Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jose Bautista is batting 2nd, and that's good news

Batting your best hitter second in the lineup has been a pet theory among sabermetricians for a number of years, but it's getting increasing interest around baseball this year, and the Blue Jays are joining the bandwagon, moving Jose Bautista into the second spot in their batting order. Does it make sense? Or is Jose's power wasted there?

The injury to Jose Reyes robbed the Jays of a natural leadoff man, and they've struggled to find an appropriate fill-in. Emilio Bonifacio and Rajai Davis got long looks there, as their speed looks good atop the order. Also getting time were guys like Brett Lawrie and Munenori Kawasaki. That whole group was a failure, though; your leadoff hitter must be able to get on base, and all those players feature below-average OBPs. The natural solution, I felt, was Melky Cabrera, and indeed the Jays have finally put him there. Melky had been batting 2nd or 5th most of April, as the Jays really wanted to mix his switch-hitting abilities among all the right-handed power bats. Now that Adam Lind has turned it on, they've been able to use Melky to lead off. He's not especially fast - indeed, he remains in the leadoff spot right now despite hamstring issues - but he's one of the team's best OBP guys.

When your lineup features as much power as the Jays have (it's not just Bautista and Edwin Encarnacaion; JP Arencibia and Colby Rasmus are piling up HRs too), you need to get as many guys on base in front of them as possible. Sending Davis and Bonifacio up there to make outs did nothing to set the table for them - it just burned outs and stopped the offence before it could get started.

Further, batting Melky 5th was similarly wasteful. Bautista and Encarnacion are two of the team's better OBP guys. They'll often get on via a walk, and if they're on base that often, you need a guy with some power to bring them in. Arencibia and Rasmus are perfectly suited to do that; their OBP isn't great, but they can cash in men on base. Melky, on the other hand, has a good chance to hit a single, but can't drive in runners en masse.

So with Melky in the leadoff spot, who bats second? As I've said above, the Jays have plenty of power guys but few OBP men. In that regard, Bautista is a perfect solution. With Edwin hitting 3rd and Arencibia 4th, the Jays have enough power in the middle of the lineup that Bautista can be deployed elsewhere.

A further advantage is that Bautista is less likely to come to the plate with 2 out. Batting 3rd - especially behind Davis and Bonifacio - teams could pitch around him, knowing that a walk with 2 out was a lesser risk. With none or one out, walking Bautista is a greater risk, because the Jays will have more chances to drive him in. So teams have to pitch to him, and he's able to get fastballs that can become home runs. How much better is Jose with less than 2 outs? His career BA/OBP/SLG splits:
  • none out: .279/.366/.559
  • one out: .250/.358/.459
  • two out: .229/.363/.443
The difference is undeniable. With two out, Jose gets a lot of walks, but doesn't get pitches to hit. The fewer outs, the more pressure teams face to pitch to him. You could easily make an argument, based on these splits, that Jose should be leading off. Yes, he'd be hitting a lot of solo home runs, but he'll do that anyway (just with 2 outs) if the Jays can't put decent OBP men on in front of him. Batting him 2nd behind Cabrera is a good compromise, and will continue to help the Jays. Bravo to John Gibbons for being willing to work outside the conventional wisdom.

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