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Why Not Bat the Pitcher Eighth? (Because No One Else Does)

In a recent Brewers.com Notebook, Adam McCalvy reported Ron Roenicke is open to the idea of putting the pitcher in the eighth spot of the batting order:

“It has been discussed for the past four or five days, [and] there is merit to it,” Roenicke said. “It depends on your personnel, really on who is hitting first and second for you and who is going to hit ninth, and it’s important who is hitting seventh. “If you have all the right pieces, it makes a ton of sense. If you have an on-base guy [seventh] so you can get through the pitcher eighth, and you have a ninth hitter who is an on-base guy to get on base for what would have to be strong 1-2-3 hitters, it makes a ton of sense. That’s kind of what we have.”

Some additional lineup shuffling may be in order with Aramis Ramirez returning soon and no apparent place to put him.  The Segura-Braun-Lucroy-Gomez order is currently in “ain’t broke” mode, but Ramirez has mostly hit cleanup during his career.  Batting the pitcher eighth might be a way to work Ramirez back into where he’s accustomed without diluting what seems to be a pretty potent lineup right now.

Putting the pitcher in the eight-hole is an idea that comes up every so often but never sticks.   According to this history of pitchers not batting ninth, former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa put his pitcher eighth more than any other manager in history – 432 times over the course of his career.  Brewers fans may remember Ned Yost batted the pitcher eighth more than 40 times in 2008, and Ken Macha did it a handful of times 2009-2010.

Eventually, everyone gives it up – even LaRussa, who only batted his pitcher eighth 14 times in 2011.  As Roenicke noted, there are plenty of good reasons to bat a pitcher eighth.  So why don’t more managers try it?

One reason could be that not all teams have the “right” players…but really, how many teams have a perfect lineup with all the right players?  Besides, the bottom of the lineup is the bottom for a reason – that’s where the least productive hitters are.  In the AL, is the difference between the eighth and ninth hitters all that great?  It may not seem like there’s much to gain by switching the eighth and ninth batters, but maybe there’s even less to lose.

Some research indicates that batting the pitcher eighth is associated with more run production.  For example, an exhaustive evaluation of traditional lineups at Retrosheet looked at composite lineups used in each league between 1993 and 2004.  In analyzing what batting orders produce the most runs in the NL, four of the top ten best lineups (out of over 360,000 possibilities) had the pitcher batting eighth.  Not overwhelming evidence by any means (and I’m not even sure I understand it completely – I’m not licensed to practice math) but it suggests putting the pitcher in the eight-hole can’t be easily dismissed.

A more conventional argument in favor of the pitcher batting eighth is this 2011 Beyond the Box Score article “The Definitive Sabermetric Guide to Managing.”  The “sabermetric optimized lineup” explicitly says that NL teams should bat the pitcher eighth, although it’s a little vague on exactly why – the article does claim that the optimized lineup would translate to 5-15 more runs over the course of a season, i.e., one additional win.

At the very least, one could argue there’s little to lose by batting the pitcher eighth.  However, I strongly suspect much stronger evidence wouldn’t necessarily help batting the pitcher eighth catch on. In the opening chapter of their new book Think Like a Freak (part of the Freakonomics franchise), Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner use the example of a soccer penalty kick to demonstrate how our minds evaluate incentives.

Throughout the history of penalty kicks, the kicker aims for one corner or the other of the goal, and the goalie guesses where to dive – the penalty kick is too close for the goalie to watch where the ball is kicked and then react, so the goalie always has to guess.  Even if the goalie guesses right, there’s a good chance the kicker will score.  But since the goalie always dives, the kicker actually has a better chance of scoring by aiming down the middle, i.e., where the goalie is standing before the ball is kicked.

And yet hardly anyone kicks the ball down the middle.  The tradition of penalty kicks has been long established, and if anyone were to deviate from it, they would be subject to second-guessing.  If anyone were to deviate from it and fail they would be humiliated.  Therefore the incentive is not to do the thing that statistics show would be more successful – the incentive is to do it the way it’s always been done. In order for most managers to bat their pitcher eighth, the results would have to be obviously successful over a long period of time for it to become standard practice.  Until then, the eighth-place-hitting pitcher will remain a novelty that no one sticks with for any length of time.

Even after all its analysis, the Retrosheet article concludes:

[S]ince all but the most pathologically weird lineups produce just about the same number of runs, I might be inclined to select the lineup that makes the most intuitive sense to the players and fans. Simply put, it’s not worth all the fuss you’d cause trying to be clever with lineups.

That’s a good sentiment to keep in mind next time we want to fire a manager/head coach for failing to try something innovative.

(Image: Getty Images)