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Dear Managers, Please Stop

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In the gamethread today, users Bad Andy and Hitman Easler raised the question of why in the world John Russell is letting Jose Bautista bat second. 

It's an excellent question. Lineups don't generally matter a whole lot, and so I've never been keen to soak up all the research out there about which lineups are optimal. But, the Pirates' absurd 2005 plan to bat Tike Redman in the three spot aside, I'm not aware of any great counterintuitive research that suggests it's a good idea to put bad hitters at the top of the lineup. So what's Russell doing?

Even the usual bat-control excuse for letting bad hitters occupy the #2 spot doesn't make much sense here, since Bautista strikes out a bunch. I know Bautista's a decent bunter, so maybe that's the reason, but I secretly suspect that the real reasons have to do with characteristics Bautista doesn't possess rather than ones he does. He's not an OBP machine, so he can't bat leadoff; he's not a power hitter, so he can't bat in the middle of the order. Therefore, he bats second. If that's Russell's rationale, that would explain his using Luis Rivas there too.

Either way, Russell is wasting opportunities by using players like Rivas and Bautista in the second spot, both because it lets those players pile up more outs than they should and because it reduces the chance that the more productive hitters will be driven in or have runners on in front of them. For example, in the fourth inning today, Bautista led off and grounded out; Jason Bay and Xavier Nady got on base behind him, but the Pirates couldn't score. In the sixth, Freddy Sanchez led off with a double; Bautista struck out behind him, and the Pirates didn't score.

My intention is not to blame Bautista for every out he makes, of course; every ballplayer makes outs. And yes, Bautista walked to lead off the ninth, and then Nate McLouth scored on a Jason Bay homer after replacing Bautista in a fielder's choice. The game almost became competitive in that inning, actually, so I probably picked a bad day to raise this objection. Still, I wouldn't mind having a do-over on those earlier innings with a better hitter in the two spot. In the context of this game, that might seem like an unfair thing to say, but over time, putting Bautista in the #2 spot will very probably cost the Pirates runs.

The weird thing about the two spot is that most managers appear to embrace Russell's non-philosophy. The table below contains major league average OPSes for the past five years, and major league averages from the #2 spot.

Year Overall OPS OPS as #2 hitter
2004 .763 .755
2005 .749 .733
2006 .768 .769
2007 .758 .761
2008 .735 .723

 

Notice that, in the past five years, the average #2 hitter has been slightly worse than the average major league hitter. That's striking, since the major league average includes pitcher batting as well. So the average #2 hitter for the past five years has been markedly worse than the average everyday hitter.

Even given the usual bat-control excuse, I can't understand why managers would continually want to put a markedly below-average hitter in the #2 spot. I don't have the math chops to study this thoroughly, but my sense is that managers probably ought to just give up on the traditional idea of the #2 hitter as this bunt-happy middle-infielder type and move their better hitters up a spot.