Carleton: The fallout from hitting the pitcher eighth

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on April 14, 2015:

Every season has its Sabermetric bellwether issue. Trout vs. Cabrera. The infield shift. Catcher framing. Joey Votto in the two-hole. But before all that, there was Tony La Russa hitting the pitcher in the eighth spot in the lineup. La Russa, when he managed the Cardinals, was known to be willing to experiment a bit to gain an edge. Then again, during his A’s days, La Russa was credited with “inventing” the modern bullpen and Dennis Eckersley. In 1993, he even tried a pitching strategy which had three groups of three pitchers each that worked a three-day rotation. The experiment lasted a week, but he gave it a shot. But now, the La Russa gambit of hitting the pitcher eighth is back.

Joe Maddon, a National League manager for the first time in his career, seems to be sticking by the strategy in the early going. Maddon comes with a pre-installed reputation as a free thinker, so maybe it’s not surprising that on Opening Day, Jon Lester hit eighth for the Cubbies. But that doesn’t explain how Jacob deGrom ended up in the eighth spot of the Mets lineup last week. (Actually, Collins put the pitcher eighth three times last year.) Or why Walt Weiss put Tyler Matzek in the eight hole—against Maddon’s Cubs!

Hitting the pitcher eighth seems to defy conventional wisdom. The pitcher is almost always the weakest link in the lineup, and since there are nine spots, he should be in the one that is least likely to come up, right? It seems to make sense, but like a lot of things in life, it makes sense until you think a little deeper about it. A manager usually puts his best hitters at the top of the lineup, hitters who are usually good at not making outs. The problem comes from the fact that in baseball, a lot of scoring depends on stringing a couple of hits together consecutively before the out clock runs out. Home runs are nice because the batter can do all the work of getting around to score on his own, but home runs don’t really happen all that often. On average, they happen in one out of about 40 plate appearances, and even the really gifted home run hitters only hit them 5 or 6 percent of the time. To win baseball games, a team needs to have runners on to knock in.

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Originally published: April 14, 2015. Last Updated: April 14, 2015.