Traditionally, the No. 3 spot in the order is reserved for the team's best all-around hitter. Babe Ruth mostly batted third. So did Willie Mays. And Ty Cobb. And Ted Williams. And Henry Aaron. But that doesn't make it the optimal strategy. The Blue Jays' primary No. 2 hitter was MVP Josh Donaldson. The Angels used MVP runner-up Mike Trout in the No. 2 position more than anyone else. The Reds had Joey Votto, third in NL MVP voting, batting second more than anyone else. Stark explains the rationale for this proposed move:
So what the deep thinkers in the sport are beginning to understand is that the No. 3 spot might not be the best place to station your team’s best offensive force -- that it actually ranks behind the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots in importance, in fact.
“It’s about lineup construction, and the number of at-bats you get, and the weight that you put on the outs you make in those different spots,” Hurdle said. “It’s still an optimum place to hit, but it’s weighted differently now. When you look at it, most of the models that are put together are based on on-base production (from) guys at the top three out of four spots. So you still want a guy (hitting third) who can swing the bat and do some things. But it’s not the same, because the highest percentage of the time, they go up with two outs and nobody on.”
To reinforce that point, the Pirates showed McCutchen a list of hitters who batted the most times with two outs and the bases empty last year. And there he was, second in all of baseball on that list, with 158 plate appearances. Only Paul Goldschmidt (164) ranked ahead of him. Virtually all the names behind them were also No. 3 hitters. So you didn’t need to be Bill James to see the trend in those numbers.Let's do some math, OK?
- Last year McCutchen had 682 plate appearances in the 154 games he started. That's 4.4 plate appearances per game.
- Last year National League No. 2 hitters batted 10,963 times last year. No. 3 hitters batted 10,715 times. No. 2 hitters batted about 2.3% times more frequently.
- Take McCutchen's 682 plate appearances in his games started and increase it by 2.3%, and you get 698. That's 16 extra plate appearances.
- Those 16 extra plate appearances divided by 4.4 per game equals 3.6 games. Round that up and you get four games.
Moving McCutchen from the No. 3 spot to the No. 2 spot in the order is the equivalent to getting him for just shy of four extra games per year. Obviously, that's not a huge differences. But he's clearly the Pirates' best hitter. Four extra games of your best hitter in a division with three contending teams--well, it sure can't hurt.