The End of the Terrible Number-Two Hitter

If you’ve recently spent time with other humans, it’s likely that you noticed that they tend to be overconfident about how well they understand the world around them. Think of all of the people you know who have tried to weasel their way out of admitting they were wrong even when presented with strong evidence that they had misinterpreted a situation. Humans are bold and unapologetic in their declarations and do not like it when you point out that they’ve made a serious error.

It’s hard to criticize people for that when it seems to be a pretty fundamental aspect of the species. It’s not good or bad, it simply is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy little moments when someone makes a compelling argument and then the world totally destroys their hard work by changing around them.

For example, two political scientists once wrote a book called Congress’ Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House which was the first major scholarly account of how a minority party operates when it expects to be in the minority for the foreseeable future. It’s a well-researched book and was well reviewed when it came out. Unfortunately for the authors, it came out in January of 1994, just 11 months before the Republicans would win control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It was a perfectly fine analysis, it was just totally detached from the reality of American politics almost immediately.

Those political scientists did good work at a very inopportune time, but the boldness of the title makes the book a bit of punch line. Nothing they said was particularly untrue at the time they wrote it, but by the time most people read it, it was a relic of a bygone era.

Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight may have stumbled into a similar situation in 2014 when he wrote the following:

Sabermetrics has come a long way since the first analysts began tinkering with mathematical models, and there are certainly places where statistical thinking has made its way onto the field (for example, the explosion of defensive shifts in today’s game is rooted in probability theory regarding where a batter is most likely to hit the ball). But when it comes to the two-hole, baseball’s decision-makers still have a bit of a climb ahead of them.

That paragraph came at the end of a piece in which Paine shows that number-two hitters have typically been the fifth- or sixth-best hitters in their lineups on average in recent years. The post contains a couple of graphs that make his point quite well, and I have absolutely no qualms with Paine’s argument or method. The post went live on May 2, 2014 and seemed to be an entirely accurate reflection of reality.

Until it wasn’t.

In 2015, number-two hitters produced their highest wRC+ in a generation. Second-place hitters moved decisively ahead of leadoff men and sixth hitters, passed fifth-place hitters, and trailed only number-three hitters and cleanup hitters in production in 2015.

second hitters

Now, this could still be a one-year trend. We can’t say for certain that 2015 demonstrates a true culture change in the way teams assemble their lineups, but the evidence does lean in that direction. Our own August Fagerstrom had an inkling this was coming last Opening Day, and the full season supported his observation. We’ll have to wait another year or two for confirmation.

Weighted Runs Created Plus, Second Spot
Team 2014 wRC+ 2015 wRC+ Difference
Padres 72 125 53
Royals 74 124 50
Rangers 71 114 43
Blue Jays 119 159 40
Cubs 98 130 32
Mariners 74 105 31
Indians 82 112 30
Reds 104 129 25
Cardinals 94 109 15
Red Sox 84 95 11
Marlins 86 96 10
Yankees 87 97 10
Phillies 98 107 9
Diamondbacks 97 104 7
Braves 79 82 3
Tigers 97 97 0
Rays 112 111 -1
Athletics 81 79 -2
Mets 107 105 -2
Giants 121 116 -5
White Sox 76 67 -9
Brewers 100 90 -10
Dodgers 142 129 -13
Pirates 117 103 -14
Twins 113 97 -16
Astros 129 112 -17
Nationals 116 91 -25
Rockies 110 83 -27
Angels 165 135 -30
Orioles 139 93 -40
League 102 107 5

The big driver of the overall trend seems to be that teams are learning not to put terrible hitters in the two hole. In 2014, six teams got less than 80 wRC+ from the second spot in their lineup, but only two were that bad in 2015. There were 11 teams with less than 90 wRC+ in 2014, but just four such teams produced that little from the two slot in 2015.

Looking at the top seven teams, the Padres had the biggest jump, giving plate appearances to Yangervis Solarte, Derek Norris, and Cory Spangenberg instead of Everth Cabrera, Chris Denorfia, Seth Smith, and Will Venable. Their tale is one of slightly better players performing better in a particular spot rather that a baseball revolution.

The Royals are a different story. Omar Infante made 97 starts in the second spot in 2014 and the team gave 32 to Eric Hosmer, 15 to Nori Aoki, and 13 to Alcides Escobar. In 2015, Mike Moustakas started 93 games in the two spot and Ben Zobrist started 47. That appears to be a pretty clear philosophical adjustment.

The Rangers followed suit and went with Shin-Soo Choo (86 starts), Elvis Andrus (34), and Rougned Odor (21) in 2015 after Andrus got 151 starts all to himself in 2014.

The Blue Jays relied on Melky Cabrera for 112 starts in 2014 along with 21 from Jose Bautista. That worked out really well for them, but they managed to snag Josh Donaldson from the Athletics over the winter and put him in the second spot for 136 games in 2015 to make their club even better.

The Cubs shared the wealth in 2015, going with Kyle Schwarber (51), Anthony Rizzo (43), Kris Bryant (28), and Jorge Soler (16), but it was a major upgrade over guys like Javier Baez (52), Junior Lake (30), and Justin Ruggiano (28) who got the call in 2014. It’s hard to say how much of this change was a shift in thinking and how much was simply based on having much better options.

The Mariners tried Dustin Ackley (48), James Jones (37), and Brad Miller (21) in 2014, but leaned hard on the vastly superior Kyle Seager (75) in 2015 along with Austin Jackson (24), and Seth Smith (22). This too seems like a change of pace.

Finally in Cleveland, Terry Francona went with a strong mix of Francisco Lindor (85) and Carlos Santana (30) instead of Asdrubel Cabrera (51), Jose Ramirez (42), and Nick Swisher (39). It’s hard to say if this is a new direction given that Lindor dramatically outperformed the industry’s first year offensive expectations. It’s entirely possible that the Indians thought of Lindor as a Cabrera-type hitter for 2015 and lucked into the top of this table. If you’re interested in the other 23 clubs, Baseball Reference has a batting order table for each team.

I’ve had discussions with plenty of people who argue against deploying your best hitter in the second spot because they believe the third and fourth spots are better for maximizing total lineup production. That’s a reasonable hypothesis as far as I’m concerned and am open to more sophisticated lineup analysis going forward. Yet, despite that potential uncertainty, there does appear to be a clear shift away from low-production, contact guys who can bunt in the two hole. Teams aren’t necessarily embracing the specific advice from The Book as much as they are learning its broader lesson: good hitters at the top, bad hitters at the bottom.

You shouldn’t make too much out of a single data point, but it does appear as if 2015 will be remembered, in part, as the year major league managers let the idea of the old fashioned number-two hitter wither on the vine.

We hoped you liked reading The End of the Terrible Number-Two Hitter by Neil Weinberg!

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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jdbolick
Member

The value of on-base percentage is greatly influenced by the quality of the following hitters while the value of slugging percentage is greatly influenced by the on-base percentage of the preceding hitters. So it makes sense that you want your highest OBP, relatively low SLG hitter at the top of the lineup followed by your next highest OBP, mediocre SLG hitter, and then your very best hitter in the third spot. I understand why teams don’t want someone slow-footed in the two spot clogging up the basepaths and risking double plays, yet they were previously placing far too much value on that loss compared to the gain of simply being on-base much more frequently.

Richie
Member
Richie

NOBODY! clogs up the basepaths. Probably hasn’t happened once in the history of professional baseball that Fast Player has passed Slow Player on the basepaths other than one or the other was running to the wrong base. Which itself I don’t recall ever actually seeing happen.

jdbolick
Member

There are plenty of times where a slow runner prevents a faster trailing runner from taking an extra base.

williams .482
Member
Member
williams .482

Sure, but in order to actually “clog up the bases” the fast runner would have to get a full base *ahead* of where the slow runner would have been. That practically never happens.

jdbolick
Member

Huh? No, it doesn’t. “Clogging up the basepaths” would simply mean preventing a runner from achieving a base that he otherwise could have.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

Yeah, you guys realize a faster runner will intentionally hold up if he sees the runner ahead of him cannot advance and free up the next base, right? He’s not going to just keep blindly running.

bostnboy3
Member
Member
bostnboy3

This happens pretty regularly.

Slow runner on 3rd, fast runner on 2rd, Somewhat shallow fly ball, runner on 3rd has to hold because he isn’t fast enough to tag up. But a runner with average speed would have scored, allowing the fast runner to take 3rd on the throw home.

So instead of a run home and a runner on 3rd. It’s still runners on 2nd and 3rd because the slow runner didn’t allow anybody to advance a base.