After I put up the graph on the relationship between fastballs seen by hitters and that hitters power rates, I started thinking about whether there might be some game theory issues that could be played around with. For instance, since we know that no power slap hitters see a lot more fastballs than guys with the ability to drive the ball, does this give us reason to think that traditional line-up roles are not optimized?
Most teams still use speed as a significant factor in choosing their leadoff hitter, and stolen base attempts from the #1 spot in the batting order dwarfs attempts from all the other line-up spots. There were 498 SB attempts from #1 hitters in the majors last year – no other batting order slot got more than 239.
So, since leadoff hitters are going to be stealing far more than any other line-up spot, we can infer that the #2 hitter will be at the plate most often when SB attempts occur. What’s the common wisdom on how pitchers defend against stolen bases? Throw fastballs. So which line-up spot should see the most fastballs? The #2 hitter.
Given that assumption, it would then follow that teams could setup a dilemma for pitchers by having a #2 hitter who pitchers do not want to throw fastballs too. If you had a high power #2 hitter, who pitchers only wanted to throw fastballs too 55% of the time, then you’d be forcing the pitcher to base his pitch selection on either the hitter or the runner. If you have a low power #2 hitter, then his desire to throw fastballs would align with both runner and hitter strategies, and there would be no conflict.
Despite this, #2 hitters had the second lowest ISO of any line-up spot in baseball last year, ahead of only #9 hitters. Indeed, the classic #2 hitter is a high contact hitter who is valued for his ability to give the manager confidence to call a hit and run or hit the ball to the right side if the leadoff hitter is able to steal second on his own. The current archtype #2 hitter is exactly the opposite of the kind of hitter that would force a pitcher to choose between pitching to the batter or the runner.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every team move their clean-up hitter to the #2 spot in the order. However, I do believe that players like Garret Anderson – moderate power free swingers who get a lot of breaking balls because they’ll chase them – could make a lot of sense in the #2 hole for a team with a prolific base-stealing leadoff guy. There’s value in making a pitcher choose between pitching to the hitter or the runner, and that value is being abandoned by teams who forgo any amount of power at the #2 spot in the order.