Aside from clutch performance and the ongoing hunt for the hot hand, there’s no subject in sports whose ratio of shrug-worthy research to significant findings trumps that of baseball’s batting order. Analysts have tried to check the work of managers by building lineup simulators and looking into whether their lineup cards satisfy certain batting-order best practices, but they’ve generally found that real-world deviations from the ideal are worth very little relative to the consternation they cause, and that’s without accounting for player preferences that might make statistically suboptimal lineups smarter than they appear from afar. Lineup mistakes are galling for fans because they’re unforced errors, identifiable instances of teams appearing to pass up free runs by neglecting one of the few factors on the field they can completely control. But in almost all cases, a manager would have to intentionally sabotage himself, disobeying both the book and The Book, for batting order alone to make a meaningful difference in his team’s playoff odds. The smaller, more common mistakes, like slotting a hitter one or two spots away from the perfect position, just don’t matter that much.
One popular (and particularly inconsequential) lineup-analysis subgenre that has become particularly relevant this year centers on the debate about the pitcher’s place in the order. For most of baseball history, the 9-hole pitcher was close to an ironclad rule: Early in his career, even Babe Ruth batted ninth, because that’s where tradition (reasonably enough, in most cases) said the starter belonged. The practice held, with rare exceptions, until July 9, 1998, when Cardinals manager Tony La Russa batted Todd Stottlemyre eighth, ending a leaguewide streak of 9-hole starts by pitchers that had started on June 1, 1979, after Steve Carlton batted eighth for the Phillies. La Russa hit his starter eighth 76 more times that season, but no other team tried it that year. La Russa then abandoned the idea the following season, which led to a drought that lasted until 2004.
The “pitcher in the eighth spot” strategy is an attempt to balance two conflicting goals: minimizing the number of plate appearances the pitcher makes, and putting more runners on base for the productive hitters at the top of the lineup. The thinking is sound, but it’s tough to argue that teams have been leaving a lot of runs unscored by not following La Russa’s lead. Study after study has shown that the tactic offers at best an infinitesimal edge: two or three runs per season in the right lineup, or none in the wrong one. La Russa took the plunge in order to put more runners on in front of peak, PED-powered Mark McGwire. Before he made the change, the Cardinals scored 4.9 runs per game; afterward, they raised their rate to five. That increase didn’t necessarily stem from the lineup change, but an improvement of that modest magnitude is what we would expect to see when this strategy works.
The benefit of bumping up the pitcher varies by team. “We have tried it in the past and we just didn’t figure we had the right bats in the lineup to make it work — an elite no. 3 hitter or somebody who could hit no. 9 that could serve as a second leadoff hitter,” one assistant GM whose team hasn’t used the strategy this season told me via email. “I think the key, obviously, is getting more opportunities with runners on base for your best hitters, but we have shied away from using it this year because of personnel.” Tony Blengino, a former analyst for the Brewers and Mariners, added, “We did this for a while when I was with Milwaukee. It makes a lot of sense when your regular no. 8 hitter is a decent OBP guy with little power, like Jason Kendall was for us at the time. There just haven’t been a lot of those guys around, with runs scored declining without a proportional decline in HR.” But even in the ideal scenario, it almost certainly isn’t going to make or break the season. As another assistant GM said, “It hasn’t been discussed much because we don’t feel strongly either way is meaningfully better. Batting order isn’t nearly as important as it sometimes appears, and the benefit of batting the pitcher eighth is tiny if it exists at all.”
Despite that ambivalence and the lineup studies, the industry as a whole has embraced the eighth-place pitcher to an unprecedented degree this season. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, only 861 games since 1914 have featured a starting pitcher in the second-to-last lineup spot. Almost 20 percent of those games have come in 2015. The following graph shows the number of games in which teams batted the pitcher eighth, and the number of teams that tried it, by year:
In the early 1950s, Casey Stengel occasionally batted his pitcher eighth, or even seventh, albeit because he believed that in some cases, his pitcher wasn’t his worse offensive option. In 1957, the idea was adopted by Indians manager Lou Boudreau, who was also instrumental in popularizing the shift, a strategy that wasn’t widely accepted for decades. But both of those potential movements died out, like sparks that couldn’t quite catch. Even La Russa’s 1998 endorsement didn’t do it, and while 2008 — when La Russa brought it back, this time with Albert Pujols in place of McGwire — seemed to usher in a resurgence, the frequency declined over the following few seasons.
This season, though, there have been 162 games in which the pitcher batted eighth,1 putting us on pace to shatter the 2008 record of 222. Even more notably, 11 teams have used the strategy at least once — three-fifths of NL clubs, and even two AL teams (the Twins and Angels). That buy-in more than doubles the previous high of five teams from 2009.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
La Russa’s Diamondbacks are responsible for only three.
If batting the pitcher eighth isn’t a new, paradigm-changing inefficiency that’s going to take teams to titles, why did the kindling crackle now? Baseball’s sudden embrace of the tactic tells us more about the state of the sport than it does about a specific strategy. We can draw several conclusions from the new-look lineups we’ve seen this season:
Baseball Is a Copycat, Cover-Your-Ass Sport: The successor to Stengel, Boudreau, and La Russa is new Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who’s batted his pitcher eighth 80 times, almost half of the 2015 total.2 A seal of approval from a prominent, respected manager like Maddon, on a high-profile team that was expected to contend, makes other managers think twice about a strategy they might otherwise have dismissed. It also makes it an easier sell to skeptical fans, media members, and ownership. “Part of the reason [use of the pitcher in the eighth spot] has spiked … is also sort of a ‘safety in numbers’ approach, where a manager is more willing to defy convention if he’s not the only (or one of a few) doing it,” said one NL executive. “Sort of how the defensive shifts skyrocketed — once it became ‘acceptable,’ a lot of teams adopted the strategy. [La Russa] had enough of a reputation in the game (and job security with ownership) that he didn’t have to worry about getting ripped for making an unconventional move, but most managers didn’t have that luxury.”
Maddon consulted with La Russa before making the change to the bottom of his lineup.
Maddon does have that luxury: He just signed the most lucrative contract of any National League manager. When the model manager starts doing something with the full support of a front office whose members have won World Series elsewhere, it’s hard to write off as an ill-advised plan. It’s also hard to ignore when one’s regular opponent is doing it every day. As one AL analyst theorized, “Three of the top four teams are NL Central teams, so maybe there’s some copycatting or a lessened fear of looking different if two of the teams in your division are doing it already.” Maybe there’s also an increased fear of falling behind, which brings us to the next reason:
We’re in an Era of Almost Unprecedented Parity: Perhaps this applies more to the closely contested AL, where as one front-office type put it, “We keep the pitchers where they belong … on the bench, behind a DH.” But the NL’s top teams aren’t exactly running away with their respective divisions: The Dodgers’ 4.5-game lead in the West is the largest of any division leader in the senior circuit. And when there’s so little daylight separating the top teams in the standings, it’s more likely that a few runs — which, once in a while, will add an extra win — could actually account for the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Front Offices (and by Extension, Managers) Are More Open-Minded and Data-Driven: The argument for batting the pitcher eighth isn’t entirely counterintuitive, but the evidence is mostly based on statistics and simulations. That makes it more abstract: It’s not as if a difference of two or three runs over 162 games is apparent to everyone watching, and it can’t be proved that a few extra runners on for an “RBI guy” resulted from the switch. But baseball’s decision-makers are more analytically minded than they once were, and they’re more likely to hire analytically minded managers who won’t reject an idea solely because it makes lineups look different from the ones they’re used to. “Obviously, most front offices are now willing to at least consider such out-of-the-box ideas, compared to just a handful a decade or so ago,” Blengino said. “It also appears to be one of the areas where the old school has some overlap with the new school.”
Offense Is Down: Last year, scoring reached levels that baseball hadn’t seen since the early 1980s. In an environment in which runs are scarce, teams are more desperate to create them. “This is the first time really in MLB history that you have close to one fast, low-offense, everyday player per NL team (since everyone cares about defense again) and almost all teams are valuing not making outs,” said one NL executive.
The added value of each out has made teams consider smaller edges that (rightly or wrongly) they might be less likely to prioritize when runs are flowing freely. “I think in a lot of situations the traditional NL eighth–place hitter is a much worse hitter than whoever is pinch hitting,” said one AL executive. “So managers would prefer to pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot in a high-leverage situation later in the game as opposed to letting the horrific-hitting shortstop or catcher hit with two on in the seventh inning.”
It’s a Year of Young Hitters: This season has seen an extraordinary number of highly ranked prospects make their major league debuts, as part of a larger youth movement in baseball. One of Maddon’s motivations for moving up his pitchers was a desire to put rookie shortstop Addison Russell, who’s hit ninth for the Cubs, in a better position to see good pitches than he would if he were hitting in front of the starter, where opponents would pitch around him. Maddon might not be the only manager with player development on his mind.
One AL executive speculated that the change in pitchers’ lineup position could be traced to “more managers using their best hitters in the 2-spot and not wanting the pitcher’s spot to feed directly into the best hitter in the lineup.” But even though early returns suggested that teams might be paying more attention to the sabermetric mandate that the best hitter bat second, no. 3 and no. 4 hitters still tend to be the strongest.
That relic of old-school lineup construction still appears to be entrenched, but the increased flexibility of the pitcher’s spot points to increased flexibility in the way baseball brain trusts think, as well as the heightened competition that stems in part from a greater uniformity in front offices. Relative to the league, pitchers have never been more inept at the plate than they have been in recent seasons. But for a variety of rational reasons, Major League Baseball is coming to the conclusion that burying them at the bottom of the lineup is the wrong approach to take.
Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.