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!

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

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Andy
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Naughty boy, posting 7 minutes after me.

Neil L.
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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.

Jimbo
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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.

Doug
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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… Read more »
Hartvig
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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.

Ed
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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,… Read more »
Tristram12
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Great post. Here in KC, I’ve been convinced Billy Butler should be hitting second (or even first). He’s an OBP/Doubles machine.

bigal
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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… Read more »
tag
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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.

Doug
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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.

Brendan
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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.

brp
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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”?

Lawrence Azrin
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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… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
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#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… Read more »
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