anthony rizzo cubsYesterday, Anthony Rizzo was moved back into the third spot in the Chicago Cubs’ lineup after five games in the two-hole. The maneuvering was part of a shakeup involving Starlin Castro batting leadoff, as manager Dale Sveum tried to get his two young, core offensive players out of a funk as the season winds down.

Rizzo, who never groused about being moved, told Carrie Muskat that he was happy to be back in the three spot.

“I was very uncomfortable there in the two-hole but it was what it was and hopefully, I never go back,” Rizzo said, per Muskat.

When I saw Rizzo’s remark last night on Twitter, I was surprised, given that Rizzo hit 292/.393/.542 with a couple homers during his two-hole sojourn. Why would he be uncomfortable? What was there not to like about performing well near the top of the order?

Rizzo explained to Muskat, in part: “It’s more an ego thing. I’ve never hit second in my life. If you’re the second hitter, you’re someone who gets guys over and bunts and slaps and what not. I think our lineup doesn’t call for me hitting second. You see the Cardinals and [Carlos] Beltran hitting second but that’s because he has no where else to hit.”

Oh, mercy, no. No, no, no.

Up front, let me emphasize that I have no problem with Rizzo preferring to hit third, and feeling more comfortable there. I get that there’s a mindset to hitting, and, above all else, you want a guy to feel comfortable. The fact that Rizzo hit well in the two-hole could just be a small sample size fluke, rather than him feeling good about his approach those days. And it’s worth pointing out that, however he felt, Rizzo was willing to move without a huff when he was asked.

The part I’d like to focus on is the stated rationale for preferring not to bat second. Namely, that “gets guys over and bunts and slaps” part. It looks familiar, doesn’t it? You heard it when you grew up and played the game, yes? Historically, that’s how number two hitters have been viewed. The term “productive out” was thrown around liberally when talking about a two-hole hitter. I am not surprised that Rizzo thinks that way, and I don’t blame him for having those thoughts. The second-hitter-as-light-hitting-slap-guy-to-move-the-leadoff-guy-over narrative has been pervasive for decades.

Let me be as clear as I possibly can: that kind of thinking is both arcane and flat-out bad baseball.

I won’t beat you about the eyes with an extensive discussion on why trading outs for moving a runner up a base is a terrible decision, as there is already extensive literature out there to inform you (including a great series at Lookout Landing as recently as this month). Instead, I’ll say only that a successful sacrifice bunt reduces the expected number of runs a team will score in an inning. Worse, not all sacrifices are successful! Intentionally giving up outs to move runners along is terrible, backwards-thinking baseball*, and it should never be built into what a second-hole hitter – or any other hitter – is supposed to be.

*To be sure, there are *rare* occasions where a “productive out” is a legitimate thing (bottom of the 9th, tie game, runner on second, for example), but they are as likely to come up for any spot in the order as the two-hole. In terms of this conversation (about the two-hole, specifically), the concept of giving yourself up – trading a precious, precious out for a single advanced base – is wholly irrelevant.

So, if the second-hole hitter isn’t supposed to be the slappy, bunty, scrappy player he was in the halcyon days of yore, what is he supposed to be?

Simple. He’s supposed to be the best hitter in your lineup.

I know this, too, goes against what you “know” about the game, but extensive research and analysis – led most notably by sabermetrician Tom Tango, who is now a consultant for none other than the Chicago Cubs – suggests the best spot in the lineup for your best overall hitter is the second spot. Placing him there accomplishes a number of things, including stacking your best hitters back-to-back-to-back (instead of breaking them up with some slappy guy in the two-hole – that’s granting the pitcher a break), and giving that best hitter more plate appearances than he’d get if he were batting third for fourth. Isn’t it axiomatic that you want your best hitters getting the most plate appearances?

The exercise of identifying your “best” hitter is not an easy one, particularly as it relates to batting order (who is the “better” hitter for two-hole purposes: a guy with a .270/.310/.600 line, or a guy with a .300/.370/.400 line? Well, it’s probably the second guy, even if the first guy’s wOBA is probably higher). There’s a little bit of “art” involved, and I’m not going to say that Anthony Rizzo is clearly the best guy for the two hole on this Cubs team.

I merely want to use this opportunity to disabuse Rizzo or anyone else of the notion that batting second is anything other than a compliment. Batting second puts a player in a very important run-producing role. Remember: producing runs isn’t just about knocking them in; producing runs is also about getting on base and being a part of the scoring at both ends.

I tend to think Dale Sveum understood this point when he placed Rizzo in the two-hole to begin with, and explained that the young lefty should just do what he does. Sveum didn’t ask Rizzo to start bunting or slapping at the ball to move runners over. Instead, Sveum understood that if Rizzo was just Rizzo, batting second could be a very good thing for both him and the Cubs. It was a short-lived experiment, and it might not be repeated this or next year, depending on the rest of the lineup.

It was interesting while it lasted, though, even if for no other reason than it generated this discussion.

  • Jono

    Speaking about baseball philosophy, I think (or at least hope) the bullpen gets a change of philosophy soon. Id like to see managers sending out their best relievers whenever the situation dictates, like if its the 7th or 8th inning, RISP with the middle I’d the order up to bat.

    • JoeyCollins

      I agree. The save stat, and most all BP unique stats, need to go away. No more Saves, blown saves, holds, or relief W-L. Just ERA, FIP, WHIP and other stats that are not entirely dependent on the situation the manager chose to bring you in to.

  • TK

    What bothers me is that he was “uncomfortable” in the first, and then that he was, as a result, unhappy about it. Outside of a few hot streaks, he has really not performed well the majority of the season. He should be happy to hit anywhere Dale puts him.

    But, the main point I’d like to make is perhaps “comfort” is the problem with him. If you think about it . . . Early after his call up last year, he was lights out, then cooled. He was good in the beginning of this season, then got comfy, and cooled off. Then came the talk by fans and media about the possibility of sending him down to AAA, and wouldn’t you know, he suddenly got hot. Then he fizzled again. Then he gets put in the 2 hole, and SHAZZAM! . . . he lights it up again.

    Anyone wanna bet he goes into another prolonged slump very soon, batting 3rd or 4th?

    Perhaps Rizzo needs to check his ego at the door, and not get “comfy” with where he’s at . . . Not just yet, anyways.

    • jono

      That’s a great observation.

      • TWC

        No, it’s not. It’s specious internet psychology: “he got comfy”, his hot streak was a response to media talk about sending him to AAA, “check his ego at the door”. It’s just bullshit, armchair psychoanalysis from behind a computer screen.

        • DarthHater

          Penis envy. ^^^ 😛

          • TWC

            Don’t be jealous; there’s lots of me to share.

        • jono

          I don’t perform well at work when I get comfortable. Seems to be a legit point to me.

          • Ian Afterbirth

            I agree it’s a legit point, but it’s also true that we are not inside the heads of the players.

            • jono

              Yea, nobody has ESP. I don’t even watch espn.

        • TK

          Uh, no. No, it’s not any of your choice internet-tough-guy-vocabulary descriptions. It’s an observation based on trends. I see NO consistency to Rizzo’s offense. But nobody can deny he has a ton of talent and potential. So then, if you know so well that Im wrong, what IS his problem? I’m not saying Rizzo is going through the motions or anything like that, but you can’t seriously deny that when he is given a jolt, he performs better. That’s becoming a very clear and repetitive occurrence. Many people do tend to settle into a comfort zone when they think they’ve succeeded, or found their niche. i do “suspect” this could be the case with Rizzo. And when you are so new to the show, you really should bring a better attitude to the table and embrace your managers efforts to help you, not speak contrarily to his authority. He should be happy Dale addressed his recent futility instead of just ignoring it with the understanding that Vogelbach is really mashing MiLB pitching. Now go ahead and twist the context of my words . . .

        • TK

          Furthermore, its a TEAM game. There are 9 guys playing together. I’m sure there are at least a couple others who would like to hit somewhere else in the order, or play more often, or play a different position. Dale needs to do what he feels is best for the TEAM. If that means Rizzo hitting 2nd, then he needs to swallow his pride and hit 2nd. Then, WHEN HE STARTS HITTING, he can be moved back to 3 or 4. Til then, he should STFU and play for the TEAM!!!!! He’s supposed our big run produce . . . far from it at this point. He hasn’t EARNED a claim on the 3 spot. Again, he needs to STFU and hit the stinking ball.

          • Jason P

            The evidence you used to support your initial point is flawed to begin with. After his call-up last year, he was hot, he cooled off as the league adjusted, and then he heated back up again towards the end of the year without moving out of the 3-hole or ever being threatened with a minor league promotion, etc.

            Earlier this year, Dale Sveum made those comments about sending players who weren’t performing down to the minors on April 21st, and Rizzo was 1-19 the next 4 days before going on his subsequent hot streak. That was long after Sveum clarified that he wasn’t specifically referring to Rizzo or Castro in his comments. After the move to the 2-hole, he was better, but it was in a 5-game sample size, so it’s impossible to make any conclusions from that.

            From a logical perspective, the “getting comfortable” explanation for his mediocrity doesn’t make much sense, either. Can you name even 1 time this year where effort was an issue with Rizzo? Because “getting too comfortable” essentially means “getting lazy”.

          • Hookers or Cake

            And addressing the first point is that Rizzo hasn’t been bad this year. His power numbers and Walk rate are up. His Babip is way down and because he is a lefty and young we are not sure if its due to bad contact, defensive shifts, bad luck or what the combination exactly is.

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