Yoenis Cespedes has often batted third or fourth in the Oakland A’s lineup this spring, which isn’t surprising, because the A’s don’t otherwise have anything like a cleanup hitter. Of the other eight players in their starting lineup for Wednesday morning’s opener against the Mariners, only three players have ever started a game batting fourth: Kurt Suzuki (60 times), Seth Smith (nine), and Brandon Allen (once). If Cespedes doesn’t lead the Oakland A’s in home runs this year, something will have gone very wrong or very right. But it was Smith, not Cespedes, who batted fourth against Felix Hernandez in the opener, and this also isn’t surprising, because players making their major-league debuts in the cleanup spot are all but extinct. Since 1980, just nine players have made their debuts in the cleanup spot, and over the past half-dozen years only one player—29-year-old Barbaro Canizares—has. San Jose Mercury News:
Manager Bob Melvin will bat Cespedes fifth [actually ended up hitting seventh] Wednesday, hoping to take some pressure off the outfielder as he makes his major league debut.
Much is made of the pressure on the pitchers who close ballgames, with perhaps equal energy spent supporting and disproving the idea that a special mindset is needed to get the 27th out. Other roles on a team also carry the “pressure” tag. Batting leadoff is sometimes thought to be too much pressure. Being a team’s nominal No. 1 starter is sometimes thought to be too much pressure. Perhaps (a distant) second only to closing, though, is hitting fourth in the order.
While the perceived toughness of closing is a modern phenomenon, the pressure of batting cleanup has been acknowledged since pre-WWII baseball. “Joe Gordon is a better player with the cleanup pressure lifted off his shoulders,” said the New York Times in 1943. It continues today: The pressure of batting cleanup was considered a reason for Milton Bradley’s struggles in Seattle and Chicago. After a decade batting fourth, Carlos Delgado was moved down in the order to “put him in a situation where he isn’t feeling as much pressure.”
The cleanup mentality was offered as a reason for Alex Escobar not to bat fourth. Tony La Russa kept Mark McGwire out of the cleanup spot to ease the pressure of returning from an injury. Jason Bay was dropped in the order not as a demotion but “to let him relax.” Dante Bichette “fizzled” from the “self-imposed pressure” of batting fourth. Justin Morneau “didn’t appear ready to handle batting cleanup,” even while winning the MVP award, in 2006. Jay Gibbons was demoted so he could “develop as a hitter without the pressure of batting cleanup.” Ike Davis, meanwhile, will bat cleanup this year “because he’s ready to handle it.”
I think he's expecting me to not put undue pressure on myself. Maybe some guys who previously have seen their names in the No. 4 hole have tried to live up to that billing. You only bat fourth once in the game. I'm going to try and not put that pressure on myself and just go out and stay with the swing that got me here.
And Albert Pujols, the guy DeRosa was supposed to be protecting, has it the other way: “It doesn’t matter,” he said his rookie year. “I don’t think there is any pressure at all.”
If the emphasis on that spot in the order is nothing new, the tendency to protect young prospects from it is, or at least has become more standard. During the 1920s, 22 players debuted in the fourth spot of the order. About a dozen did in each of the next two decades, then about half as many in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. Three did in each of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Nobody has done it yet in this decade.
The nine since 1980 are an interesting mix:
Al Chambers, a No. 1 overall pick and top prospect who flopped;
Jim Wilson, a second-round pick who slugged Triple-A home runs but wasn’t much of a prospect;
Pete Incaviglia, who batted fourth on Opening Day in 1986, in what was the first-round pick’s first professional game.
Tim Salmon, a top prospect who batted fourth during a September call-up;
Jay Gainer, a 26-year-old who started seven games with the expansion Rockies in 1993;
Jeff Liefer, who batted cleanup in his first game as part of a platoon with a young Paul Konerko;
Justin Morneau, a top prospect at the time;
Brad Eldred, a one-dimensional hitter who was crushing minor-league pitching but not a prospect;
and the 29-year-old Canizares, who played five games in the majors.
Four top prospects, three low-ceiling minor-league sluggers, and two minor league veterans. The trend, if there is one, seems to be moving even further away from putting top prospects in this situation, with only Morneau getting the call since Tim Salmon two decades ago, and nobody remotely promising debuting at cleanup in seven years.
How long does it take for a manager to stop worrying about what the pressure will do to top prospects? Looking at some top-10 prospects since 2006 who were cleanup-types coming up:
First start: 8th
Starts until cleanup: 145
First start: 7th
Starts until cleanup: 71
First start: 5th
Starts until cleanup: 66
First start: 7th
Starts until cleanup: 72
First start: 6th
Starts until cleanup: 77
First start: 2nd
Starts until cleanup: 95
First start: 7th
Games until cleanup: 102
First start: 6th
Games until cleanup: 46
First start: 6th
Games until cleanup: 65
Travis Snider and Brandon Wood both hit ninth in their debuts and have never batted fourth. A few of these players—most notably Jay Bruce and Eric Hosmer—spent significant time hitting third or leadoff before batting fourth, so their managers arguably weren’t worried about the pressure. Generally, though, the convention seems to be to give even the very best young hitters around 60 games, a couple months, in the big leagues before putting them in what is perceived to be a high-pressure situation. Cespedes hit seventh Wednesday, but given his age and salary, we shouldn’t have to wait as long to see him bat fourth.
Totally unrelated to everything above, but perhaps of interest while we ecstatically watch baseball in a Japanese stadium this week, is this account in the New Yorker by the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami:
I was at Jingu Stadium, alone in the outfield, watching a baseball game…. Dave Hilton got a hit down the left-field line. The crack of the bat meeting ball echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at just that moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and, whatever it was, I accepted it.