Silly Human Nature: Bat Your Best Hitter Second

FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote a great piece on the underutilization of sabermetric data in Major League Baseball lineup construction.

Traditionally, the two-hole was the domain of contact hitters with good bat control, with premiums placed on the ability to hit behind the runner, to sacrifice bunt, and to generally move the leadoff man over (even if it meant making an out). You can see this statistically: During Major League Baseball’s expansion era (1961-present), the No. 2 slot has the highest aggregate contact rate of any batting order position.

But research by Tango and his compatriots suggests teams have been doing it wrong. After examining how important each batting event (single, double, walk, etc.) is to each lineup slot — based on factors such as how many runners are likely to be on base and how many outs they’re likely to hit with — the data says a team ought to bat its three best hitters in the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots, with the most balanced hitter occupying the two-hole. That’s a far cry from the conventional wisdom of slotting the best hitter either third or fourth, and putting a weak contact specialist at No. 2.

Essentially, given the likelihood of positive outcomes in a given lineup spot, say, Miguel Cabrera should never move from the second spot in the Detroit Tigers’ order.  But since he’s The Guy in Detroit, that doesn’t happen.

Which leads to the question, why does being The Guy matter?  Couldn’t he be just as important — and the data suggests, more potent a threat — batting second in the lineup?

Historically, the numbers three and four hitters are the ones expected to drive in the majority of a team’s runs, and this leads to enlarged egos for those players who earn that distinction.  They’re important.  They matter as the most valuable players of the team and sometimes the entire league.  The guys who bat second have “always” been more slap hitters, bunters, and grinders willing to sacrifice their own statistics in order to help the team move their leadoff men into scoring position.

But the longer data analysts look at hitting production, they learn things.  Bunting over a runner and sacrificing an out actually diminishes the likelihood of the team scoring a run because the more outs you have to work with, the better your chances of getting more hits, walks, and earning a base by getting hit by a pitch.  That data alone suggests putting a bunter in the two hole is a less than productive idea.

Yet teams still do it.

And in doing so, it keeps them from optimizing their run scoring potential.  With people like Paine writing pieces like this, one would expect teams to take notice, especially with their own proprietary data systems that are likely lightyears ahead of what is publicly available via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs currently.

So, again, why do teams perpetually succumb to history and ego over what has been discovered empirically to help them win?  It could be as simple as human stubbornness.  “This is how it’s always been done,” the managers think, upholding tradition.  And tradition is important in life, because it’s also a form of gained knowledge about what works.

But when new information becomes available, particularly in a competitive business such as professional baseball, shouldn’t everyone do what gives them the greatest chance of winning?  If tradition is shown to be not as effective as what the current data suggests, it would behoove every manager to utilize it to its fullest.

I fully understand the notion that it’s hard to take a guy out of his comfort zone, particularly an MVP like Cabrera.  But if his manager, Brad Ausmus, were to sit down with Cabrera and explain why he should hit second every night, I’d be willing to bet he’d understand.

“See, Miguel, we have evidence that you’d be even better batting second and we’d win more.  You could add another ring to your hand,” Ausmus could say.  Perhaps Cabrera’s personal runs batted in total would diminish slightly, but he would create more runs, which is more valuable to winning, which, again, any professional competitor should strive for at all costs.

Eventually all teams will follow the Los Angeles Angels’ lead — their best player, who also happens to be the best in the game, Mike Trout — by batting their best hitter second.  Right now it’s a silly adherence to the past for adherence to the past’s sake, but sooner or later teams will want to win more than they want to protect ego and tradition.


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