Should your best hitter bat third in the lineup?

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When Joe Girardi would put his lineup card together in the past, he would tend to pencil in the name ‘Robinson Cano‘  (the best hitter at the time) in the third spot of the batting order. Many teams follow the tactic of having their most talented players bat third, but many baseball fans tend to wonder, why? It’s because baseball teams believe the best hitter should hit third in order to increase run production. Sure, it seems to work when you watch game by game, but is placing your best hitter third the best lineup overall?

The Motley Fool wrote an interesting piece of analyzing the number three spot in the lineup by WAR, how much a player is paid and where teams placed their best hitter last season. Ultimately, they believed an unconventional lineup (where the best hitter on the team doesn’t bat third) is the lineup that would be the most productive.

In that sense, I agree.

My ideal lineup would have three players at the top who are known for their OBP (on-base percentage). If we used the Yankees as an example, I’d place Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter in the top three spots since those three are known to get on base and have a knack of playing ABC Baseball.

Hypothetically, let’s say the bases are loaded with Ellsbury at third, Gardner at second and Jeter at first; it’s a crucial game that could mean the Yankees wind up in the postseason or sit at home for another year. Would you want your best hitter to come to plate and have a chance of putting the Yankees in the lead? Of course you would, which is why it’s ideal for your best player to hit in the clean-up spot, or fourth in the order.

In 2013, out of the 30 teams in the league, 3 of them had their best hitter batting second, 14 of them had their best hitter batting third, nine of them had their best hitter batting fourth and  two teams a piece who had their best hitter batting fifth and sixth. Out of the 15 highest scoring teams in the league, 40% of teams had their best hitter batting third.

There’s no right or wrong way to put together a lineup that circles around your best player, but the best hitter on the team doesn’t always have to bat third. Research shows the lineup that is unconventional often scores more runs, and some MLB teams are beginning to listen to statistics.

It’s an ideal thought to have the best player hit fourth: there’s the power, there’s the high contact rate and a greater chance for an RBI. Teams form their lineups in ways their best hitter can increase run production, but maybe it’s time teams broaden their minds and start toying with the lineup a bit. It’s not only about having the best players, it’s also where you put them to make an effective lineup.

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13 Responses to Should your best hitter bat third in the lineup?

  1. Hondo says:

    It should go lefty – right- lefty – Gardner – Jeter- Ellsbury as Ellsbury has more power than the other two combined at this stage of their careers. Plus, it makes the lineup longer. There's no sense to put Gardner at the bottom. Nuff said.
    -Hondo

  2. Murray says:

    The jump to”hypothetically, if you have the bases loaded,” is just to far of a leap. It is far more probable that one, perhaps the first 2 batters reach base. I would prefer to have my best hitter up 3rd to capitalize more often on that situation. Baseball is a game of #s. The #s say this is the best approach, and managers have been doing it for decades. Although I enjoy the discussion, your best hitter should hit in the 3 hole.

  3. This is an idea that has been discussed to much length in the past including on this website. Basically what the numbers show is that batting order only has a minimal effect on how many runs are scored over the course of the year and that you want your best hitter batting 2nd. This is based purely on stats.

    Here is a great article on the subject: http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/3/17/795946

    This is what the gist of the article is:
    1 – best OBP guy
    2 – best overall hitter (this person gets more at bats during the year than the No. 3 hitter)
    3 – Statistically less important than the No. 4 or No. 5 spots, should be a power hitter
    4 – best power hitter
    5 – Next best hitter, better than the No. 3 hitter
    6 – Base stealing is important here
    7 – 7th best hitter
    8 – 8th best hitter
    9 – 9th best hitter

  4. Time will tell obviously but I don't believe in entitlements in sports. I firmly believe that Derek Jeter has to earn the number 2 spot in the line-up. He should, IMHO, have to earn his way onto the line-up. The season is about winning not Derek's Victory Lap. I love the guy and don't mean to diminish him and what he has meant to the Yankees the past 20 odd years. But it is all about winning.

  5. olie says:

    So the next Manager of the Yankees should be a Spreadsheet?

    • As far as making out the lineup, a spreadsheet could do just as good a job as anybody. Statistically, it doesn't make a huge difference how you make up the lineup. Really all you want to do is get your best hitters the most at bats. Hence, your best overall hitter should bat 2nd behind a high OBP guy.

  6. Robert Rufa says:

    In 1961, Roger Maris batted third and Mickey Mantle batted fourth. Maris hit .269 but drove in a team-leading 142 runs (w/ 61 homers), while Mantle batted .317 and drove in 128 (w/ 54 homers). Meanwhile, Elston Howard hit .348, arguably making him the best hitter that year, but had just 77 RBIs. I guess when you've got a number of very good hitters, it doesn't matter where your best one bats as long as your pitchers give up fewer runs than you. (Crucially, the 1-2 hitters — Bobby Richardson and maybe Tony Kubek, if I remember correctly — were on base a lot, despite having modest averages in the .270 range.)

    • Mike Sommer says:

      No, I'm sorry, Bobby and Tony were NOT on base a lot. Despite all the homers Maris and Mantle hit, neither Richardson or Kubek scored 100 runs. The problem is that neither drew many walks. Richardson hit just .261 that season, walking just 30 times for an OBP of .295. His OPS+ was 67. Lousy. He scored just 80 runs. Kubek scored just 84 and was slightly better than Richardson, hitting .276, OBP .306, drawing only 27 walks, and having an OPS+ of 90. You wonder what the M&M boys would have done with a Rickey Henderson or Derek Jeter hitting in front of them.

      • Robert Rufa says:

        Richardson and Kubek each had 170+ hits in 1961, team highs. No they didn't walk much, but they were on base a lot, and if they didn't score more it wasn't their fault. No doubt both Maris and Mantle hit a lot of solo shots. RIchardson walked 30 times, which gave him over 200 opportunities to score.

        • Mike Sommer says:

          But OBPs under .310 aren't good. Especially under .300, as Richardson's was. Contrast Richardson and Kubek's .295 and .306 OBP'S in 1961 to Knoblauch and Jeter's .361 and .384 of 1998. Here is a comparison—and just for BA/OBP. Kubek hit .276 and had an OBP of .306. In 1989, another SS had a BA of .282 with an OBP of .301… that was Alvaro Espinoza. To Kubek's credit, he had more pop than Espinoza ever did.

        • 170 hits really isn't that many when you only walk 27 times a year. I think it's safe to say that they were NOT on base a lot.

          As Mike pointed out, Knoblauch was a guy that was on base a lot — he averaged 172 hits and 77 walks per year during his prime. There is a huge difference between reaching base 197 times, as Kubek did in '61, and 295 times, as Knoblauch did in '96.

          In fact, if you were going to re-make those lineups from the 60's, Kubek and Richardson should have hit 7th and 8th and not 1st and 2nd.

          • Vinnie says:

            In the late 50's and early 60's the Yankees gave away a ton of runs, and wins by hitting guys with low on base percentages in the first two spots in the order. It always use to puzzle me why Mantle never had many 100 rbi seasons when guys like Roy Sievers on the Senators always finished with around 100 or more. Reason? Eddie Yost. He was on base all the time. Had the Yankees had him leading off, Mantle would have had 125 rbi or more per season throughout the 50's and early 60's.
            Richardson, Kubek, Boyer, Billy Martin were among the main reasons why NY had trouble getting runners on base when those guys were untable setting. Even Hank Bauer in his later years when he led off had low OBP.

        • Coach V says:

          So your theory is that M & M hit a lot of solo home runs because the guys in front of them were on base a lot? That's just not how it works. The fact that Richardson and Kubek didn't score a lot – batting in front of guys having all-time great seasons – couldn't be more their fault.

          This isn't even a stathead WAR or runs created thing. The only guys on that team who weren't good at getting on base were Richardson (.295), Kubek (.306), and Boyer (.308). Batting Richardson and Kubek 1-2 had 2 absolutely horrible effects:

          1. Your two worst hitters each got more plate appearances than Mickey Mantle, for God's sake. Even without considering sequence, Jesus, let the guys who can hit, hit.
          2. Your best hitters were hitting behind guys who were rarely on base. In 1,361 PA, those guys got on by hit or walk exactly 400 times. Had, say, Howard and Berra gotten those PA's – Mantle and Maris would have come up with almost 100 more baserunners. That's not a small difference. A good leadoff man, in that lineup, should score at least 125 runs.