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February 28, 2013

Wezen-Ball

Batting Third: Bryce Harper (and Derek Jeter)

by Larry Granillo

Spring training is all about trying things out and seeing who or what works best, so it's not uncommon to see a manager shuffling his lineup in early games (especially after the addition of a new leadoff hitter). Even so, it looks like Davey Johnson and the Nationals might be doing more than experimenting.

With the addition of the left-handed-batting Denard Span to the top of the lineup, reports out of Nationals camp say that Johnson is thinking of moving no-longer-a-teen phenom Bryce Harper down from the second spot in the batting order (where he excelled in 2012) to the third, sliding in right-handed hitting Jayson Werth between the two lefties. Speaking to reporters about the choice, Johnson said this:

"I think he thinks (the No. 2 spot is) where I want to hit him, because that's where I hit him last year. With the addition of a left-handed bat leading off, I like to vary it. This spring is going to be kind of a test to see where I think they fit the best. It’s all about making harder choices for the opposing manager on his matchups."

Since then, Harper has played in four games and batted third in three of them. His first start as the second hitter came on Wednesday. Referring to the conversation he had with Johnson following the posting of the lineup, Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore wrote:

"He gets on every time, so I figured I might as well get him up earlier," Johnson said. "No, just fooling around."

Johnson joked with reporters that he had seen Harper penciled into second in some of their lineups. He asked me if that’s where I had him, and I told him no, I had figured on Werth hitting second and Harper batting third. "Well," Johnson said, "you’re a smart son of a [gun]."

Maybe it's just me, but that sounds like a man who has decided where he wants to write Harper's name for 162 games this season.

If Johnson does turn Harper into a number-three hitter, how much will that affect Harper's ability to get on base? We already know that each spot lower in the lineup gets fewer at-bats than the one immediately above it (The Book lists the difference between the first and second spots at 0.11 PA/game or roughly 15 PA a year), but what does that look like in practice? Let's try a real world example.

In Derek Jeter's 17-year career, he has appeared in the first or second spot in the lineup in 2,291 games (for 10,696 plate appearances and 9,485 at-bats). That leaves 294 games in spots lower in the batting order. Of those, 128 games were in the third spot in the order, where he averaged 4.47 plate appearances per game. If we take those 2,291 games at the top of the order and assume that Jeter batted in the three-hole instead (maintaining his 4.47 PA/G average), we find that he would have lost 460 plate appearances (and 406 at-bats) over his career. That's more than half a season's worth of at-bats! Translating this all out, a strictly third-hitting Jeter would have 125 fewer hits (and 176 fewer times on base) than the identical Jeter batting above him. That may not seem like much considering his 3,304 career hits, but it would have been enough to keep us from seeing the Captain pass the 3,000-hit mark until 2012.

What's more, The Book also finds that the number two hitter should actually be better than the number three hitter. The Yankees, then, were actually giving themselves a better shot by batting Jeter higher in the lineup all of these years. What a surprise!

Davey Johnson is smarter than me when it comes to managing a baseball team, I know, so there is likely a very good reason to move Bryce Harper down a spot in the order. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there is a measurable impact on Harper's ability to contribute if that does happen. It's not big—probably only a few runs at most over the year—but it is real. Harper will get fewer at-bats and, unless he amasses a markedly higher batting average in that position, it guarantees that he will have fewer hits. Davey Johnson is a very successful manager and knows what he's doing, but this move absolutely does change Washington's bottom line. That's before considering other effects it might have, like altering Harper's base-running approach if he is afraid to get thrown out stretching a single to a double or even just leaving first base open in front of the clean-up hitter.

Johnson must weigh all of those possible consequences over the next month before he decides whether breaking up the lefties at the top of the order is worth it.

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jimcal

The lefty-righty seesaw blade lineup theorem aside, if putting Werth 2nd based on his OBP (.380 2012, .362 career.) then hit Harper 3rd (well, we are all counting on higher than his .340 rookie campaign) could be justified in OBP. Yet, haven't seen a lineup that follow by OBP alone. I wonder if cliches like sophomore slump or pressure of #3 spot applicable on Mr. Harper.

Feb 28, 2013 13:39 PM
rating: 1
 
Kris Ericson

How does Jeter's slugging change from #2 to #3? Curious if it increases in the 3-hole, and if it does, if that "cancels out" the net bases lost by those missing hits/walks from the OBP.

Feb 28, 2013 13:41 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Larry Granillo
BP staff

Jeter's career slugging in the 3-hole is .457, only a tad higher than his overall career .448. That's in 573 PAs over 7 different years of use, which is well less than a season's worth for Jeter (compared to the nearly 11,000 PAs higher up in the lineup).

The best I can tell, Jeter is who Jeter is no matter where you place him in the lineup, which is why it's good for him that he batted so high in the lineup. It's certainly going to help him challenge Musial for his spot on the all time hits list...

Feb 28, 2013 14:04 PM
 
eliyahu

To me, the striking thing about this is that the entire move seems to be dictated by Span having to hit leadoff. So a guy coming off three consecutive years without clearing an OBP of .342 is dropping everyone in the lineup -- not just Harper -- down a spot. Why? Because he looks like a leadoff hitter.

For all the progress the fact-based baseball community has made over the years, it's important to look at decisions like this to remind us all how much more work there is to be done.

Feb 28, 2013 14:20 PM
rating: 2
 
ttt

There was a point in 1999 when (I think) Paul O'Neill was injured, when Jeter hit 3rd for a few weeks. It was presented as a "he's maturing into a #3 hitter"-type thing. If I recall correctly, he had a monster week, then went back to the #2 spot when O'Neill returned. I wonder what would have happened if he had a full season in the #3.

Feb 28, 2013 15:21 PM
rating: 1
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Yes, I recall this as well. I too wonder what would have happened if he had hit 3rd all year. Of course, 1999 me could not imagine a better #3 hitter on the Yanks' roster than Paul O'Neill, so I did not have those thoughts for long at the time!

Checking my memory via Retrosheet, though, says that Jeter only played 11 games in '99 hitting 3rd. I would have bet it was at least 3 weeks, but there you are. It also says that O'Neill played in 153 games that year, which doesn't jive with our "O'Neill was injured" memory. His daily game log for 1999 doesn't show more than one or two days off in a row, either, and indicates that he played RF in 150 of those games and pinch hit in 3 of them.

Jeter hit .395/.462/.488 in those 11 games, and .349/.438/.563 out of his usual second spot. (He hit leadoff in one game and batted cleanup in one game - in which he was intentionally walked! - I would have thought I would have remembered that, but I do not.)

Maybe we are thinking of 2001? Jeter played in exactly 7 games while hitting 3rd that year, and destroyed the ball: .440/.548/.720. O'Neill played in only 137 games. However, I could not find a solid week in 2001 when Jeter hit 3rd. A couple days here, a couple days there.

Oh well. I like that memory better anyway. ;)

Feb 28, 2013 16:54 PM
rating: 1
 
Dave Holgado

You did not mention -- though this is discussed in The Book -- that there is a tradeoff between having your best hitter get more PA, and having your best hitter bat with more "ducks on the pond" in the PA that he does get. Even in the AL, the 3-hitter has more RBI opportunities than the 2-hitter, though sometimes a lineup is so stacked as to have a high OBP guy in the 9-hole, and this difference is minimal. But in the National League, the pitcher bats 9th, making this difference even greater. (The Book actually recommends the LaRussa strategy of batting the pitcher 8th to combat this, but if that advice isn't going to be followed, that should be factored in.) I'm not suggesting that the benefit of more PA doesn't outweigh this, but it is still a significant counterweight, and when you're talking about 15 PA over a season, that counterweight doesn't need to be all that heavy to cancel out most of the benefit. And I haven't read it in awhile, but I believe The Book makes three other points that are relevant here: (i) there really is a statistical case to be made for alternating hitters by handedness (which, as you acknowledge, is part of Davey's stated justification); (ii) the 4-hole is probably the best spot for a power-and-OBP guy like Harper, since that spot has the benefit of both leading off more innings, and batting less with 2 outs, than the 3-hole does; and, most importantly, (iii) the difference between an optimized lineup and a non-optimized (but not silly) one is probably only about one win per season in any event. So it's perhaps a bit of an overstatement to say that this will absolutely change Washington's bottom line.

Feb 28, 2013 17:15 PM
rating: 2
 
antonsirius

"...altering Harper's base-running approach if he is afraid to get thrown out stretching a single to a double..."

Having watched him play a fair bit, I can say with some confidence that Harper being afraid to do anything on a baseball field is not a very likely scenario.

Feb 28, 2013 17:19 PM
rating: 8
 
jdeich

I could see the opposite being a problem for the next couple years. First base coach signals hold, Harper sprints through the sign, pulls sunglasses out of his back pocket, dons them while sliding into second, all while yelling "I got this."

I think he's also a higher injury risk than the average 20 year old in peak physical condition, because man does he like diving and sliding. And eyeblack. But mostly diving and sliding.

Mar 01, 2013 07:19 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

On the flipside, he doesn't party and supposedly has a strong work ethic. There are 20 year olds doing all kinds of crazy things to impress college (or minor league) coaches or "living the high life".

Mar 01, 2013 09:49 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Assume for a second it's better to hit your best hitter in the #2 slot. It's quite possible that, as of today, Werth is a better hitter than Harper.

Feb 28, 2013 20:35 PM
rating: 1
 
Dan W.

Are you using the British "quite", as in "not really"?

Mar 01, 2013 10:45 AM
rating: -1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Nope. Werth had a higher TAv than Harper in 2012 and nothing Werth did was out of his career norm, but PECOTA's expecting a regression for Harper.

Mar 01, 2013 12:33 PM
rating: 0
 
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