Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

Matt Garza buntAfter discussing it in the offseason and Spring Training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has implemented a lineup where his pitchers bat eighth.

And while much of the attention focuses on where the pitcher bats, the value in the lineup switch is actually in the increased offense that comes with batting a position player ninth. Admittedly, I dismissed it when Tony La Russa used it as a manager, chalking it up to the Cardinals’ skipper over-managing and being an annoyance, as he was prone to do. But, after digging through some numbers, I’m willing to welcome a change that could result in more offense.

Ideally, the Cubs would like to build a lineup that comes close to resembling an American League lineup. But without the designated hitter, that can be a difficult task. This is where moving the pitcher up in the order could help create more opportunities for offense.

In short, you want your best hitters to get the highest number of plate appearances (i.e., bat them high in the lineup). But you also want your best hitters to have a high number of chances with runners on base (i.e., bat high OBP guys in front of the big bats). That combination creates an opportunity in the nine spot.

The No. 9 hitter on Maddon’s Rays teams slashed .229/.291/.343/.634 over the last seven years, with a .283 weighted on-base average that put them seventh among AL teams. Still, that would provide a significant bump considering the median wOBA for NL hitters batting ninth in that same span of years was .217.

In 2014, the average NL hitter batting ninth (usually the pitcher) slashed .166/.215/.229/.444. The average eighth hitter slashed .233/.299/.326/.626.

Swapping the two would result in an increase of 8.4 percentage points in on-base percentage for the guys who’ll come up just before the top of the order. It doesn’t seem like much, but there is more value in getting on base in front of the No. 1 hitter, such as Dexter Fowler and his career .365 OBP, than getting on base in front of a pitcher batting ninth, who is likely to make an out in almost 80 percent of their plate appearances.

Additionally, there is a 5.5 percentage point drop in OBP from the average eighth hitter (.305) to the average ninth hitter (.250). There is no bigger drop off from two consecutive batting order spots.

Over the course of a 162-game season, moving a batter with a higher OBP in front of Anthony Rizzo, who bats third, should result in more scoring chances. Especially if he can replicate last year’s success with runners on.

Rizzo slugged .527 with runners on base last year, which ranked 18th in baseball. However, his 242 plate appearances checked in as the 12th fewest among the top 50 in that particular category. In fact, of 172 qualifying batters, Rizzo’s 242 PA with runners on ranks 100th. To add some perspective, Rizzo made 103 fewer plate appearances with runners on than category leader Ryan Howard (345).

It’s a delicate balancing act, no doubt. Moving the pitcher up could lead to situations where some combination of the fifth, sixth or seventh hitters are on base in front of a pitcher. But is sacrificing that spot in the order, at least until the starting pitcher leaves the game, for the sake of getting the No. 2 or No. 3 hitter more chances worth the hassle?

That’s a question Maddon will have plenty of time to answer.

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