Word out of Bradenton this morning is that the Pirates are planning on beginning the season with Akinori Iwamura batting leadoff, Andrew McCutchen batting second, and Ronny Cedeno batting ninth. JR has messed with hitting the pitcher eighth in the past and it’s actually a much more sound strategy than people realize. The best hitters are usually at the top of the lineup and the pitcher is usually much, much worse than even the worst eight-hitters, so putting the eight-hitter in the pitcher’s spot at the bottom of the order puts more people on base for the top of the lineup.
Switching McCutchen and Iwamura will likely have people up in arms a bit, but before we get into all of that let’s start with David Pinto‘s lineup analysis tool. The lineup unveiled today (using CHONE projections from FanGraphs) sees the Pirates scoring 4.527 runs per game, or 733 over the course of the season. A more A more traditional lineup with ‘Cutch leading off and Iwamura and the pitcher hitting ninth is projected to score 4.403 runs per game, or 713 over the season.
I used to get worked up over Lloyd McClendon’s lineups on a nightly basis, but when I started blogging I realized that Sabermetrics 101 says that every manager makes bad lineups and even the best ones only result in the difference between maybe one or two losses over the course of the season, which is to say that it’s just not a huge deal when you’re expecting to lose somewhere between 90 and 100 games over the course of the season. That said, part of my larger problem with the way baseball teams are run as a whole is the acceptance of the status quo as truth simply because That’s the Way It’s Done. A pitcher shouldn’t bat ninth simply because that’s how everyone else does it; putting a little bit of thought into it indicates that maybe it’s not the worst idea to bat him eighth. And ‘Cutch shouldn’t necessarily bat leadoff just because he’s a speedy center fielder; his bat did show some pop and some real gap power last year and having someone on base in front of him isn’t the world’s most misguided idea.
That said, I won’t pretend like this is my favorite lineup in the world or that I don’t have reservations about it. First off, I don’t think Ronny Cedeno is suited for the nine-spot very well. His OBP is likely going to be pretty terrible (I’d put it in the .300 ballpark) and he does showcase a little bit of pop, which reall makes him an idea candidate to hit in front of the pitcher. Iwamura might actually make a nice nine-hitter. That would also keep McCutchen out of the two-slot, which is good, because a lot of managers seem to believe that the automatic job of the second hitter is to bunt the leadoff guy over. This is why we endured “Batting second, Jack Wilson!” so many times during his Pirate career. I don’t think JR has a pronounced tendency to do this, but I don’t have my copy of BP ’10 handy to double check his bunting rates, either.
I know that some people are concerned about Iwamura stunting McCutchen’s speed on the base paths, but I think that’s a minor concern. If Iwamura and McCutchen both hit their projected .365 OBPs, they’ll only be getting on base back to back about 13% of the time, which is nothing worth losing sleep over. Even if ‘Cutch tries to increase his stolen base totals this year, he can’t run on every play.
Really, I’m kind of happy to have a manager that’s apparently actually considering some of the things I think are important when putting a lineup together. It probably won’t make a huge difference in the long-term, but it’s still encouraging. Now let’s hope he sticks with it, even if things don’t go well right off the bat.