Who's Hitting Third?
Who Says A Team's Best Hitter Should Hit Third?
The general misconception around baseball is that a team's best hitter should hit third - that's right, I said MISCONCEPTION. The three-hole hitter has generally been attributed to the team's best hitter because he is supposed to be able to hit for a high average, get on base, hit for some power, and drive in runs. Generally, they're supposed to keep the first inning alive for the cleanup hitter.
The cleanup hitter, on the other hand, is generally the most powerful hitter in the lineup. He generally does not get on base as much as the three-hole hitter, but he instills fear in the opposing pitchers and his sole purpose is to drive in runs.
As you get closer to the bottom of the lineup, the trend goes more towards guys who can get on base so they can restart the lineup, with the ninth hitter (in the American League) serving basically as a second leadoff hitter.
What am I getting at here? Well, just as the concept of a leadoff hitter really only matters for the first at-bat of the game, the concept of having your best hitter hitting third truly only matters for his at-bat in the first inning. After this, the concept of a three-hole hitter becomes insignificant as the lineup is just continuous for the rest of the game.
Here's my point. A team's best hitter should not be hitting third, but rather fourth in the order. This would bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "cleanup hitter." Rather than having a power hitter who tends to strike out too often hitting fourth, a team would have a greater chance of "cleaning the bases" with their best hitter now in a better position to drive in more runs.
Yes, I know these hitters are already in position to drive in runs hitting third, but by moving these hitters down a slot in the batting order there would be another hitter that could get on base in front of them.
Rather than having only two hitters trying to get on base in front of the team's best hitter when they're hitting third, there would now be three, increasing the chance of having a player on base in front of them. To further analyze this, let's take a look at two players who are the prototypical hitters for the #3 and #4 spots in the batting order, Joe Mauer and Ryan Howard.
Over the last three years, Mauer has hit .311 and gets on base at a .374 clip with no one on base. However, when runners are on base in front of Mauer his OBP goes up to .430 and when runners are in scoring position his OBP goes up to .446.
It seems as if Mauer would actually be a better hitter if he were hitting cleanup. Baseball is used to Mauer not hitting for power anymore, but boy would sabermetricians fall in love with Mauer even more if he was getting on base at an elite .430 clip every season.
I understand that with Mauer now being placed in the fourth spot in the batting order there will be instances where Mauer will come up to bat leading off the second inning, but my case doesn't fall apart there. When leading off an inning over the last three years, Mauer has hit .340.
Now lets look at the other end of the spectrum, at Ryan Howard. I'm not talking about the oft-injured 2012-2013 versions of Ryan Howard, but rather the 2011 form in which he was last at least a resemblance of his former self.
That season, Ryan Howard hit .243 with a .314 OBP when leading off an inning. However, when runners were on base he hit .288 with a .390 OBP, and when runners were in scoring position he hit .298 with a .422 OBP. I'm not saying Ryan Howard would become a .290-.300 hitter if he were moved down to the five spot, but he would become more productive.
Even if the three guys in front of the cleanup hitter (formerly the three-hole hitter) don't get on base, the team's best hitter would still lead off the second inning and have a good chance of getting on base in front of the cleanup hitter turned fifth hitter. Except in this instance, the team's best hitter would be on base in front of the #5 hitter (the power threat & RBI guy) with nobody out in the second inning rather than two out in the first inning if he were hitting in the three-hole.
While this concept only pertains to the first two innings of a ballgame, these are often the most important innings for run scoring as opposing pitchers are getting into their rhythm and trying to figure out what is working for them that day.
A run is a run, and sometimes a run means the difference between going to the playoffs and not going to the playoffs, just ask Joe Maddon. Bottom line is this: I think MLB managers should at least consider shifting around their lineups. It might pay off.