When Joe Maddon spoke in the offseason about batting his pitchers 8th in the order, I just assumed he was talking about a once-in-a-while thing or that he was just furthering his image as baseball’s mad scientist. But as it’s become a regular thing, I’m beginning to think Maddon is serious about making this more of a thing than Tony La Russa ever did. Next thing you know, he’ll be trying to spell the alphabet backwards.
This break from the established order of things would make sense in a game Travis Wood’s starting, but what about Jon Lester, an AL stalwart who really looks lost up at the plate? I’m not necessarily an advocate for the DH, but as pitching becomes more and more specialized, both the need and ability of a pitcher to hit becomes further marginalized. Starters are logging fewer innings than ever, which means fewer ABs and more pinch hitters.
Through 16 games this season, Cubs starters have thrown 92 innings, an average of 5.75/game. In that same time, they’ve accumulated 41 plate appearances, which is right at 2.56/game. Given the dual small sample size problems with both the young season and the lower AB counts, it really impossible to draw anything from this. Then again, when you’re talking about players whose performance at the plate is no more than ancillary to the game, do we really even want to extrapolate the data? No, we don’t.
But I got to thinking about this topic nonetheless, spurred by Pat Hughes’ assertion that when a pitcher leads off an inning with a hit, as Jason Hammel did in the 5th on Wednesday, you just feel that it signals big things. Isn’t that right, Ron Coomer? Well, yes, Pat, I told you that this game felt more like Monday Night Football. See, look, it’s snowing!
That’s not exactly how the situation went, but Pat’s comment struck me as being from that old collective of baseball adages that are somehow taken for truth despite never really being tested and proven. It does make sense that when you get a hit from a man who was expected to be out, you’re certainly in a better position. Then again, that also means you’ve got a guy who’s likely a below-average baserunner (again, Wood is an exception here).
So wouldn’t you want that guy hidden all the way at the bottom of the lineup? Or maybe there really is something to the idea that the way an order turns over is more conducive to the 9th hitter setting things up for the guys at the top. Technically, they’re both right. Batting a pitcher 8th does take ABs away from an actual hitter, but it also means that the 1-2-3 guys have more runners on base ahead of them.
Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Box Score took a nice look at this a few years ago, and came to an interesting conclusion.
The Cardinals and Brewers have hit the pitcher eighth in the past, and it’s actually a smart, albeit insignificant, strategy. Yes, giving an awful hitter more plate appearances by hitting him higher in the lineup is costly, but the benefit of having a better number nine hitter interacting with the top of the lineup is worth the trade-off, by about two runs per season. By putting a decent hitter at the bottom of the order, the top spots in the lineup will have more runners on base to advance with walks and hits and drive in with hits.
Wow, two entire runs per season. I’m all about looking at the accumulated value of incremental stats over the course of a season, but I’m not so sure I’d be willing to defy convention for the sake of .012 runs/game. Then again, I suppose it’s important to make an attempt to leverage every possible advantage at your disposal, even if it seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Maybe that’s one of the pieces of analysis dripping from the card Joe Maddon carries in his pocket.
To be sure, Maddon’s reputation and track record provide him a good deal of benefit of the doubt when it comes to such unconventional moves. I’m interested to see this trend play out over the course of a season, and to see whether it does provide the Cubs with any discernible leverage given more time. For now though, I’m just going to chalk it up to a bit of a novelty that has little more than a tangential impact on the game.