Batting Orderlies

Books, Games, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players

Neil Paine of Baseball-Reference.com writes a piece on batting orders in today’s NY Times—link.

It brings up an interesting set of questions as to whom should be batting leadoff and why.

Rickey Henderson was probably the best all-around leadoff hitter in history—a fulfillment of perfection for which all leadoff hitters and clubs should aspire; as such, it’s naturally unrealistic to think that you’ll be able to find someone with the combination of keen batting eye, patience, speed and power that was Rickey.

There has to be a balance and factoring of what the rest of the lineup can and can’t do—how they’re most comfortable and best-utlized.

Carl Crawford, for example, doesn’t like hitting leadoff. In some circles, there’s the thought of, “Yeah? So?” when confronted with a player disliking or whining about a position in the batting order or on the field.

In some cases, I’m a huge advocate not of, “Yeah? So?”, but of, “What’re they gonna do about it?”

In others, it would influence me as to whether a player—specifically a struggling veteran like Crawford—is happy and comfortable in his spot.

If you look at the clubs that were mentioned as not using their leadoff position optimally, the other players matter greatly.

Is there anyone who’s better-suited to bat first? And if they are, would they help the team more in that spot rather than their other spot?

The Mariners batted Ichiro Suzuki leadoff last season and he had the third highest on base percentage for leadoff hitters at .358. I’m not getting into another debate about Ichiro batting down in the lineup; that he could and should hit for more power; but Ichiro’s OBP and speed did the Mariners absolutely no good because they literally had no one to drive him in last season. He scored 74 runs because the Mariners offense was historically horrible.

Marco Scutaro and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for a .301 OBP from the leadoff position for the Red Sox last season, but this is taken out of context. Scutaro’s OBP batting leadoff was .336 and he scored 86 runs; Ellsbury had a .211 OBP in an injury-ravaged 2010 season and this dragged the club’s overall percentages down drastically.

Scutaro is nowhere near the hitter Ichiro is, but he scored 86 runs batting leadoff with an OBP .17 lower than Ichiro because there were hitters behind him able to drive him in. I’ve long said that Ichiro’s lust for singles and stat compiling would be far more palatable were he playing for the Yankees or Red Sox and had people capable of knocking him in.

Henderson’s value wasn’t solely dictated by his on base ability in and of itself; he scored plenty of runs because he got on base, stole second and sometimes third and was suddenly able to score without benefit of the subsequent batters doing anything aside from hitting a fly ball.

Look at the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. Vince Coleman burst onto the scene as a terror on the basepaths, stole 110 bases and scored 107 runs with an OBP of .320. Once manager Whitey Herzog realized what he had on his hands, the top of the Cardinals lineup went as follows: 1) Coleman; 2) Willie McGee; 3) Tommy Herr; 4) Jack Clark.

McGee was no on base machine; he batted .353 and won the MVP that year, but had an OBP of .384; Herr was no masher, but he benefited from Coleman and McGee when they were on base because Coleman would get on, steal second and third and be served up on a plate for Herr to drive in. In fact, based on the preferred argument as to whom should be batting first, Herr should’ve batted leadoff in that Cardinals batting order; but it’s hard to imagine the team scoring more runs that way than they did with the construction as it was.

It was confluence of events and the emergence of Coleman that led to the big RBI year from Herr and the Cardinals pennant. Nor did it hurt that Clark was behind the top three hitters and pitchers didn’t want to walk Herr and run the risk of a big inning with the powerful Clark coming to the plate.

The 1985 Cardinals won the pennant, led the league in runs scored and were 11th (out of 12 teams) in homers.

A batting order isn’t unimportant, but you can’t pigeonhole anything into the category of “s’posdas” based on individual achievement and ability; you have to look at the whole picture before coming to an ironclad conclusion and crediting or criticizing.

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One thought on “Batting Orderlies

  1. I think one thing that managers drastically confuse is base stealing and base running. You want your leadoff hitter to be a good baserunner, because he’s going to be running the bases a lot, but you don’t necessarily want him stealing a lot of bases unless he almost never gets caught. Yet, a lot of managers will put a guy in the leadoff spot who steals a lot of bases, but gets caught a lot, when that player would better be utilized down in the order in front of slap hitters that need him to steal second and/or third in order to get a run across. Alex Gonzalez needs a guy on third much more than Dan Uggla does. Dan Uggla mostly just needs a guy on base, any base.

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