineup?”

And then: “Why am I hitting so low in the lineup?”

What’s the first thing we complain about when it comes to managers? “Why in the world is he hitting THAT GUY third?”

We have tied such meaning to where everyone hits in the lineup that it now means a lot. That is admittedly weird and paradoxical — “it matters because we care,” not “we care because it matters” — but who can really understand the heart? Why do many hotels refuse to have a 13th floor?

The Cubs are not struggling to score runs because Kyle Schwarber has been a disaster in the leadoff spot and no one has stepped up. They are struggling to score runs because the whole team isn’t hitting, because their team batting average is down 20 points, because they have the worst batting average in baseball with runners in scoring position, because many of their key players — Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Wilson Contreras — are hitting worse than they did last year, and much worse than anyone expected.

For now, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is attacking this malaise by messing around with the lineup. He has used FIVE different leadoff hitters in the last nine games — Rizzo last night, Jon Jay the two nights before that, Schwarber on Saturday, Ian Happ for three days last week and Ben Zobrist before that. By the numbers, this is nothing but moving around furniture in the living room. That green BarcaLounger might look better in the corner, but it’s still the same green BarcaLounger.

Psychologically … who knows? Sometimes, maybe, moving around lineups can snap a team into focus. That’s really what the Royals have done every now and again with Escobar. As a hitter with a .292 on-base percentage and a career 72 OPS+ (both numbers significantly worse when he’s in the leadoff spot), he has no business ever being anywhere NEAR the top of any lineup, and everybody knows that including manager Ned Yost. But the Royals rather famously have a good record with him up in that spot because:

  1. Everybody on the team likes Esky and tries to pick him up.
  2. The batting order doesn’t matter that much anyway.

It’s one of those cases where, often enough, the psychology of having Esky on top trumps the mathematical soundness of it. Make no mistake, he’s a real liability at the top of the lineup. But it just doesn’t matter that much.

So Maddon’s “America’s Got Talent” search for a leadoff hitter might ignite this team a little bit. It’s possible. You would imagine he will try Rizzo up there again and then again if it works and then again and again. From a baseball standpoint, Rizzo will have fewer runners on base but he will get up to the plate a bit more. The hope is that the change fires up the confidence of his teammates.

On the other hand, stuff like this can backfire too. If Maddon keeps switching leadoff hitters, it can promote the idea of instability. We’ve all seen that happen too. It’s a long season and players generally like the idea that the manager has things under control. A daily lineup switch can create a sense of panic, a feeling that the manager is running out of answers.

Madden can push these buttons all he wants, and it might or might not work. The reality is that the solution to the Cubs’ hitting problems is, not surprisingly, for the Cubs to start hitting.

Lineup out of a hat

On August 13, 1972, the Detroit Tigers played a doubleheader against Cleveland. The Tigers were managed by Billy Martin, who you might remember, needed to constantly do SOMETHING. There probably has never been a manager who so desperately needed action around him. Martin needed to start a fight, argue with an umpire, get thrown out of a game, start another fight, call for the double steal, order a hit and run, call out his star player, start another fight … he thrived in conflict and melted when there was nothing much happening.

The Tigers had lost four in a row going into that Cleveland doubleheader, they were fading as a team, and Martin was losing his mind. He was still a young manager, still learning, and his team had dropped out of first place for the first time in a month. He had to act and act decisively. It was in his nature.

And so, he pulled the lineup out of a hat.

“It was supposed to relax the guys,” Martin explained later. He threw the names of his players into his baseball cap and then pulled them out one-by-one and wrote the names in the lineup in that order.

He drew out Norm Cash first, so Norm Cash led off for only the second time in his long big-league career.

He drew light-hitting Ed Brinkman fourth, so Brinkman hit cleanup for the first time, he said, since high school.

Al Kaline and Bill Freehan did not come out of the hat. So they did not play.

You probably know what happened: The Tigers won the game 3–2 after Brinkman (who had a lifetime .300 slugging percentage) doubled home the tying and run and then scored on a single by his light-hitting double-play partner Tony Taylor (who was hitting fifth for the first time in years).

“I have a smart hat!” Martin crowed after the game. “It served its purpose.”

Cleveland manager Ken Aspromonte who was not overly impressed.

“He has his methods,” he said of his friend Martin, “and I have mine.”

Twitter Tonight!

So I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work, but tonight on Twitter there will be a special baseball show called “The Dugout,” where we will be showing some live baseball, offering some quick analysis, engaging socially and doing whatever else people do on Twitter (except politics — NO politics).

Anyway, I’ll be a part of it too. I’m not entirely sure what or when or why or how or any of the other questions, but it should be fun. Come on over to Twitter tonight and check in.

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