Yesterday, 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.