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!

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