When Batting the Pitcher Eighth Will Make Sense
If you needed a reminder that D-backs have their baseball operations helmed by Tony La Russa, you’ve gotten it most games this spring in the lineup card. After Zack Greinke was signed, there was immediate speculation about the D-backs experimenting with the pitcher’s spot in the order again, just as they had on a more limited basis last year. We’ve seen that — and yet we’ve seen a number of other pitchers in the 8 hole, from Shelby Miller to Patrick Corbin. As with nearly every other lineup conversation we could have, the distinctions are very, very small — frequently found to be a matter of a few runs per year.
Something that doesn’t matter a whole lot doesn’t tend to be interesting. But bear with me. The D-backs have been marching to the beat of their own drum, from a ground ball philosophy to the unusual step of creating a Contention Window by trading away prospects (rather than moving to preserve one). Meanwhile, this pitcher 8th thing has been Tony La Russa’s song: ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote last year that of the 619 lineups with a pitcher 8th before last year, La Russa had authored 432. Stark’s piece was about Joe Maddon’s use of this lineup oddity last season, but even that story revolves around La Russa — because before Maddon committed to the idea, he reached out to La Russa to ask some of his own questions.
La Russa is far from the trick’s inventor, but it hadn’t been used in modern memory when he used it with the Athletics — in tandem with moving Mark McGwire up from 4th to 3rd in the lineup. He resurrected the move in 2008 for a similar reason (Albert Pujols), leading to a rise in its popularity that year around the sport. Meanwhile, Joe Maddon’s reasoning in batting Addison Russell so much last year didn’t track exactly — it had more to do with making sure Russell got plate appearances that were a little more true, without pitchers itching to hit the pitcher’s spot behind him.
Does La Russa’s Former Reasoning Work Now?
Batting the pitcher 8th isn’t a one size fits all solution. From Stark’s piece:
With the exception of the 2008 season, La Russa didn’t do this daily, no matter what. It depended on how his other lineup pieces fit together. But his philosophy was logical, even if it was far from indisputable.
He was looking for ways to get more plate appearances for his best hitter. And by hitting a position player in the 9-hole as sort of a second leadoff man, he was trying to increase the chances of his best hitter(s) batting with as many runners on base as possible.
As it happens, it also looks like the D-backs should consider moving up some of their hitters despite their high slugging percentages, particularly A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb, and as high as leadoff. And while David Peralta is a special kind of monster, Paul Goldschmidt could end up hitting third a lot this year, with Peralta behind him — and that could be why we’re seeing it again now. Goldy has batted almost exclusively in the #3 spot this spring, as far as I can tell — and Peralta has been in the 4th hole when he’s been in the lineup, from what I’ve seen.
Things could change when A.J. Pollock stops playing minor league games and starts playing with the team, and it’s unclear whether Jean Segura will continue to hit in the lineup’s top two spots. But it does look like the plan will be Goldy/Peralta in the heart of the order, and that could be the team’s thinking by batting the pitcher 8th. Trying it in every game could just be a way to instill the idea, and to get a few hitters some experience in the 9th slot while the context makes it clear that it isn’t about any particular position player.
Does Maddon’s Former Reasoning Work Now?
As just noted, the lineups that have featured pitchers in the 8th spot have been anything but specific to any one player. Still, allowing Addison Russell to develop in lower-pressure, more-realistic settings was worth something to Maddon, who nonetheless was not able to quantify it. Do hitters get better-quality plate appearances in that role? Our most recent experience is with Nick Ahmed, who did accumulate 55 PA in the 9th spot last season.
In those PA, Ahmed slashed .286/.333/.388, according to ESPN Stats & Info, good for a .721 OPS that was substantially better than his OPS in the 8th spot, .668. How he got there is a little counterintuitive: when in the 9th spot, Ahmed saw just under 48% of pitches in the zone, compared to a slightly higher 49% in the 8th hole. Still, pitchers did seem to pitch him differently: he saw 57% fastballs when batting 9th, a significant bit different than the pitch diet he was served when batting 8th, an unremarkable 53%.
55 PA is a microscopic sample, and if Ahmed got a bump that any hitter would have been likely to receive, his bump would have come with a price in the 7th spot (a notion I can’t corroborate). But note that when Ahmed did see fastballs in the 9th spot, his OPS ballooned to a lofty .820, good in any light. To wit:
Taking Maddon’s reasoning to its logical next step, remember (as we’ve discussed several times on The Pool Shot lately) that Nick Ahmed has been a slow riser in the minors, with his glove perennially ahead of the rest of his game and his bat taking a solid year+ to improve at several levels. You can make an argument, but given the premium the D-backs have placed on this season, Ahmed is probably going to hit anyway, or else he’s probably not going to play — making a decision based on Ahmed getting better over the course of the season doesn’t seem like a fit.
It Might Come Down to the Bench
As things stand, it looks like Socrates Brito is poised to make the D-backs’ Opening Day roster, either in a hybrid starter/backup role like we saw with Ender Inciarte last year, or as a true backup. Chris Herrmann is also in the fold still as a potential option at catcher, first, left field and pinch hitter. Zach Borenstein and Evan Marzilli have also impressed this spring, and both could be quick call up options as the season progresses. All of these hitters bat left-handed, and considering that just 2 of the D-backs’ likely 8 starters bat from that side, there seems to be a solid likelihood of a lefty-leaning bench.
Could that be reason enough to bat the pitcher 8th? Here, it would always depend on the circumstances — and yet if Lamb or Brito were to hit leadoff, the D-backs could end up with some favorable match ups in the 9th slot — if Ahmed is the player there.
Think about it: it’s time to sub in a pinch hitter in lieu of the starting pitcher, maybe in the bottom of the 6th inning. Chip Hale goes to one of his several lefty bench bats, especially if the current pitcher on the mound is right-handed (which is most often the case, right?). The opposing manager could go to his trusty lefty match ups man, especially if the game is close (read: matters). And regardless of what happens next, that pitcher would be obligated to throw to at least one batter. Once he’s done that (the 8th spot/pinch hitter), he’d be scheduled to face Ahmed — and if a lefty is also in the lineup at leadoff, Ahmed may be given the opportunity to trot out his solid approach against lefties (.802 OPS last year).
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