For nearly the entirety of baseball history, a team's best hitter has been third in the batting order. So, with Joey Votto hitting second this Saturday afternoon for the first time since Aug. 8th, 2008, does that mean he's no longer the Reds' best hitter or that the tide has turned on yet another one of baseball's long-held unwritten rules?
The numbers for Votto -- who has spent the overwhelming majority of his career plate appearances (3,235 out of 3,833, or 84%) hitting third in the line up -- are hardly indicative of how he will perform from the No. 2 spot. But the stats supporting a shift in philosophy (and Votto's place in the batting order) are fairly overwhelming. In fact, several pieces done by journalists regarding the idea have mentioned Votto specifically, most notably Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan.
While it's always made theoretical sense, the idea rose to prominence after being featured in The Book, a well-known Sabermetrics tome by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin. The book states rather clearly your best bat can (and should) sacrifice getting slightly more men on base in front of him because of the extra at-bats they will pick up throughout the season.
With your best all-around hitter getting roughly 20 more plate appearances per season, it likely gives the players hitting behind him more opportunities to bat with at least a man on base. And with more chances to drive in runs, the chances of them being driven in obviously increases.
This being baseball, there are detractors both in and out of the statistical orthodoxy. Some, including John Dewan writing for Bill James Online, have made the argument that the amount of runners on base -- which in 2006 averaged out to 28 more between the second spot (323) and the third spot (351) -- isn't worth the additional at-bats, no matter how efficient a hitter might be. But the Reds aren't the only team that have tried this move recently.
Last year both the Yankees and Twins put their best hitters -- Robinson Cano and Joe Mauer, respectively -- in the second spot with solid results. Cano hit .308/.396/.560 in 118 PA, about one-fifth of his 605 total. Even though his batting average dipped slightly -- he hit .314 for the season overall -- his OPS went up by 56 points when batting second.
Mauer spent even more time last season in the two-hole, batting .310/.385/.464 in a whopping 405 PA. And while his batting average was 14 points lower than his overall line (.324), this was likely a function of his regressing to the mean rather than any discernible difference in quality between his times batting third and second.
So, while it may seem like sacrilege to put the Reds best player higher in the line-up, the stats and experiments seem to indicate that it's at least worth a serious try. And if nothing else, getting someone in the second spot for the Reds that can hit better than .254 is definitely a good idea, no matter what stats you look at.