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Ranking the best 3-4-5 combinations in baseball

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Which team has the best middle of the order in baseball? We use stats and subjective opinions to find out

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The middle of the order. It's where teams stuff their best, most powerful hitters. Once you hit anywhere from the third spot to the fifth spot in a lineup, you're a part of a select fraternity. A secret club. A club in which A.J. Pierzynski was hanging out last year, for some reason. He was fishing olives out of the jar with his hands. Dammit, Pierzynski, you ruined the secret club.

But most teams do stuff their best hitters from Nos. 3-5. It's the section that should get fans excited when the lineup turns over. Our goal today is to rank all 30 middle-of-the-orders. Middles-of-the-order. Seems like there should be a better term for it, a single word, like morgfostench, after the German word for the middle of the order for the '77 Reds. We need to figure out which team in baseball has the best morgfostench.

This will be a two-part process:

The first step will be to take the three-year adjusted OPS for every player listed as a middle-of-the-order hitter on Roster Resource, then average the lineup rankings for each team. This is imperfect because it will weight one-year samples for young players like Aaron Altherr and Maikel Franco too highly, and it will treat players on their way down the same as players on their way up. Carlos Correa and Matt Holliday both have a 132 OPS+ in this search, but I know which one I would rather bet on for 2016.

The second step is to adjust the rankings however I feel like. It's easier than weighting the last year of the sample for all 90 players and building in some sort of age-related decline. That still wouldn't make for a perfect ranking, and it wouldn't satisfy my god complex, either.

If you have a problem with the exact 3-4-5 hitters in question, yell at Roster Resource, not me.

To the rankings!

30. Philadelphia Phillies

  • Maikel Franco, 110 OPS+ from 2013-15  (24th among No. 3 hitters)
  • Ryan Howard, 98 OPS+ from 2013-15 (30th among No. 4 hitters)
  • Aaron Altherr, 116 OPS+ from 2013-15  (13th among No. 5 hitters)

Altherr jimmied up the quasi-scientific rankings (the Phillies would have been 28th), and I bumped them down for that. Also, Howard might decline even further, which is scary. He was already the only projected cleanup hitter with an adjusted OPS worse than the league average.

29. Atlanta Braves

  • Nick Markakis, 101 OPS+ (28th)
  • Freddie Freeman, 140 OPS+ (5th)
  • Adonis Garcia, 116 OPS+ (14th)

Hands up if you think Garcia is really a 116 OPS+ kind of hitter. Based on the aggregate rankings, the Braves were 15th. That's why I installed the whatever-I-feel-like component to the ranking.

Garcia is one of the only middle-of-the-order players out of the 90 who isn't an established major leaguer, he'll be 31 and his plate discipline last year was abominable. He had a ,683 OPS in Triple-A before he was called up, so it's not like he's a Ken Phelps All-Star that we all missed. And Markakis hit three home runs in 686 plate appearances last year, which seems like a glitch that would get fixed with a software update.

On the other hand, Freeman is better than you remember. Take a second to appreciate him.

28. Cincinnati Reds

  • Brandon Phillips, 94 OPS+ (30th)
  • Jay Bruce, 101 OPS+ (29th)
  • Devin Mesoraco, 111 OPS+ (17th)

And we see one of the problems of this methodology. Joey Votto is projected to be the No. 2 hitter in the Reds' lineup. If he's stuffed in the middle of this group, the Reds fare much better. But he'll likely be put in a lineup spot where he'll help his team more and get additional at-bats. Should the Reds be punished for that?

Well, yeah, it's not like they care about silly rankings. So if this is the middle of the order for the Reds, the team that invented morgfostench, it's pretty bad. Of all 90 players projected to hit in the middle of an order, just four of them had a three-year adjusted OPS under 100. Phillips was the worst of all, and Bruce is a poor season away from joining him.

27. Tampa Bay Rays

  • Evan Longoria, 117 OPS+ (19th)
  • Logan Forsythe, 101 OPS+ (28th)
  • James Loney, 106 OPS+ (24th)

And another problem: Players on the way up aren't given nearly enough credit. If you believe Forsythe's 2015 breakout was for real -- and the 28-year-old was fabulous last year -- then feel free to move the Rays way up. I want one more year to be convinced, but I'm not going to argue too strenuously if you're a believer.

On the other hand, James Loney.

26. San Diego Padres

  • Yangervis Solarte, 106 OPS+ (27th)
  • Matt Kemp, 121 OPS+ (13th)
  • Derek Norris, 108 OPS+ (21st)

That sure is Yangervis Solarte hitting third. The biggest surprise might be how well Kemp stacks up against other cleanup hitters -- you can see what the Padres were hoping for when they acquired him.

Still, I'll take the under on that OPS+ for the rest of his career, and this is a sketchy bunch in a ballpark that will make them look even worse.

25. Oakland A's

  • Josh Reddick, 107 OPS+ (25th)
  • Danny Valencia, 119 OPS+ (18th)
  • Stephen Vogt, 110 OPS+ (19th)

First thought: Danny Valencia seems like a curious choice to hit cleanup.

Second thought: Valencia has been much better than I would have guessed.

Third thought: Why in the heck would the Blue Jays just give Valencia away? What a weird roster decision. He must sing the rap parts of Linkin Park songs in the clubhouse and rap the singing parts and also listen to Linkin Park in the clubhouse.

Still, this is a competent group with a couple of late-bloomers who might be underrated with a three-year statistical sample.

24. Baltimore Orioles

  • Chris Davis, 140 OPS+ (9th)
  • Adam Jones, 114 OPS+ (23rd)
  • Matt Wieters, 98 OPS+ (30th)

It's pretty hard to get this low with one of the only 50-dinger threats in baseball, but Wieters would be the worst No. 5 hitter, and it's not like No. 5 hitters are an elite club right now.

Jones is more of an excellent baseball player than an excellent cleanup hitter, but I'm already regretting putting the Orioles too low. You know that Wieters is going to break out any day now. Aaaaaany day now.

23. Cleveland Indians

  • Jason Kipnis, 112 OPS+ (22nd)
  • Carlos Santana, 119 OPS+ (17th)
  • Yan Gomes, 106 OPS+ (22nd)

The Indians are counting on resurgences from the under-30 Santana and Gomes. It's not a poorly constructed plan, at least in the middle of the order. But their 2015 seasons sunk them in the statistical rankings, and the seasons were bad enough to make anyone wary before moving them up.

It wouldn't be outlandish to think this group could be in the top 10 at this time next year.

22. Kansas City Royals

  • Lorenzo Cain, 107 OPS+ (26th)
  • Eric Hosmer, 114 OPS+ (22nd)
  • Kendrys Morales, 114 OPS+ (15th)

Boy, that Morales signing sure looks smart in retrospect. It's probably easy to make too much of a free agent's bad year for a lousy team. Maybe we'll say the same thing about Ian Kennedy next year.

21. Chicago White Sox

  • Jose Abreu, 153 OPS+ (6th)
  • Todd Frazier, 113 OPS+ (24th)
  • Adam LaRoche, 103 OPS+ (27th)

Frazier is hurt by not weighting the last season more than his 2013 campaign, but LaRoche is helped by that, so it all evens out. It's a strong group if LaRoche hits and Frazier keeps going.

20. Milwaukee Brewers

  • Ryan Braun, 124 OPS+ (16th)
  • Chris Carter, 112 OPS+ (26th)
  • Khris Davis, 119 OPS+ (11th)

Dingers! Hope you all like dingers. And while there might be defensive limitations and other concerns with a couple of these players, you can see how opposing pitchers wouldn't look forward to facing this troika after the first two hitters of the game get on.

19. Minnesota Twins

  • Joe Mauer, 113 OPS+ (21st)
  • Miguel Sano, 146 OPS+ (3rd)
  • Trevor Plouffe, 101 OPS+ (28th)

This ranking is buoyed almost entirely by the small sample of Sano's rookie campaign. Which ... yeah, I'll allow it. He's a mythological creature.

The real trick is if Mauer can hit better than Angel Pagan, which is important considering he runs like Angel Pagan wearing a body cast. Still, Mauer is my pick for Comeback Player of the Year, so I'll double down on that prediction and keep the Twins closer to the middle of the rankings.

18. St. Louis Cardinals

  • Matt Holliday, 132 OPS+ (14th)
  • Jhonny Peralta, 112 OPS+ (25th)
  • Matt Adams, 113 OPS+ (16th)

Holliday and Peralta are on the wrong side of 30, so these rankings could take a tumble in a hurry, but Adams shouldn't have nearly as miserable of a season as he did last year.

And it's not like Brandon Moss won't hit 40 homers and move to the cleanup spot by May. Forget it, Jake. It's the Cardinals.

17. Colorado Rockies

  • Carlos Gonzalez, 119 OPS+ (18th)
  • Nolan Arenado, 108 OPS+ (27th)
  • Corey Dickerson, 125 OPS+ (9th)

No, Arenado isn't the 27th-best cleanup hitter in baseball, so I'll just move these guys up, even if Gonzalez's platoon splits and continued health concerns are worrisome.

16. Miami Marlins

  • Giancarlo Stanton, 151 OPS+ (7th)
  • Justin Bour, 116 OPS+ (20th)
  • Martin Prado, 104 OPS+ (25th)

Giancarlo Stanton! And others. But if you're seeing Black Sabbath with Fates Warning and Warrior Soul opening up, you don't average out the three bands and get less excited about the concert. You yell "BLACK SABBATH" over and over again as you careen around the room, listening to Black Sabbath.

15. Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Paul Goldschmidt, 163 OPS+ (3rd)
  • David Peralta, 128 OPS+ (10th)
  • Welington Castillo, 99 OPS+ (29th)

Seems like this is an overly aggressive ranking, but a) Goldschmidt really is that good, and b) I'm assuming there will be a different No. 5 hitter by June. If there isn't a different No. 5 hitter, that means Castillo's unexpected offensive contributions didn't disappear, so either way.

14. Texas Rangers

  • Prince Fielder, 122 OPS+ (17th)
  • Adrian Beltre, 131 OPS+ (8th)
  • Mitch Moreland, 103 OPS+ (26th)

Moreland was a drag on the Rangers' lineup for a couple years, but they stuck with him for a reason. Their continued trust makes me optimistic that his 2015 was legitimate, so the Rangers might be underrepresented here.

13. New York Yankees

  • Carlos Beltran, 116 OPS+ (20th)
  • Mark Teixeira, 119 OPS+ (16th)
  • Alex Rodriguez, 126 OPS+ (8th)

/opens envelope

/blows on envelope

/pulls card out of envelope

Who are three people who saw Return of the Jedi in the theater?

/audience stares blankly

But seriously, folks, ha ha, those three players are older than the average player. They might combine for 500 at-bats of 90 OPS+ misery this year. Unless they're still productive because of whatever black magic the Yankees are involved with.

12. Washington Nationals

  • Bryce Harper, 153 OPS+ (5th)
  • Ryan Zimmerman, 115 OPS+ (21st)
  • Daniel Murphy, 110 OPS+ (18th)

Murphy was the inspiration of this ranking, as I referred to him disparagingly when it came to him hitting in the middle of a lineup. Turns out, he's pretty average as No. 5 hitters go.

Zimmerman trending downward makes it less important to account for Harper's ascension to the heavens in a pillar of fire.

11. Houston Astros

  • Carlos Correa, 132 OPS+ (13th)
  • Carlos Gomez, 120 OPS+ (15th)
  • Colby Rasmus, 116 OPS+ (12th)

I think we're all underestimating just how good the Astros' lineup could be if Gomez returns to form and Correa keeps improving. Rasmus accepting the qualifying offer might have taken the Astros entirely out of the free agent market, but it's not like they had gaping holes around the roster. This should be a frightening lineup, and the middle of the order is one of the most important reasons why.

10. New York Mets

  • David Wright, 126 OPS+ (15th)
  • Yoenis Cespedes, 118 OPS+ (19th)
  • Lucas Duda, 131 OPS+ (4th)

It all depends on if you believe in Wright. If he's at least a credible No. 3 hitter, the Mets have a much better lineup than you think. If you think that Cespedes is a 30-homer player now, then they have a much better lineup than you think.

If only they had the pitching to make it all work.

9. Los Angeles Angels

  • Mike Trout, 175 OPS+ (1st)
  • Albert Pujols, 121 OPS+ (12th)
  • Daniel Nava, 106 OPS+ (23rd)

Trout and anyone would make the top 10, so even if you're expecting Pujols to disintegrate even more, the Angels still have one of the best hearts of the order. There's still time for them to do something that would push the Nava/Craig Gentry platoon down further in the order, too.

8. San Francisco Giants

  • Matt Duffy, 110 OPS+ (23rd)
  • Buster Posey, 137 OPS+ (6th)
  • Brandon Belt, 131 OPS+ (5th)

And yet there's still a vocal contingent of Giants fans who are absolutely disgusted with Belt. Part of that has to do with an ignorance of park effects, certainly, and it's possible that adjusted OPS+ gives too much credit to Giants hitters and takes it away from their pitchers.

Still, Belt just might be one of the better No. 5 hitters in the league, you weirdos. If we use Hunter Pence and his 126 OPS+ for this exercise, the Giants slip to No. 9 in the rankings. But I think they'll use Belt as a No. 5, if not a cleanup hitter, to break up the lefties and righties.

7. Boston Red Sox

  • Xander Bogaerts, 96 OPS+ (29th)
  • David Ortiz, 147 OPS+ (2nd)
  • Hanley Ramirez, 132 OPS+ (2nd)

Ramirez probably won't be the second-best No. 5 hitter in baseball this year, but I'm also positive that Bogaerts won't be the 29th-best third-place hitter in baseball, either. Like most of these lineups, the exact permutation of the middle of the order is somewhat fluid, so it's reasonable to expect the Red Sox to figure out a trio that would push them up the rankings, regardless.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Andrew McCutchen, 156 OPS+ (4th)
  • Starling Marte, 120 OPS+ (14th)
  • John Jaso, 121 OPS+ (10th)

McCutchen gets a lot of credit for being a superlative all-around player. I don't think he gets enough credit as a pure masher. He hangs out with the elite hitters according to adjusted OPS.

Jaso surprised me, too, and seeing as he's never cracked 350 plate appearances in a season, I'm skeptical. I'll guess that Gregory Polanco or Jung-Ho Kang will push him lower in the order by the end of the season.

5. Seattle Mariners

  • Robinson Cano, 136 OPS+ (10th)
  • Nelson Cruz, 142 OPS+ (4th)
  • Adam Lind, 130 OPS+ (6th)

I was wrong about Cruz. You were right. I'm stupid. You're smart. My breath is stale and concerning. Yours is pleasant and mild.

Lind will get sucked into the Safeco death fog, of course, but until then, it's worth noting that he's had three consecutive exceptionally productive years at the plate. That might be the most underrated transaction of the offseason.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers

  • Justin Turner, 135 OPS+ (11th)
  • Adrian Gonzalez, 128 OPS+ (9th)
  • Yasiel Puig, 141 OPS+ (1st)

Puig was a phantom last year, but remember he's still just a puppy, just a year older than Kris Bryant. If Puig were a rookie last year, we all would have been impressed with his raw numbers. A nice start, we would have thought.

Still not sure if Turner is really this good, but he keeps getting better. Power ranking of teams that should kick themselves for letting him go:

  1. Orioles
  2. Mets
  3. Reds

The Orioles waived him after a solid 24-year-old season in Triple-A. The Mets let him walk after a decent season as a utility player. We should make fun of the Orioles more.

3. Detroit Tigers

  • Miguel Cabrera, 169 OPS+ (2nd)
  • Victor Martinez, 126 OPS+ (11th)
  • J.D. Martinez, 131 OPS+ (3rd)

Do you believe in Victor Martinez? If you do, the Tigers can make a case for the top spot. Indeed, using adjusted OPS for the last three seasons, they are the best middle of the order in baseball. Cabrera and Victor Martinez just seem a little too creaky as a combo to justify them in the top slot.

It's a swell middle of the order, though. You can see why it's exciting that they added Justin Upton, even if there are still gaps in the bottom of the lineup and a 98-percent chance of scattered Mike Pelfrey.

2. Chicago Cubs

  • Anthony Rizzo, 132 OPS+ (12th)
  • Kris Bryant, 133 OPS+ (7th)
  • Kyle Schwarber, 128 OPS+ (7th)

Just a terrifying collection of young, imposing hitters who might keep getting better. They ranked fifth according to adjusted OPS, but their youth and the tyranny of small samples were taken into account, and they were bumped up to the second spot.

The Cubs should probably be first, considering that I have to cheat with the No. 1 team, but I guess it's not inappropriate to see if the league makes adjustments to Bryant and Schwarber, like it did with Rizzo in his second full season.

1. Toronto Blue Jays

  • Jose Bautista, 149 OPS+ (8th)
  • Edwin Encarnacion, 150 OPS+ (1st)
  • Chris Colabello, 109 OPS+ (20th)*

There's an asterisk, there. Right now the projected lineup over at Roster Resource has Troy Tulowitzki as the leadoff hitter for the Blue Jays. He might stay there, with Josh Donaldson hitting second. This would be the sabermetrically appropriate lineup construction.

I'm guessing, though, that tradition will win out, and the thirst for RBI will take over. Either Donaldson or Tulowitzki will hit fifth, with a speedier, slappier player hitting first or second. If it doesn't happen like that, move the Blue Jays down in this ranking, and keep them at the top of the Nos. 1-5 rankings.

Or maybe Colabello keeps hitting the ball like he did last year.

By the trading deadline, these morgfostenches will look quite different. Some of the above hitters will be dealt in blockbuster deals. Others will be hurt or ineffective. Until then, here are the best and worst middle-of-the-order trios in baseball. These are the hitters that pitchers see when they close their eyes at night, and some of the groupings are just unfair.