Originally written on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 6/2/13
Would you want your best hitter batting first? (Credit) If you ask any type of baseball fan – diehard, casual, pink hat, or even any guy who spent his childhood stuck in right field and last in the order in little league – they will tell you that the best hitter bats third. That is just the way it always has been. The number three hitter in any order can do it all at the plate. He has the power to hit the home run, but unlike the number four hitter in most cases, he has the ability to get on base at an extremely high rate. In fact, the number three hitter usually has the highest batting average on the team. So, the question I pose to you here is whether putting the team’s best hitter in the three-hole really maximizes his talent to the highest degree possible. The Sports Post Chief Publisher, Evan Kendall, recently made the point that if it is statistically obvious that the leadoff hitter will have more at-bats in a season than the three-hole hitter, doesn’t it make sense to have the best hitter on the team bat in the leadoff spot so he will have the most at-bats possible? Although I’m not sure if either of us were completely sold on the prospect of every team employing this strategy, there could be a few hitters who would benefit from this type of approach. I know you baseball purists are as turned off by this idea as you are by the inclusion of instant replay, but bare with me and allow me to delve deeper into this possibility. There are many hitters who would fit this role and who would maybe benefit from an ascent in the order. This list includes hitters like Joey Votto, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, Robinson Cano, Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Upton, Jose Bautista, Bryce Harper, Adam Jones, and of course, Miguel Cabrera. This list of hitters is exclusive to those who can not only drive runs in, but can get on base themselves at a high rate. To put it simply, these hitters are the biggest weapons in their respective team’s artillery. So, doesn’t it make sense to put these guys on the front line? The main argument for putting these hitters in the leadoff spot is that they will get to do damage at the plate more often. If you asked any of these players’ teams’ fans whether they would like these players to get as many at-bats as possible, their answers would be, “well, duh!” But then, why are these hitters not hitting leadoff? If you think about it, after the first time through the lineup, the order is almost always jumbled to where who bats sixth and who bats leadoff is almost irrelevant. On any given inning, the number-nine hitter could leadoff and that can defeat the purpose of focusing so much on the order. Let’s look at a player specifically to better visualize the positives of this plan. The obvious choice is the 2012 Miguel Cabrera who won the Triple Crown for the first time since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Who wouldn’t want Miggy batting as much as possible? Well, maybe not any of these pitchers. But shouldn’t the guy with the highest batting average and number of hits bat leadoff? Minus speed and the ability to steal bases, is getting on base not the main purpose of the leadoff guy? It’s not like the Tigers would lose production by putting Cabrera first in the order. Just seeing lost production and Cabrera’s name in the same sentence is absurd. So what is holding the Tigers back from giving the best hitter in baseball as many plate appearances as possible? I’ll tell you what. Although I am extremely intrigued by this idea and would love to see a team take a risk by using it, I don’t think it is as cut and dry as I indicated earlier. It is important to have a hitter who is able to get on base in the leadoff spot, but is equally important to have a guy who can put the ball in play in the three-hole. A team’s best hitter, average-wise, should hit in the third-hole because they will do more damage if there are people on base. If they are hitting in the leadoff spot, it is more unlikely that there will be as many RBI opportunities. At the end of the day, you want to put your best hitter in as many RBI opportunities as possible and by putting him in the leadoff slot, that number will decrease significantly. Also, a team’s best hitter includes the ability to hit home runs, and a home run with runners on base is obviously more influential on an outcome than a solo shot. The best thing a manager can do is put guys who can get on base in front of his best hitter, even if those hitters in front have lower averages than the most talented hitter. But by putting the best hitter in the three-hole, the manager is still using a slice of the leadoff strategy. Because, by the logic of trying to put as many runners on base as possible for the best hitter, wouldn’t it make sense to put three high-average guys at the top of the lineup and then put the best hitter in the cleanup spot? Although this does make sense, by putting the best hitter in the three-hole, you guarantee that he will hit in the first inning and will get more at-bats than in the cleanup slot. Also, it is important to protect the best hitter by putting another great hitter directly behind him in the order, and if a manager employed the strategy of putting three high-average hitters in the top of the lineup and the best hitter in the cleanup spot, the manager would run out of great hitters to protect the best guy. Putting the best hitter in the three-hole is a happy medium of all of the strategies, but I do not think it would be crazy to mix up the lineup plan that has been used since before any of us were born. It all depends on the team and their hitters, but in general, the best strategy for maximizing offensive production is to put two high-average hitters, who are apt at running the bases, in the first two spots, followed by the best hitter and the next three best power hitters. The seven, eight, and nine spots are pretty much open to anything. I like putting the second leadoff hitter batting last so he cant get something going for the top of the order, but different teams do different things. But, with all of this said, I would not be surprised if a manager put his best hitter in the leadoff spot. It is so crazy that it just might work. By: Matt Levine Twitter: @Matt_TFJ
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