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Designing a Mathematically High-Tech Batting Order Part 1: The Pirates Lead the Way

Currently one National League baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, is batting their pitchers eighth in the batting order. In past years, St. Louis Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa batted his pitchers in the eight spot, but so far in 2010 La Russa has reverted to the more traditional pitcher-batting-9th. In the conservative world of baseball ownership and management an experiment like this is the equivalent of going from analogue to digital, or cutting rare steak from your diet and adding more fiber. And if there’s one thing baseball’s establishment needs, it’s a lot more fiber.

This fascinating subject is on the table only because La Russa, a respected and innovative manager, first batted his pitcher in the eight slot in 1998, his third year as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. In the tradtion of only Nixon can go to China, only La Russa could dare shake up tradition and tinker with baseball’s conventional batting order. It was difficult for the traditionalistas to come down hard on La Russa because his resume is impeccable: through the 2009 season he is second in baseball history, behind Connie Mack, in the number of games managed with 4,769; and he’s taken teams to five World Series, winning two.

Pirates Manager John Russell started the 2010 season batting his pitcher eighth in the Buc’s lineup, and there’s renewed interest in the analysis that’s been done to determine the value of a position player batting ninth in the National League. La Russa has noted that his tenure as an American League manager convinced him that the “second lead-off” man batting ninth provided more opportunities for his number 3 and 4 batters to drive in runs. In St. Louis, La Russa has an definite interest in providing baseball’s best overall hitter, Albert Pujols, with as many runners on base as possible whenever his turn at bat comes up.

Typically, the MLB establishment was out buying a corndog at the concession stands when this issue first came up, leaving the baseball saber and statistical community  to crunch the numbers and properly analyze the phenomenon. And, as usual, they came through. Specifically, “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball”, by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin; David Pinto at beyondtheboxscore.com; Cyril Morong at cyrilmorong.com, and a number of other great reseachers have thoroughly examined the impact of batting a position player 9th in the batting order (among many other batting order scenarios). Also, for a good overview on the subject, check out Sky Andrecheck’s April 8, 2010 piece at Sports Illustrated.com.

The hard research seems to point to a modest advantage for National League teams batting their pitcher 8th: an increase from 4.50 runs per game to 4.59 runs per game, about 14.5 runs a year, which results in maybe two additional wins a year. Although I don’t know many managers or general managers who would scoff at two additional wins in a season, a number of those same front office hardheads distain virutally any innovation that’s foreign to their baseball experience.

But not Pirate Manager John Russell. Twenty-five years ago, author Peter Palmer’s classic research (“The Hidden Game of Baseball”) determined that a team’s best hitter, rather than bating third in the order, should bat second. So Bucs centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, considered their best overall hitter, is batting second in the Pirate’s line-up. Tony La Russa may have opened the door, but Buc’s Manager John Russell is taking it to the next level.

Although the Pirates have started the 2010 season with a 7-5 record, no one expects these experiments will result in the instant turnaround of a damaged franchise. But right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates organization is boldly going into the sabermetric universe where no team has gone before, and it will be fascinating to watch what happens.
See Part 2: The Mobius Strip Lineup Theory.
May 1, 2010 note: Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa once again started to bat his pitchers 8th in the batting order in late April 2010.