Batting order is fun to discuss. In a long, long season, there are only so many conversations to have about the pre-game machinations of a team, so batting order gets a lot of attention. Does it make much of a difference, though? Well, research indicates that an optimal lineup could be worth as much as five to fifteen runs over the course of a season, which could be the difference in a game or two in the standings. So, while it’s not a huge deal, it does matter.
Which brings us to a frequent topic of debate: batting pitchers eighth in the National League. The general theory is that, as you come through the order the second time, if the 9th hitter is an actual quality hitter, he’s got a better chance at getting on base than the pitcher, which would then mean a runner on base for the best hitters in the lineup (who tend to be in the top half of the order). The counter-argument is that you’re giving more plate appearances, over the course of the season, to pitchers (and the counter to that is that it’s a very small difference as compared to the 8-hole, and by the third/fourth time through the order, you very well might be using a pinch hitter anyway). But the counter to that counter is that it won’t always be a pitcher batting – sometimes it will be a pinch hitter.
Will the Cubs pull the trigger on pitchers batting eighth this year? Well, it seems possible under Joe Maddon’s watch, as he has previously suggested he’s open to the idea (and he did it when his Rays visited Wrigley Field).
Now, it seems even more possible, as Maddon has shared more of his thoughts on when and why it makes sense to bat the pitcher eighth, and you can read about it here at ESPN and here in the Tribune. It sounds like it could happen, at least in some games.
In short, as he does, Maddon is thinking about the issue in a slightly different way. Instead of thinking solely about the impact on the lineup in terms of that ninth hitter now becoming something of a secondary leadoff guy, Maddon also thinks about the kind of starting pitcher he has going that day. If it’s a starter that is likely to go deep into the game – and thus not invite a pinch hitter in the middle innings – Maddon might be more likely to let that pitch stay in the 9-hole, deferring the pinch hitting decision just a touch longer. On the other hand, if it’s a starter that you might expect to last only into the 5th or 6th innings, Maddon might be more inclined to bat that guy in the 8-hole, because the desire to pinch hit might come up earlier in the game anyway.
It’s an interesting way of thinking about the decision, and Maddon is certainly correct that, in some starts, the ability to wait on the pinch hitter decision for just one more batter could mean the difference between a starter going six innings or being able to go seven (because you won’t have had to yank him for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the previous inning). So, even if you buy into pitchers batting eighth, generally, there may be some starters that you just don’t want to do it.
And, of course, whether there’s a solid ninth hitter – and the pitcher’s hitting ability – factors into the decision, too.
Put it all together, and it seems like guys like Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta wouldn’t be great candidates to bat eighth. The rest of the rotation, though, could be fair game.
Who bats in that 9-hole on those days probably depends a fair bit on how the rest of the lineup shakes out, and who is in the lineup that day.