Pregame: Bat McCutchen second or fourth?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Hurdle: "Yes, I've thought about it."

-P- In last night's postgame notes, we looked at one of the consequences of Andrew McCutchen batting third: that many of his plate appearances are being gobbled up by bases empty / two outs situations. Indeed, McCutchen currently leads the league with the most plate appearances in that base/out state.

Here are some more numbers:

Percentage of plate appearances with bases empty / two outs: 2014 (2013)

  • McCutchen 29.3 percent (20.3)
  • Martin 22 percent (17.7)
  • Walker 17.6 percent (14.5)
  • Marte 10 percent (14.3)
  • Votto 15.6 percent (21.3)

I include Joey Votto in the list because last season he batted third for the Reds and has been moved to second spot this season.

At this afternoon's press meeting Hurdle spoke to the issue of moving McCutchen around in the order:

Question: A significant percentage of McCutchen's plate appearances have come with bases empty / two outs. I guess that is one of the perils of batting third, as it (base/out state) will happen a lot. Have you ever considered moving Andrew around in the order? Or, are you happy with the sequencing you have at the top of the order and the coverage he provides for the number two hitter?

Yes, I've thought about. If you go (with him at) two, then the percentage of the guys hitting in front of him are eight-nine-one. I don't know if that is an advantage. We've moved him theoretically, we've talked about it. We've done it on paper. We've worked all through these lineups. And, if certain things work, yeah there could be an advantage (to moving him). But, again, it's hypothetical. So what we're trying to do is deal with a human being, put some guys in front of him that have shown a history of getting on-base. To maximize his at bats in a leverage situation with some people on base.

If you put him down to fourth, who do you put at third? There is not as much risk of losing an entire at bat as people think if you move him down. There is a certain point in the lineup where the number becomes significant. I always thought going in, before sabermetrics that he has to get the extra at bat. But when you look at the numbers its only .3 something (lost plate appearances per game). It's so minimal.

So, we've thought about it. And it's always something you think about when your offense isn't going the way you want it to work.

My initial reaction is that it is encouraging that Hurdle is considering all options when it comes to lineup construction. One of his strengths is his openness to new approaches and ideas (e.g. defensive shifts last season). However, I still think moving McCutchen to the second or fourth position is a good idea.

While Hurdle is correct that moving McCutchen up to the second spot would lessen aggregate RBI opportunities by putting him closer to the eighth and ninth hitters, it has the advantage of completely freeing him from the high percentage of first-inning bases empty / two out situations (15 times already this season). Additionally, McCutchen would gain a small increase in plate appearances per game (.11, according to Tom Tango's The Book). Finally, his high OBP percentage and speed would create more runs than they currently do at number three because of more overall plate appearances, more times getting on base in the first inning with less than two outs, and having a longer line of good hitters behind him.

Hurdle's reasoning for not moving him to cleanup is the problem of who would bat third. To me, that's easily solved by either moving Alvarez, Davis/Sanchez, maybe even Marte. Batting fourth, McCutchen would have more RBI opportunites. Again, according to Tom Tango, the fourth place hitter has an average of 3.2 runners on base a game compared to 2.7 for number two, 3.0 for number three. Moreover, he would lead-off the second inning a fair number of times, creating an overall increase in the number of times the Pirates find themselves with a high run expectancy in the inning.

Let's be clear, the actual run difference from an optimized lineup isn't huge. Certainly not as large as we'd like to believe. But I think moving McCutchen makes sense.

-P- Ardolis Chapman took the mound at PNC Park this afternoon and participated in what appeared to be a simulated game. He threw roughly an inning's worth of pitches and no one seemed to get injured by an errant fastball.

-P- Neil Walker will get his second start in a row batting second tonight. Tuesday Hurdle said that one of the reasons for moving Walker up in the order was because Walker's batting average with balls in play did not reflect the type of contact he is making. In other words, Hurdle appears to be anticipating a regression to the mean, which is interesting. He also mentioned that he likes breaking up left-handed hitters Pedro Alvarez and Ike Davis.

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