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April 21, 2007

A Deservedly Brief Recent History Of Fantastic #9 Batters

Rangers’ manager Ron Washington appears to have foregone the experiment of Ian Kinsler batting ninth. Kinsler hasn’t batted lower than seventh since April 14th.

I was never particularly distraught about Kinsler batting ninth in the short term. A few weeks or so of it won’t do much harm. However, what did distress me was the post-hoc explanations of how batting him ninth was not only defensible, but clever. Some examples:

From the Startlegram:

Despite his recent hitting prowess, Kinsler has batted ninth in the order in seven of his 11 games this season. Washington prefers to have Kinsler hit second against lefties, but said he wants to do everything possible to help the 24-year-old succeed in his second season.

"Sometimes when you're hitting in the ninth spot, people forget who's there and he gets to see better pitches," Washington said.

"Since you get through the lineup one time, it doesn't matter where you are in the lineup now.... We're only in the first month of the season, and I'm going to let him be where he's most comfortable."

And MLB.com:

Manager Ron Washington cited Kinsler's production from the No. 9 spot the Rangers lineup as particularly helpful. In a lineup that seems never to run short of firepower, Kinsler's presence adds more punch.

Washington doesn't intend to move Kinsler from the No. 9 spot anytime soon.

And why should Washington move him? How many Major League teams have a No. 9 hitter with Kinsler's numbers?

At this point, it seems to be just Washington's Rangers.

At least Washington’s “comfort” argument is supportable. Kinsler hit much better from the nine spot than anywhere else last year. That he did so is only a coincidence; he started the season batting ninth on a hot streak, then mostly batted elsewhere and hit worse after returning from a broken thumb. Still, I’ll give Washington the benefit of the doubt. A tangible record exists of Kinsler’s prowess at the bottom of the order.

Washington’s other argument doesn’t hold up. Does he honestly believe that opposing pitchers will forget about Kinsler, or anyone else? In a DH league, and in a high-offense era in which middle infielders are expected to provide more than gloves, no spot in the order is safe for a pitcher. Everyone knows this -- saying so has descended to a cliché.

The second excerpt is downright painful to read. The argument collapses on the flimsiest of rebuttals: if having a top-notch #9 hitter is so wonderful, why not bat David Ortiz there? Or David Wright? Or Albert Pujols?

Why not? Because it would be stupid. Batting lower in the order reduces a players plate appearances, and a manager should maximize (or, more accurately, optimize) the appearances of his best hitters. This is not some arcane statistical theory.

Over a full season, a particular spot in the batting order receives about 18 fewer appearances than the spot directly above it. The exact number depends of the batters and the results of their at-bats, but 18 is good for discussion purposes. At the extremes, a team’s #1 hitters may have over 140 more appearances than its #9 hitters during the season.

In Kinsler’s case, assume he starts 120 games against a righthander in 2007 (he’s already batting 2nd against lefties, so we can ignore those games). The difference between batting ninth and batting sixth is about 40 appearances ( [ 18 x 3 ] * [ 120 / 162 ] ). 40 may not seems like much, but it’s equivalent to about nine full games. 40 appearances take on added importance when the batters ahead of him include one (Sosa) who couldn’t achieve gainful employment in 2006 and two (Cruz and Laird) who have yet to establish a track record of solid hitting as everyday players.

Has a team ever consciously persisted with a better-than-average hitter in the nine hole? Since 2000, four AL teams have had their #9 hitters finish with a higher OPS than their team as a whole: Detroit in 2002, and Cleveland, Oakland, Toronto in 2005.

Detroit, 2002:
Team Batting: .248/.300/.379 (86 OPS+)
#9 Batters: .261/.307/.391

B Inge 40 .211 .268 .320 .588
C Truby 28 .225 .255 .337 .592
R Santiago 24 .286 .349 .403 .751
J Macias 19 .233 .292 .267 .559
M Walbeck 14 .289 .298 .311 .609
D Jackson 10 .450 .520 .700 1.220
Others 56 .300 .336 .555 .891
Team 161 .261 .307 .391 .698

Jose Macias began the year as the primary #9 hitter and played himself out of a job by May. Brandon Inge spent a plurality of the season’s remainder at the bottom of the order and was no better. Two factors contributed to Detroit’s “excellence” from the nine spot: 1) Damian Jackson and “Others” hit absurdly well at #9, but only at #9, 2) The Tigers had a terrible offense, with other spots in the lineup occupied by the likes of Shane Halter and Wendell Magee.

Cleveland, 2005:
Team Batting: .271/.334/.453 (114 OPS+)
#9 Batters: .282/.338/.483

C Blake 54 .264 .328 .511 .839
J Peralta 50 .305 .348 .527 .875
A Boone 16 .412 .434 .529 .963
J Dubois 11 .265 .359 .441 .800
R Belliard 12 .333 .355 .500 .855
Others 73 .204 .281 .350 .630
Team 162 .282 .338 .483 .821

Cleveland is the only team on the list with a good offense, and the fantastic #9 hitting was a group effort. Jhonny Peralta hadn’t hit at all as a Major Leaguer and was understandably slotted at the bottom of the order to begin the season. His startling performance earned a promotion by early July and he spent most of the second half batting third.

Aaron Boone, batting .193/.250/.340 in early July, took Peralta’s place. He promptly began hitting the cover off the ball and was moved to the #6-#8 region. Casey Blake, himself hitting under .200, replaced Boone and also performed miraculously well through the end of the season. He never moved back up, even though Boone had reverted to his typical putrescence.

Oakland, 2005:
Team Batting: .262/.330/.407 (93 OPS+)
#9 Batters: .269/.334/.420

M Scutaro 81 .249 .309 .383 .692
M Ellis 34 .291 .350 .455 .805
A Melhuse 18 .304 .350 .500 .850
N Swisher 17 .255 .368 .468 .837
Others 54 .292 .354 .417 .771
Team 162 .269 .334 .420 .754

Marco Scutaro is a rare case of a player spending half of a season or longer batting ninth. It’s almost by definition a transitory position – good hitters move up, bad hitters move to the bench or the minors. Oakland’s #9 hitters surpassed their counterparts despite Scutaro, who hit .249/.309/.383. A mediocre hitter enjoying a career year (Ellis), a backup catcher on a hot streak (Melhuse) and a promising rookie (Swisher) provided the heft.

Toronto, 2005:
Team Batting: .265/.331/.407 (95 OPS+)
#9 Batters: .281/.330/.419

O Hudson 48 .323 .345 .472 .817
R Adams 42 .274 .324 .532 .856
K Huckaby 25 .219 .269 .274 .543
J McDonald 26 .328 .369 .362 .731
A Hill 11 .387 .412 .452 .863
F Menechino 14 .280 .419 .480 .899
Others 57 .198 .263 .297 .559
Team 162 .281 .330 .419 .749

Russ Adams spent about 60% of the season’s first 70 games batting ninth and slugged .532. Elsewhere, he was terrible. On June 22, he became the Blue Jays’ primary leadoff hitter despite an overall line of .241/.291/.434. Three players who’d spent time batting first before him – Frank Catalanotto, Orlando Hudson, and Reed Johnson – all had superior on-base percentages. Beats the heck out of me.

Orlando Hudson occupied the bottom spot during much of the second half and recovered nicely from a rough start that included a dire .236/.262/.341 line batting second. Some occasional greatness from Aaron Hill and Frank Menechino bolstered the position.

In no case was superior performance by the #9 hitters a result of design. Mostly, players simply entered a hot streak that coincided with their tenure at the bottom of the order. Arguably, only in the instance of Casey Blake did a manager maintain a lineup with an extraordinarily successful hitter batting last, and it did not take place at the beginning of the season.

On a team level, some fluky performances can result in the #9 hitters surpassing the rest of the team at the plate. At the player level, however, the “good #9 hitter” does not exist, nor should he. The best hitters deserve the most plate appearances. The argument that a good hitter should remain at the bottom of the order because he’s a good hitter is preposterous, and a manager who persistently writes a good hitter’s name at the bottom of the order deserves scorn. Washington’s not there yet, but if Kinsler’s still batting ninth and raking in mid-May, we’ll have a problem.

Posted by Lucas at April 21, 2007 04:48 PM