Friday, February 29, 2008

Revised Batting Order

Wish you could have been here while my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker and I battled over this one: Tony LaRussa plans to have his pitchers bat 8th this year.

LaRussa actually tried this for about a month last year, and the numbers showed a slight improvement in the Cardinals' run production with the pitcher batting 8th and somebody else hitting 9th (4.6 runs per game vs. 4.4).

Steve, ever the traditionalist, dismisses the idea out of hand. His logic: the pitcher is almost always the worst hitter in the lineup and the number 9 slot, over the course of a season will get the fewest at-bats, ergo the 9-hole is the only logical place for the pitcher to bat.

I, ever the curious rabble-rouser, gently demurred. Actually, it might not have been so gentle; you can hear it all on our podcast. My position: while it is true that the pitcher is the worst hitter, and it is true that the 9-spot gets the least at-bats over a season (actually, only about 17 fewer than the number 8 position), so what?

You'd need to know many more things before you could say for sure that the LaRussa plan is a bad idea. You'd need to know, for example, how often the number 9 hitter bats in a position to do some offensive damage (for example, I'd want to know how many 2-out, runner in scoring position at-bats occur with the #9 batter at the plate). You'd need to know how many times the number 9 hitter leads off an inning. And on and on.

Naturally, the world of baseball fans is full of propeller-heads who eat this stuff up like raw meat. One paper by a guy named Tom Ruane suggests that not only should the pitcher bat 8th, but the number 2 and 3 hitters should swap places, and so should the 4 and 5 hitters. He uses some math that makes my head hurt, and I don't think he proves anything, but Ruane raises some interesting questions.

Bottom line: doing things the traditional way often works. But sometimes, the willingness to change can produce dramatic results. LaRussa is far from a nut (Cards pitcher Adam Wainwright, referring to his boss, said, "Tony's not going to make a decision that's not proven to work"). Let's see how this plays out before we brand it a bad idea.


Scott Rolen said...

Don't kid yourself. LaRussa is a nutcase. He drove me out of St. Louis by asking me to hit behind a pitcher who didn't even know how to swing the stinkin' lumber. Everybody loves to talk about LaRussa's "genius." Yeah, he's got a law degree from the 19th century in Florida (oh, sorry, the 20th century), but he's as superstitious as any other baseball guy. The only reason he's got this obsession with hitting the pitcher 8th is because it "worked" for him briefly last season when we scored 4.4 runs per game with his bizarre lineup, versus 4.2 runs without it. Hey, Tony, the reason we scored more runs was because our lineup was healthy for a change, not because of your irrational hunches. Will I miss you in Toronto? Yeah, every chance I get.

Stan Bunger said...

While I have serious doubts that this writer is actually who he claims to be, he is free to express his opinion. You know what they say about opinions...