The Brewers crushed the Cubs 9-0 on Sunday behind Kyle Lohse‘s 93-pitch complete game shutout. The effort moved his ERA to a Brewers’ starter-best 2.60, despite the lack of “ace stuff.” It’s getting harder and harder to argue that his signing was anything but a success, though that has more to do with the team’s success this season than it does his own efforts.
The real story of the Brewers’ recent run of success, though, is how well they’ve hit since manager Ron Roenicke moved Ryan Braun to the second spot in the daily lineup last Saturday in Miami. In those eight games, the Brewers have averaged 6.125 runs per game, more than two runs per game better than their season average to that point.
This isn’t to suggest that Braun hitting second caused this outburst to happen. His hitting, to the tune of a .469/.486/.844 line in the second spot, has undoubtedly played a big role in that run scoring. Would Braun really have hit much worse hitting third in the lineup instead of second? Almost certainly not. The main value of Braun hitting second is that it allows the team to bunch their best hitters near the very top of the lineup.
For much of this season, Scooter Gennett has hit second for the Brewers, and he fits the more traditional role of 2-hitter, commonly defined as someone who can “get the leadoff man over with a productive out.” That’s not ideal, as Keith Law explained last year in his plea (now heeded) for Joey Votto to hit second for the Reds.
According to Dan Szymborski, in nine-inning games the past 10 years, the last out was made by the No. 2 batter 11.7 percent of the time, about what you’d expect given nine lineup spots with a slight skew toward spots near the top. (A straight 1-in-9 shot would be 11.1 percent.)
In other words, in about 19 games a year, the No. 3 hitter was left standing in the on-deck circle, forever alone. With one-run games accounting for about a quarter of each team’s schedule last year — the Reds were 31-21 in such games, so nearly a third of their games were decided by a run — that would mean on average about five games a year where the team’s best hitter doesn’t get a last chance to bat. It might be only one or two such games, and it could be more than five, but the point is that there is never a game where you should be comfortable losing by a run while your best hitter stands on deck watching a clearly inferior two-hole hitter make the final out.
To sum all this up, you just want your best hitters at the top of the lineup, period. Don’t stick some hitter who is clearly not as good as the hitters after him in the second spot in some bow to unwise tradition. Can this last, though?
One of the biggest arguments against having your best all-around hitter hit second is that you don’t want to “waste” his power by having him bat only two spots behind your weakest hitter (at least in the National League), the pitcher. It is for reasons like this that some teams, including the Brewers, have occasionally turned to hitting the pitcher eighth in recent years. The idea is that the lineup isn’t really a line at all, but rather a circle, and that getting your worst hitter further away from your best hitters makes a lot of sense. The Brewers have been toying with the idea again a bit recently, according to Adam McCalvy:
With Ryan Braun having success since a move up to the two-hole, Brewers coaches have been debating batting the pitcher eighth, and manager Ron Roenicke left open the possibility of giving it a try if the offense cools from its current red-hot state.
“It has been discussed for the past four or five days, [and] there is merit to it,” Roenicke said. “It depends on your personnel, really on who is hitting first and second for you and who is going to hit ninth, and it’s important who is hitting seventh.
“If you have all the right pieces, it makes a ton of sense. If you have an on-base guy [seventh] so you can get through the pitcher eighth, and you have a ninth hitter who is an on-base guy to get on base for what would have to be strong 1-2-3 hitters, it makes a ton of sense. That’s kind of what we have.”
Or rather, it’s what the Brewers will have when third baseman Aramis Ramirez returns from the disabled list, which could happen as early as Tuesday.
If they do this, what might the Brewers’ lineup look like when Ramirez returns? Probably something like this:SS Jean Segura RF Ryan Braun C Jonathan Lucroy CF Carlos Gomez 3B Aramis Ramirez LF Khris Davis 1B Mark Reynolds/Lyle Overbay Pitcher 2B Scooter Gennett/Rickie Weeks
So what are the pros and cons of such an arrangement? Obviously, having so many good hitters near the top of the lineup is a plus. Gennett and Weeks do a good enough job as a pair of getting on base that having them in front of Segura and Braun instead of the pitcher should increase, at least marginally, the number of base runners they see.
What’s really interesting, though, is considering the “downside” to this plan. The most obvious being the fact that the pitcher is moving up in the lineup and will, at least presumably, be hitting right behind better hitters. There is actually a pretty good logical case to make for why this wouldn’t be particularly detrimental to the team given their personnel, which Roenicke alluded to.
The worst time for a pitcher to come up is with runners on base and with two outs. There is a chance to score runs with any sort of a hit, but there is no room left for out making, something most pitchers excel at. This is the type of situation that keeps managers up at night, especially when a pitcher that is nearing the end of their outing anyway comes up. Does the manager cut short the start and try and score some runs, or does he allow the pitcher to hit knowing that the chance to score is most likely to be squandered?
Interestingly, having players like Mark Reynolds and Khris Davis hitting right in front of the pitcher minimizes the chances of that happening, at least to an extent. Both players (along with Lyle Overbay) currently sport sub-.300 on-base percentages. Their issues making contact have limited their ability to get on base. When stacked together especially, this limits the number of base runners on for the batter that follows them.
What’s more, their tendency to hit the ball out of the park when not making one of their frequent outs also should limit the number of base runners for the pitcher to potentially strand. After all, power hitters tend to clear the bases, with even a double being fairly likely to score any of the runners that might happen to be on first when they crush a ball.
Finally, having either Reynolds or Overbay hitting right in front of the pitcher provides one more additional benefit for the team. Either one is willing to take a walk and “clear” the pitchers spot, if the hurler on the mound is so inclined to give them nothing to hit. Both players have walk rates over 10%, with only their inability to make consistent contact keeping them from posting solid on-base percentages. All in all, it’s hard to imagine a better situation for making a move like this. The skill sets of the players practically call for something like this to be tried, with only adherence to tradition holding it back.
Ultimately, things like lineup construction don’t matter that much, as long as the players themselves are reasonably comfortable with where they’re being asked to hit. What we’re really talking about is trying to gain tiny little advantages here and there that will hopefully, at least in theory, add up to a couple runs at the end of the season. That’s not a lot, but it’s at least worth trying, especially if the opportunity to innovate essentially falls right into your lap.
Hell, maybe if the Brewers go on and win the World Series, it can someday be a chapter in the book that will surely be written about their success.