What IS the “traditional” role of a #2 hitter, really?

I was leafing through the ol’ Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract recently, when one of the “historical” reprints spoke to me in a way that it never had before. This passage about Wildfire Schulte is from a 1910 book co-authored by Johnny Evers:

Schulte proved to be … one of the rarest baseball treasures, a “third batter.” The third batter in any team is the most important. He must hit long flies, hit hard, bunt and run, because ahead of him in a well constructed team are two batters who are on the team for their ability to “get on,” and the third man must be able either to move them up or hit them home. — Johnny Evers with Hugh Fullerton, Baseball in the Big Leagues (Reilly and Britton, 1910). (emphasis added)

How about that? A star and frequent #2 hitter on a dead-ball dynasty — the team that, as much as anyone, “wrote the book” on how baseball was played then — understood the #2 man’s role as mainly the same as the leadoff man: “get on.”

I think about such things when I see that, through Thursday, MLB leadoff and #2 hitters have a group OBP of .320 and .325, respectively — compared to .334 for #3-6 hitters. Or that #2 hitters have scored fewer runs than #3 hitters. Or that Pittsburgh has a .228 OBP and 9 runs in 38 games from its #2 men, while White Sox #2 men have a preposterous .205 OBP.

One reason so many teams get so little out of that spot is … well … they give the job to a mediocre hitter. You’d think it elementary that a manager wants to have his better batters bat the most, but what can you say when the majority of White Sox lineups have had Brent Morel or Gordon Beckham batting 2nd? Their career OBPs before this year were .285 and .318, respectively. Sure, no one foresaw them being as horrid as they’ve been so far — but was there any reason to think either one would do well in the #2 role? Morel was an especially comical choice, going 6 for 43 with 20 strikeouts and 3 walks before that particular experiment was scuttled.

How much does any of this matter? I can’t quantify it, but I’ll offer two little points:

  • It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned Pirates and White Sox are among the lowest-scoring teams in their leagues, while the top 3 teams in #2 OBP (Cardinals, Braves and Rangers) are among the top 4 scoring teams in baseball.
  • It matters when your team really needs a run with 2 out in the late innings, and here comes your bat-handling, productive-out-making #2 hitter. This year, in the 7th inning or later, with 2 out and RISP, #2 hitters have fewer RBI events than the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th hitters. And it’s not a matter of opportunity; the #2 men have more ABs in those situations than any of those other spots.

Now, it’s no secret that the White Sox, formed mainly in the image of Ozzie & Kenny (himself an atrocious free-swinger who drew 56 walks in over 1,200 PAs), just don’t have many high-OBP options on their roster. But then, why not just get the deadwood out of the #2 hole and move the better hitters up one spot? Why wouldn’t Adam Dunn make a fine #2 man? He’s done it before, and quite well.

What would the problem be? He strikes out too much? Hey, ChiSox #2 men are already on pace for 150 whiffs. He’s too slow? Yeah, but he’s only hit into 1 DP (in 31 chances), while their actual #2 men have 3. And Dunn does two things that do fit the stereotypical mold of a #2 man — he takes pitches, and he hits the ball to the right side.

If you think Dunn’s power and RBI potential would somehow be wasted from the #2 hole, here’s a lineup of nine 100-RBI seasons strictly from the #2 spot (stats shown are only for games with an RBI while batting 2nd):

Rk Player Year PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI ▾
1 Alex Rodriguez 1998 Ind. Games 377 342 140 24 5 38 114
2 Eddie Mathews 1959 Ind. Games 304 267 110 9 3 46 114
3 Jay Bell 1999 Ind. Games 327 274 114 19 5 38 111
4 Aaron Hill 2009 Ind. Games 304 283 107 18 0 36 108
5 Edgardo Alfonzo 1999 Ind. Games 325 278 114 27 1 27 107
6 Alex Rodriguez 1996 Ind. Games 276 245 115 30 0 33 107
7 Ryne Sandberg 1990 Ind. Games 300 271 112 16 3 40 100
8 Robin Yount 1982 Ind. Games 264 237 120 24 8 28 100
9 Dwight Evans 1984 Ind. Games 250 217 97 21 3 31 100
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/18/2012.

Want more?

You get the picture; all of those guys averaged at least 106 RBI per 162 games hitting 2nd. In the AL especially, there’s plenty of RBI chances for a #2 hitter. In the AL this year, #2 men have come up with anyone on base just 5% less often than #3 hitters, 2% less often than #5 hitters, and more often than nos. 6-9 and 1.

If Adam Dunn were to hit 2nd for the White Sox, the improvement in RBI opportunities for everyone after him — by virtue of no automatic out in front of him — would more than make up for the small loss in his own RBI chances.

The ChiSox rank 3rd in OBP from the leadoff spot (.375) and 5th from #3. But their cleanup men (mainly Paul Konerko) rank 11th in PAs with RISP and with any runner on. And so Konerko, batting .362 over all and .387 with RISP, and playing in every game but one, is on pace for 30 HRs, but only 90 RBI.

I offer one last stat line: In 1991, a young sweet-swinging lefty with some pop batted 2nd for the White Sox most of the year and drove in 100 runs on the nose. In 114 games hitting 2nd, he produced 87 RBI (that’s 124 RBI per 162 G), with 21 HRs, a .294 BA and .378 OBP. He sacrificed just 4 times. The White Sox had just 2 other regulars with OPS+ above 98, and they played in a neutral park, but they were well above average in scoring.

That sweet-swinging lefty now makes out the White Sox lineup cards. Robin Ventura, free your mind. Free Adam Dunn. Bat him 2nd!

21 thoughts on “What IS the “traditional” role of a #2 hitter, really?

  1. 1
    Andy says:

    Naughty boy, posting 7 minutes after me.

    • 2
      John Autin says:

      Sorry, Andy — I just couldn’t let Toronto’s Mount Rushmore stand atop our page while they’re giving my Mets such a thrashing! 🙂

      (Anyway, you know how to game the system, if you want to. I don’t mind.)

      P.S. Gary Cohen just referenced the Mets’ Pythagorean record without bothering to explain it. I do love the Mets’ announcers.

  2. 3
    Neil L. says:

    JA, I was hoping Andy could temporarily open a chat widget so we could micromanage the Mets-Jays game tonight.

    But JP Arencibia ended the drama early and Rob J. is the Mets best reliever. 🙂

    Rajai Davis with a career first two home runs off the Mets’s pitching. Sorry, JA, for pointing it out but I expect full coverage in the nightly recap. 🙂

    Romero walked four batters again tonight.

  3. 4
    Jimbo says:

    I’ve always felt the #2 spot is a great place to put one of your best hitters. I believe the Jays batted Alomar there during their championship years and it worked great.

  4. 5
    Doug says:

    Another reason to have a high-OBP guy in the 2-hole is when that hitter comes up with 2 out. Much better that he extend the inning so your #3 hitter isn’t leading off the next inning.

    You might think it’s a small thing, but as someone who see quite a bit of the Jays, you would be surprised how often Bautista leads off an inning (of course, Bautista shouldn’t be batting third, but that’s another post). In 2010, he had 160 PAs leading off an inning (plus he was the leadoff hitter 12 times). Last year was better but not a lot – 109 PAs.

  5. 6
    Hartvig says:

    In that same BJHBA in a section about the best leadoff hitters ever- I’ll let people figure out who he ranked #1 on their own- he also mentioned the the guys who would REALLY make the best leadoff (and presumably #2) hitters were people like Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.

    Boy would it be fun managing a team where you could pencil in Mickey as the leadoff hitter.

    You’d probably have to march your pitcher out to the mound at gunpoint.

  6. 7
    Ed says:

    How about the ’61 Yankees leading off Bobby Richardson (.261/.295/.316) and batting Tony Kubek second (.276/.306/.395)? As Bill James put it re: Richardson:

    “Richardson, frankly, was a horrible leadoff man. He rarely got on base and almost never got into scoring position. Leading off for the 1961 Yankees, playing 162 games and batting 662 times, with 237 home runs coming up behind him, Richardson scored only 80 runs. 80. Eight-zero…Plus Richardson used up a zillion outs while he was not scoring runs.”

    I can’t find any James quote re: Kubek batting second but it might be out there somewhere. Granted, that was an oddly constructed team and there weren’t obvious options for the first two lineup slots. But one wonders how many runs they could have scored if Ralph Houk had been willing to think outside the box and bat Mantle and Maris 1-2.

  7. 8
    Tristram12 says:

    Great post. Here in KC, I’ve been convinced Billy Butler should be hitting second (or even first). He’s an OBP/Doubles machine.

  8. 9
    bigal says:

    never happen. i actually gave them credit for finally figuring out the advantage if hitting dunn in front of konerko (previously dunn had hit behind konerko) although konerko is clearly the sox best hitter (and has been for awhile) and therefore should bat third(?) having someone on base when he bats makes a lot of sense. konerko does not walk a ton for a power hitter and although his obp is higher now, by seasons end they will be comparable. and when dunn walks after seeing his usual 9 pitches it is comforting to know that the pitcher now has to face our best hitter. all that would of course stay the same if you moved everyone up one spot but that would just make too much sense for an organization that thinks they won in 2005 due to “ozzie ball” and not due to leading league in homers and great starting pitching…

    • 10
      John Autin says:

      A big High Heat welcome to Big Al. 🙂

      (Let’s play him a little chin music! Sal Maglie said he’d brush back his own mother, so a fraternal tower-buzzing ought to be acceptable.)

    • 13
      tag says:

      I saw a lot of Sox games in 2005 and always thought they won despite Ozzie, just like the Giants won in 2010 despite Bochy. If you get career years out of your starters, your bullpen comes through when you need it and you hit a long of long balls, it almost makes managers beside the point. As long as they don’t do anything horrendous, merely idiotic and in noble keeping with baseball tradition, you still have a chance for a World Series crown.

  9. 11
    Doug says:

    I noticed in today’s Mariners box score that they had their top 3 OBP guys batting 1-2-3 (and all about the same OBP). That’s the good news. The bad news is the best of the 3 is only 0.333. Still, they’re doing the right thing with the players they have.

  10. 12
    Brendan says:

    I have always assumed that the choice to put a low OBP guy in the #2 slot comes from some managers’ obsession with having speed at the top of the lineup (consistent with, but not limited to, small-ball philosophy). Speed at the top of the lineup is great, if it comes in the form of someone who gets on base. If the speedster can’t get on base, then his speed is no more valuable in the 2-slot than 7 or 8.

    • 14
      brp says:

      Agreed… so many teams’ #1 & 2 hitters would be better served around 7, 8, or 9. I love the stolen base and I love the speed game, but if a guy is .375 OBP with no speed compared to .320 with speed, I’d rather have the OBP guy in the #1 or 2 slot.

      I think this is something that we’re going to see changing within the next decade as lineup construction shifts from tradition to the crazy idea that “maybe our best hitters should have the most plate appearances”?

    • 15
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      Traditionally, the “Unwritten Book Of Baseball” preaches “Bat Control!” for the #2 hitter, being able to place-hit and bunt to move the baserunner(s) over, also the ability to take pitches for the leadoff hitter to steal. As result, over the years batting at #2 there’s been a lot of small up-the-middle (by position) contact hitters who can put the ball in play and run, and have a somewhat decent BA, but not necessarily get on base.

      As pointed out above, OBP should be the first and primary consideration, it’s just too important.

      Although – I’ve always felt like the whole lineup-position argument is a bit of a red herring, as there’s not a huge different made by any one B.O.P (batting order position). I read decades ago (it might have been in The Hidden Game Of Baseball, 1984) that the difference between the best and worst BOP lineup over a season is only about 30 runs, or about three wins.

      Since no manager in his right mind fills out anything close to the worst BOP lineup (despite what some fans think), I think the true difference between an average MLB lineup and an optimum BOP lineup is about a win over a season. A lot of times, it’s probably better for the manager to leave a player in the “comfort zone” of their normal BOP, than to change the BOP for a very marginal improvement.

      • 16
        John Autin says:

        LA, I’m familiar with the “not that big a deal” argument about BOP, as well as the “comfort zone” corollary. My counterpoints:

        1. I think “comfort zone” is often a euphemism for “ego trip”. If Eddie Mathews could be comfortable batting 2nd, I don’t see why anyone should have a problem. If you put a Dunn-type slugger in the #2 spot and tell him, “Forget any stereotypes about #2 hitters, forget about slapping the ball to the right side, just do what you’ve always done,” I think he should be able to deal with that. Tell him it means 15 extra at-bats per year and a chance to goose his counting stats.

        2. Once you take comfort zones out of the picture, why wouldn’t you pursue any possible advantage, no matter how minuscule?

        • 17
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          John A,

          I agree with you in principal that a MLB manager should always take whatever advantage he can in strategy and lineup construction, but I respectfully disagree with you in practice.

          While we the devoted and knowldgeable MLB fans think we could take over a MLB team and make all the “correct” strategic decisions the spineless managers are reluctant to make, in practice what is just as important (or more so) is getting all of the players on a team to give their maximum performance. “People skills” in managing a MLB team are more important (see Terry Francona and Joe Torre) than any particular in-game decisions about strategy.

          MLB managers are dealing with actua lhuman beings and not androids, so it’s frequently more practical to leave players in their defined roles when the gain between two differing strategies is fairly small.

          • 18
            John Autin says:

            LA — And I agree with you that managing the humans is a far more important part of the manager’s job than strategic decisions like batting orders. I would make a terrible manager.

            Still, I think the better managers — not just in baseball, but in any field — are not hamstrung by their charges’ established comfort zones.

            There’s a good chapter in Joe Posnanski’s The Machine about how Sparky got Pete Rose to buy into a position switch in the middle of the 1975 season, moving from the OF (where he excelled defensively) to 3B (where he had nothing but bad memories from a force-fed trial back in ’66).

            And what about Carlos Beltran, who’s been batting in “RBI slots” most of his career and almost exclusive for the last 7 years, but has hit #2 often this year and without apparent resentment?

            I also look at the “comfort zone” concept as part of the larger problem of rigidly assigned bullpen roles that gives us “closers” who aren’t comfortable pitching more than an inning or entering with men on base. To a certain extent, I think the “comfort zones” are management creations, rather than organic player preferences.

  11. 19
    Lawrence Azrin says:

    #18/John A. –

    Thanks for your response, I guess what I was also trying to say is that a manager cannot implement every single strategic decision they wish without encountering some resistance from the players they manage, so they “pick their battles” as to which changes they implement. Your anectdote about Sparky and Pete Rose is a great example of that.

    I was also going to comment previously on the rigidly defined roles that have being created for “closers”, as you did in your last paragraph, but I’d already gone on too long. As you state, management has boxed themselves in now by using their best relief pitcher only to start the ninth inning, and only in “save” situations. This is one area where a manager would be better off ignoring the “comfort zone”.

    I’d prefer the “fireman” role for the best relief pitchers in the 1970/early 80s, where the best relief pitchers would get the majority of the save situations, but come in earlier in the game if the situation was important enough.

    • 20
      John Autin says:

      Proposed synthesis of our positions: The marginal gain from moving a better hitter into the #2 spot, if he hates the idea, is not worth a manager using one of his limited “just do what I say” trump cards. But a manager who isn’t willing or able to push/pull/goad his players to expand their comfort zones on important matters is unlikely to succeed for long.

  12. 21

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