Move him up! Dusty Baker, Joey Votto and the Chamber of Secret Batting Orders

Hunter Martin

The Reds manager has many strengths, but constructing a batting order isn't one of them.

It's hard to figure Dusty Baker sometimes. His reputation within the game as a manager who keeps his team focused and prepared is second to none. He has been voted three Manager of the Year awards, putting him behind only Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa, who won four each. He's had great players but few great teams, winning 100 games in a season only once. His career winning percentage of .526 is unremarkable, ranking 50th among managers who have coached 700 or more games in the modern era, and 23rd among the 52 managers who managed 2000 or more games. His six playoff appearances have resulted in just one World Series appearance, a loss.

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No manager won a World Series with Barry Bonds as his star, and yet already it is hard to believe that he and Baker were together for 10 years and accomplished so little. We can't put all of that on Baker or Bonds (in the same way we can't put Ted Williams' lack of a ring on the Splinter or Tom Yawkey's often hapless choices of manager), but it's also clear that when Baker has had to confront a situation in which he's had to use a little creativity, he tends to default to stock images to solve his problem and thereby fails to do what a manager is supposed to do, indeed the only thing a manager really can do, which is find an extra run or two between the sofa cushions.

This tendency most often exhibits itself in Baker's choice of batting orders. Now, optimizing a batting order might net a team only an incremental improvement in offense. This makes intuitive sense: There are only nine slots, so moving one player down means moving others up. If you have Frankie Popup as your shortstop and you want to bury him by batting him ninth, that's great, but it will also have the effect of moving Johnny Groundout up to eighth, netting him a few more plate appearances on the season. The only real solution is to bench both of them, but that decision is usually out of the manager's hand -- we assume that if the manager had been given players, he'd play them. Not all of them deserve that assumption, of course.

Baker's Leadoff Men

According to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, an optimized lineup can net a team perhaps an extra 10 or 15 runs over the course of a season. That doesn't seem like a lot, but it's tantamount to an extra 1-2 wins. Most of the time that won't make much of a difference, but in a season like the Giants had in 1993, when they won 103 games but lost the division title to the Atlanta Braves by a single game, you have to consider every error, physical or mental, as a possible culprit.

A recurrent theme in Baker's career is that he has not been blessed by his general managers with obvious choices for top-of-the-order roles. That 1993 team had Bonds, Matt Williams, and Will Clark, but lacked a Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, or Kenny Lofton type who screamed out "bat me first!" Lofton is mentioned pointedly -- Baker's teams traded for him twice in two seasons so that he could displace lesser choices such as David Bell and Tom Goodwin (with the 2002 Giants) and Mark Grudzielanek and Goodwin again (with the 2003 Cubs).

Bell and Grudzielanek actually weren't terrible choices in the context of Baker's career. In 1993 and for a couple of years after, he defaulted to Darren Lewis, a speedy defensive specialist who hit .249/.318/.320 during his five seasons with the Giants. The Lewis era ended in 1995, when the Giants included him in a trade for Deion Sanders. At other times, Baker has opted for Corey Patterson (career .252/.290/.400), Juan Pierre (Lewis without the defense), or Willy Taveras (a Lewis clone). Last year, with no player on the Reds who met Baker's preconceived notions of a leadoff hitter, he spent a good deal of the year on OBP-challenged shortstop Zack Cozart. Reds leadoff hitters combined to hit .208/.254/.327, the worst rates in the major leagues.

A Failure of Imagination

This represents a terrible failing for a manager. A batting order is a machine for distributing playing time. The leadoff slot will hit more often than the number two slot, which will hit more often than the third slot and so on. Here's how the batting order broke down last year:

Split

PA

PCT OF ALL PA

Batting 1st

22526

12.2

Batting 2nd

22012

12.0

Batting 3rd

21503

11.7

Batting 4th

21001

11.4

Batting 5th

20532

11.1

Batting 6th

20013

10.9

Batting 7th

19469

10.6

Batting 8th

18860

10.1

Batting 9th

18263

9.9


Baker has demonstrated conclusively that he chooses not to recognize this aspect of the batting order, not only in his choice of leadoff hitters, but his choice of second-place batters -- he batted Neifi Perez(.267/.297/.375 career) leadoff 28 times when he had him in 2005 and 2006, but also batted him second 86 times -- indicates that as well. This year, with Shin-Soo Choo leading off, Reds leadoff hitters have hit .309/.460/.545, the best mark in the majors. Conversely, with Cozart typically batting second, Reds #2 hitters have averaged .232/.265/.363, which ranks 24th. Essentially, if Baker has an obvious leadoff man, like Lofton or Marvin Benard, he'll use him. Similarly, when he had Bill Mueller, a third baseman who hit like a good second baseman (.291 with 11 home runs and 72 walks per 162 games) with the Giants, he often batted him second.

However, if he didn't have guys who were just screaming, "Bat me first!" he would default to his mental image of "speedy guy" first and "contact-hitting infielder" second. Thus do you get Jose Vizcaino (.270/.318/.346 career) batting second for the 1997 Giants or Alex S. Gonzalez (.243/.302/.391 career) batting second for the 2003 Cubs. This has worked out for Baker on occasion. In 2001 he had one of the more sensible of his batting orders, his occasional listing of veteran hacker Shawon Dunston in the leadoff spot notwithstanding. Shortstop Rich Aurilia, batting second in front of Bonds and Jeff Kent, had the best season of his career, hitting .324/.369/.572 with 37 home runs and a league-leading 206 hits. The season was well out of line with the rest of Aurilia's career, during which his relative impatience led to league-average OBPs.

Another example of Baker's lack of understanding of the batting order of distributive tool was his insistence on batting Bonds fifth in 1993 and part of 1994. That was a difference of perhaps 20 plate appearances, but given how often Bonds walked and homered, those plate appearances were valuable.

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

When I have written about Baker's lineup choices in the past, a common reader response has been, "Well, who do you want him to bat leadoff?" The answer would seem to be obvious: "Not the guy with the second-worst on-base percentage on the team. Other than that, it doesn't really matter." All a manager can really do is put his best players in positions where they will do the most damage. Failing to do that because "The most obvious leadoff hitter is the catcher and who does that?" or similar represents an abdication of responsibility. Finding that his general manager has not gifted him with Rickey Henderson or even half a Rickey does not mean the manager gets to punt.

It says something that on Sunday and Monday, when Cozart sat due to illness, Baker did not alter his lineup, but simply plugged Cesar Izturis, a career .254/.293/.322 hitter, into Cozart's number-two slot.

Non-Traditional Leadoff Men and Number-Two Hitters

Some of the best leadoff hitters have not been traditional speed guys, the center fielders and shortstops. Wade Boggs, one of the great leadoff men of the 1980s, stole about one base a year. The great Yankees teams of the mid-to-late 1950s often used Hank Bauer as their leadoff man. Bauer might have run quickly as a Marine hitting the beach at Okinawa, but he was hardly known as a flier on the bases. During Pete Rose's peak years he stole about 10 bases a year (in 17 tries). Three of the best leadoff men of the late 1940s to the mid-50s, the trio of Eddies Stanky, Joost, and Yost, did little more than walk. Brian Downing was a catcher/left fielder/designated hitter who stole 50 bases in a 20-year career. Catcher Jason Kendall led off for the Pirates in 2004 and in parts of four other seasons, and of course the A's have led off catcher/designated hitter John Jaso in 11 games this year.

To get a sense of how powerful images are, consider that Craig Biggio hit first just 36 times in his first three seasons in the majors. He was a catcher, and catchers don't lead off. As soon as he became a second baseman he was suddenly parked in that spot. His manager, Art Howe, was the same guy who spent the previous couple of years trying to make Gerald Young and Eric Yielding his leadoff men because they were fast and were center fielders. As long as Biggio was a backstop, he was more or less radar-invisible when it came to catching. Once the tools of ignorance came off and he was a middle infielder it was a whole other story.

Number-two hitters have been even more varied than the leadoff men. In 1959, the Braves batted future 500-home run man Eddie Mathews second between outfielders Bill Bruton and Hank Aaron and he responded with a .306/.390/.593 season including a league-leading 46 home runs. La Russa's decision to bat Carlton Fisk second in 1983, a role in which the catcher hit .324/.391/.587, was viewed as a key to that team's surprise division title. More recently, slugging center fielder Jim Edmonds often hit second. Dan Uggla, the low-average, power-hitting second baseman hit second for Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Girardi revived his practice of batting a power-hitting second baseman second this year, listing Robinson Cano second in 24 games.

The idea of placing a power-hitter second seems like the most normal thing in the world to me, but I come from the 1980s, when Wade Boggs was often followed in the Boston batting order by Dwight Evans, a career .272/.370/.470 (127 OPS+) hitter who in his best years was good for 30 home runs and a 100 walks. Third baseman Darrell Evans, his near twin in name and skills, also frequently batted second during the decade. Down the coast in New York, Don Mattingly's 1985 MVP season came with the first baseman batting second in nearly 60 games. He hit far better there (.355/.414/.674) than he did batting third (.304/.344/.505). The value to the Yankees, who could often count on a first-inning sequence with a Rickey Henderson hit or walk being followed by a Mattingly double or home run, was immense.

Joey Votto

If you think this is all a prelude to an argument that Joey Votto, the National League's OBP leader should bat second, you're right. With Choo and Votto up in front of him, Brandon Phillips has batted with more runners on than any other hitter in baseball. He's done an excellent job of delivering them to the plate, hitting .318/.387/.466 with men on and .435/.483/.587 with runners in scoring position. Votto, on the other hand, who has to contend with the pitcher and Cozart being ahead of him in most innings, has seen only the 15th-most baserunners, a strong showing that is largely attributable to the season Choo has had.

With Ryan Ludwick hurt, and Todd Frazier and the catchers struggling, the 6th through 8th spots in the Reds batting order have been weak to say the least. Their sixth-spot hitters rank 23rd in the majors, their seventh-spot hitters 28th, and their eighth-spot hitters 25th. This should change eventually as Ryan Hanigan continues to recover from his oblique strain (he's hit .292 in eight games since coming off of the disabled list), Frazier finds his stroke, and Ludwick returns. In the short term, moving Votto up would eliminate an out machine from the heart of the order (pushing Cozart down to eighth might force him to learn some patience as pitchers work around him to get to the pitcher), get Votto, Phillips, and Jay Bruce more plate appearances, and improve the circularity of the order by bringing Hanigan's patience into the picture as the lineup wraps around in the later innings.

Parenthetically, when I alluded to Cozart's struggles in a post last week, a reader commented that the shortstop is a career .279/.316/.423 hitter when batting second. Over the last three seasons, the average major-league no. two hitter has averaged .264/.325/.394. It's better than Cozart usually does, but it's not anything special or particularly good.

In the longer term, top prospect Sliding Billy Hamilton may change the picture by providing the Reds with a more traditional leadoff man. Off to a slow start at Triple-A, the 100-steal outfielder has recently started to heat up. With his arrival, should it come this season, Choo could drop down one place to become an Evans-style number-two hitter...

...Assuming Baker doesn't drop him down to sixth.

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