Who should hit second in the lineup?

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox

By Casey Boguslaw

One of the newest debates in the baseball universe is what type of player should hit in the #2 spot in the order. Sabermatricians have strongly suggested that a team’s best hitter should be placed in that spot. The arguments are numerous but the biggest reason is your second hitter will naturally get more at-bats than say, your third hitter, just due to the position appearing first in line. A batting lineup is fluid in nature; if you hit leadoff at the beginning of a game, it does not guarantee that you will ever lead off an inning again. In this sense, the sabermatricians are correct; the only thing a number two spot in the order guarantees a hitter is that they will get the second most plate appearances in the lineup. However, some managers haven’t bought into this new idea and they have stuck strong to their belief of lineup construction. Are they being old fuddy-duddies and should they learn to adjust to the numbers or is there a different way of thinking that backs up their ancient ways?

This article may come across as a bit White Sox-biased but bear with me as this is the team I follow the closest. I never have (and probably never will again) follow a team as closely as I followed the 2005 White Sox. The reasons for why I followed them so closely are obvious, but being a junior in college allowed plenty of time to focus on each game. My persuading factor in writing this article is that 05 team. The team was built as ideally as a team as I had believed was possible growing up learning about baseball. Fast leadoff man, contact hitter up second, and then several good hitters spread through the lineup with various amounts of power that could hit the first two in. Thinking back, it always seemed like the White Sox were up 1-0 after the first inning and the starting pitching was able to pitch with a lead.

Tadahito Iguchi was a rookie in 2005 coming over from Japan that no one knew much about. He had an amazing rookie campaign, finishing fourth in AL Rookie of the Year. He took a small step back in 2006 and was out of the league by 2008. What he did in 2005 has stayed in my memory for a decade and running his numbers proved what I believed to have remembered.

Iguchi came up to bat 78 times in the 05 season with a runner on first, usually Scott Podsednik, and nobody out – obviously this says more about Podsednik than it does Iguchi. Of the 78 occurrences, 22 of them ended up with the leadoff hitter on second with the only help from Iguchi being taking a pitch (stolen base, wild pitch, passed ball). Podsednik got caught stealing eight of those occurrences as well; he did lead the league with 23 caught stealings on the year. For the other 48 times, Iguchi was able to move the runner 28 times for a 58.3% clip. Almost three out of every five times, he was advancing the runner and there was a runner in scoring position with less than two outs giving Carl Everett, Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye and Frank Thomas plenty of RBI chances. Even if Podsednik or the other leadoff hitter would get to second via stole base, Iguchi did his job. He had 33 occurrences of a runner on second with no out and advanced the runner 18 times (54.5%).

The numbers clearly show what Ozzie Guillen was attempting to construct with his lineup – Podsednik’s job was to get on base (.351 OBP in 05) and Iguchi’s job was to move him over. Sacrifice bunting is a curse word in the sabermetric world, but no one can argue that you would rather have your best hitters up with runners in scoring position than not. But let’s go back to the counter-argument to this construction – how often does that #2 hitter get to bat second in an inning? In 2005, Iguchi had 582 plate appearances and hit second in an inning 240 times for a 41%. Easy math lesson but randomness would lead to believe that each spot in the lineup would have an equal likelihood of occurring (which would be 1/9 or 11%). There are reasons to believe this to be likely and not a fluke. A team’s #9 hitter is generally going to be the weakest link and more outs equals more third outs which turns the lineup over to the leadoff hitter the next inning. This is one team for one season but Guillen’s construction was successful time and time again.

Let’s move back to the present and take a look at what the current White Sox are doing. Of all their big free agent acquisitions, the team’s biggest may have been Melky Cabrera, if you are to believe in the old-school way of thinking. Melky gives the White Sox what they didn’t have last year – a hitter to advance lead-off hitter Adam Eaton to provide RBI opportunities for MVP candidate Jose Abreu. It hasn’t exactly been a successful start for the White Sox and sample sizes are small but here is what we’ve seen so far from Melky.

Total At-bats

At-bats second in the inning

At-bats with men on base

85 41 (48.2% of all at-bats)

9 (3 for 9 in advancing runners)

An interesting wrinkle while I prepared the research for the article is the White Sox moved Melky out of the #2 spot and moved Alexei Ramirez there for two games. Alexei has been tried many times over the past few years there with little success. Clearly this was an attempt to shake up the lineup and as of Sunday, Melky has been back in the second spot the last two games.

Moving away from the White Sox, another team I looked at was the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They are clearly on the other side of the argument. They have their consensus best hitter, Mike Trout, as their everyday #2 hitter and believe the sabermatricians have it correct. Let’s take a look at the start of the 2015 season, albeit a very small sample size.

Total At-bats

At-bats second in the inning At-bats with men on base
89 32 (36% of all at-bats)

7 (hasn’t advanced runner)

The interesting statistic there is Trout has not yet advanced a runner when batting second in an inning. It’s still very early, but it is something to keep an eye on. Mike Trout isn’t coming to the plate with the same approach as Iguchi was in 05 or Melky is today. Yet another interesting wrinkle while researching for this article is on Thursday and Friday, Trout was moved to the #3 spot. On Saturday, he was back to hitting second. Maybe the Angels aren’t so sure about their strategy.

The last team I took a look at are the kings of sabermetrics – the Oakland Athletics. If anyone was to buy in to the belief that your best hitter should hit #2, it would be them. First off, it’s hard to determine who the best hitter on the Athletics roster. Josh Reddick has the most power but Ben Zobrist (currently on the DL) probably would be most people’s pick. Billy Butler has put together a very good career of consistently hitting above .300. Not one of those players has hit #2 for the A’s. This is true even though the first five games of the season the A’s had a different #2 hitter each game. They went with Mark Canha for 11 straight games after that but for the last seven games manager Bob Melvin has gone with Marcus Semien. Trying six guys that are not any of their possible best hitters leads me to believe that they do not buy into the best-hitter-in-the-second-spot strategy despite being a very sabermetric team. Here are the results of all #2 hitters for the Athletics this season.

Total At-bats

At-bats second in the inning At-bats with men on base
111 51 (46.0% of all at-bats)

14 (7/14 in advancing runners)

Maybe not too surprising, but whomever the A’s have put in that spot have been productive.

I will be keeping track of at the least, these three teams throughout the season and will come back with a follow-up article later in the season. Follow me on Twitter for daily results. The items to keep an eye on are the fact that even though a basic belief is with a lineup being fluid, it doesn’t matter who starts batting second. This has proven not to be true as even early in the season, the Angels have had the lowest rate of their #2 hitter coming up second in an inning, and it’s still at 36%. The one factor I may want to look to adding is a National League team as I believe it would be even more common for a #2 hitter to come up second in an inning due to the pitcher normally batting 9th. It all comes down to a manager’s strategy but offense is down in the MLB in 2015 and runs are hard to come by. It will be fascinating to see which strategy is more successful moving forward and which manager’s minds may change.

You can find Casey on twitter @CaseyBoguslaw or join in the conversation @CTBPod

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