Left Fielder Batting Ninth: Does Not Compute

I realize my seeming obsession with Nyjer Morgan is probably at least as awkward as Morgan himself sliding past second base, but I just can't let it go. Not really because of Morgan per se--he's a terrible hitter and he hasn't figured out how to turn his speed into an asset on the bases, but he might be better defensively than I've given him credit for, and I suppose there are probably worse fifth outfielders out there. And yet I keep talking about him, because in my view, there's no other player on the team whose contributions, or lack thereof, are more misunderstood. I actually dislike Morgan less than you might think, but I persist here because a very interesting player to write about.

Take John Perrotto's post about Morgan batting ninth. Perrotto's a smart guy and I enjoy reading his writing for Baseball Prospectus, but when I see something like this I have to shake my head:

While Russell says it is too early in the spring to begin thinking about how the Pirates’ 2009 batting order will look like, the composition of the probable starting lineup suggests he could very well hit the pitcher eighth again this season.

If Nyjer Morgan wins the starting left fielder’s job, he would be the ideal No. 9 hitter, particularly if center fielder Nate McLouth bats leadoff. Putting Morgan and McLouth back-to-back in the order would give the Pirates good speed and the chance to greatly improve upon last seasons’ 57 stolen bases, which ranked 15th in the 16-team National League.

In some alternate reality in which Morgan were, say, 22 years old and the best defensive shortstop in the history of the planet, I'd have no problem with this. If a guy has no real offensive skills (and again, that's pretty much just a statement of fact and I've already beaten that particular dead horse many times, so I won't flog it again here), doesn't get on base much, and can't do much more than run fast, but there are still incredibly compelling reasons to put him in the lineup, then sure--bat him ninth. Morgan, for all his speed, hasn't been a particularly good basestealer overall in either the minors or the majors, because he runs into so many outs that it offsets the value of his steals. He did, however, steal 44 bases against only eight times caught at Indianapolis last year (even though he did steal only nine against five times caught in the big leagues). So maybe, if he's 22, you look at those numbers and think he's on the cusp of turning his speed into an actual skill.

Unfortunately, Morgan isn't 22, and at 28 (29 in July) he's much more likely to lose a step than to get faster. The number of stolen bases is not an issue, because stolen bases are of limited value even when they're stolen efficiently, and Morgan isn't terribly likely to steal them efficiently. And unfortunately, he's not the greatest defensive shortstop in the history of the planet. He's going to play left field. I know PNC has a big left field, but that simply is not a very important position, which is why teams tend to stick sluggers who can't play defense there. The average left fielder makes about two plays per nine innings. Jason Bay, as the primary left fielder in PNC the last few years, averaged around that same number. The majority of those are routine plays that don't require a defensive specialist. (The average shortstop makes more than twice as many plays per game, and many of those are much harder.) So your left fielder really needs to be someone who can hit.

A few years ago I had a phone that required the use of an AC adapter. I picked an adapter with the wrong voltage. It fit, but when I plugged it in, smoke poured out. "Left field" and "No. 9 hitter" simply do not belong together, at least not if your ideas about what an "ideal No. 9 hitter" is supposed to be used are at all traditional. If your left fielder will fit into the No. 9 spot in your lineup, smoke will pour out. If you'd even consider making your left fielder your No. 9 hitter, especially if your offense is as weak as the Pirates', then you picked the wrong left fielder, and you won't even be able to call for help, because your phone will be broken.

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