Discussing Terry Collins’s Thoughts on Batting the Pitcher Eighth and Lagares Ninth

By: Brian Mangan

In the news recently has been Terry Collins’s suggestion that he might bat the pitcher eighth, and Juan Lagares ninth. In order to figure out whether this is a good idea or not, two questions must be answered: 1) does it ever make sense to bat the pitcher eighth? and 2) if yes, should Lagares be the one batting last?

Batting the Pitcher Eighth In General

Luckily, there is a wealth of baseball research out there on the first question already, most of which concludes with a similar, “it doesn’t matter that much.” In fact, the total overall impact of lineup decisions that you might see is somewhere along the lines of 0.02 runs per game… or one run every 50 games. (Retrosheet). Even the worst possible order, leading off with the pitcher or batting the pitcher cleanup, is only somewhere around 0.2 runs worse than expected. (Hardball Times).

It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but there is some sense to it. Although you want your worst hitters to bat the least, you also want your best hitters to bat with runners on base as often as possible. When asked about this strategy in 1998, when he first employed it, Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa told the Post-Dispatch, “This gives us a better shot to score runs. It’s an extra guy on base in front of Ray (Lankford), Mark (McGwire) and Brian (Jordan). The more guys who are on base, the less they’ll be able to pitch around Mark. I don’t have a problem with it.” (RetroSimba). In our case, the cost of giving a worse hitter slightly more at-bats may be offset by the benefit of having more runners on base for David Wright and Lucas Duda.

Unfortunately, it is hard to say with certainty whether batting the pitcher eighth in this case is a sound strategy or not, given this run environment and our specific personnel. Much of the research on the topic was done a few years back, when run scoring was higher than it is today. However, when asked about it last year, both Bill James and Sandy Alderson appeared to believe that this small benefit remained: “To the small extent that it may matter,” James wrote, “I think it is extremely likely that you’re better off with the pitcher batting eighth, rather than the pitcher batting ninth.” Alderson, relying on the data, said that there is a “small percentage increase.” (Wall Street Journal).

Overall, folks in sabermetric circles have accepted that the difference between a good lineup and the ideal lineup is somewhere around five runs per year. Although it might not sound like much, in today’s lower run-scoring environment, five runs is likely to be worth about one win over a season. For a team like the Mets on the fringes of playoff contention, one win can mean a lot.

Batting Juan Lagares Ninth

Nonetheless, the idea of batting Lagares in the ninth slot is problematic to me. Lagares has had a very strong spring, and was a much better hitter in the minor leagues than people might realize given his strong defensive reputation. In fact, Lagares is a career .284 hitter in the minors with a 722 OPS, so there is every reason to believe that he still has some improving to do at the major league level.

The obvious problem is that there is no obvious candidate in the Mets lineup to bat ninth and “turn the order over.” Wright, Duda, Michael Cuddyer and Curtis Granderson profile as middle-of-the-order type bats, while Travis D’Arnaud and Wilmer Flores’s best attributes are their power. This leaves only Daniel Murphy, and I can’t foresee any situation where Terry Collins might bat a player who has 526 hits over the last three seasons in the ninth slot.

At the end of the day, I agree with Tom Tango, developer of FIP and author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, when he wrote as follows: “The extra benefit of optimizing your lineup is to gain a couple of runs here or there. But more important than that is (1) getting the right guys in the lineup to begin with and (2) those guys playing to the best of their ability.” (The Book, Sept. 11, 2012).

Reasonable minds can disagree on what the order should be (Joe Maddon is also a proponent of the unconventional order) so hopefully the Mets and Terry Collins can strike the right balance this year.

*      *      * 

Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City.