Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Back in the New York Groove

Have you seen A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints? Well, what are you waiting for? Maybe you'd recognize my references more often if you were watching the right movies.

Anyway, I've been out of the loop for the last few days. I just finished my second piece for Flushing University, which should be appearing tomorrow. The Mets took two of three games from Atlanta this weekend and I'm looking forward to a fun matchup between Johan Santana and Ian Snell tonight. I have a ton of things I want to write about, but the outside world has conspired against me over the last few days.

Let's take a few minutes, though, and talk about Luis Castillo. I am not as down on Castillo as some of my counterparts, but I do think that signing him to a four-year deal was a mistake. However, Castillo's continued presence on the Mets roster should not be seen as catastrophic. It should be seen as an opportunity to revolutionize National League lineup construction and to maximize Castillo's modest talents without doing harm to the rest of the team.

Oh, I know, Willie Randolph is about as likely to revolutionize National League lineup construction as I am likely to pass on an opportunity to disparage Willie Randolph. But there is no harm in taking aim, even if the target is a dream (thank you, Mr. Sheehan) and my dream is to see Luis Castillo permanently entrenched in the #8 spot in the lineup.

I say this not because Castillo is the worst hitter in the Mets lineup. When everyone is healthy, he is actually the second-worst behind any catcher not named Ramon Castro. No, I say this because Castillo has a very distinct skill set - a contact hitter with some patience and some speed and absolutely no power - that lends itself very well to a new way of thinking about the #8 spot in a National League lineup.

The goal of any National League manager should be to minimize the number of meaningful at-bats by their pitcher. 90 percent of the pitchers in baseball can't hit a lick and are basically guaranteed outs at the bottom of the lineup. But go back to the title of this blog - Productive Outs and Crackerjack - and you may starting to see where I'm going with this.

Because while pitchers are generally the worst hitters on any National League team, they are also generally among the best bunters. Bunting is a skill that can be taught, learned and improved upon, but pitchers are generally the only players who actually practice it. Pitchers only get to bunt, however, when there is a man on first base and less than two outs.

Today's #8 hitters, since they are usually the worst hitters on the team, don't get on base all that often. In 2007, National League hitters batting in the #8 spot put up a .255/.325/.379 line. Not surprisingly, it was the worst output among the eight positions in batting order generally reserved for position players. This means the pitchers behind them are forced to swing the bat more often, which nearly always results in a strikeout or a weak ground ball to a middle infielder. By putting the worst hitter on your team in the #8 spot, you're setting yourself up for two outs in rapid succession.

However, if you put a batter with a good patience and a decent hitting eye but no power in the #8 spot, suddenly you increase the number of situations where a pitcher bunts - something he's relatively good at - and decrease the number of situations where he's actually trying to get a hit. Successful sacrifice bunts by pitchers are one of the few things that can truly be considered "productive outs."

Castillo fits this desciption perfectly. He can still put the bat on the ball, so there's no reason to believe he can't produce a line of at least .275/.340/.375 over the next four seasons, barring a major injury. That's a low-end projection, considering Castillo's career numbers, but still represents at least 15 points in on-base percentage over the typical player in that slot. Even if his knee problems turn Castillo into a threat to steal only 20 bases instead of 50, he is still a vast improvement over nearly every other #8 hitter in baseball. Now, every time Castillo walks or strokes a soft single with less than two outs, the pitcher will have a chance to sacrifice instead.

Let's run some more numbers. National League hitters batting in the #9 spot (pitchers, pinch hitters and the occasional position player) put up a .187/.241/.269 line in 2007. This is obviously abysmal - these batters get on base only once for every four official at-bats. That's even scarier when you realize that sacrifices - already a large part of the #9 hitter's arsenal - don't count toward that total. Taking the bat out of the pitcher's hand while simultaneously putting a runner in scoring position for the top of the batting order should lead to more RBI opportunities for the #1 and #2 hitter, more runs and ultimately, more wins.

Contrast that with what's happening in Milwaukee and St. Louis, where the pitcher is batting eighth and a position player is batting ninth. The theory behind this paradigm is that a manager can bat his best hitter second, not only giving him more at-bats but also more RBI opportunities. (Ned Yost claims to be doing it to prevent double plays; I claim that Ned Yost should re-think his career choices if he really believes that.)

There is merit to the theory, but only if you have a relatively thin lineup with one hitter so dominant that the team is overly reliant on his at-bats and RBI opportunities. Think the late '90s Cardinals with Mark McGwire or the recent Giants teams with Barry Bonds. (This would've also been very clever for the 1980's Whitey Herzog Cardinals, who could've batted Vince Coleman ninth, Willie McGee or Tommy Herr leadoff and Jack Clark second.)

However, I think the Brewers have the perfect candidate for the ideal #8 hitter under my system - Jason Kendall. Batting Kendall eighth would take the bat out of the hands of Brewer pitchers more often and put him in scoring position more often than under Ned Yost's experimental batting order. Yost is worrying about double plays, but his #7 hitter in 2008 is JJ Hardy, who has been horrible this year and doesn't exactly clog up the bases when he's going good anyway.

The eighth spot in the National League lineup, when strategically manned by a high-OBP, low power hitter, can minimize pitcher at-bats, increase the number of runners in scoring position and give your best hitters more RBI opportunities. What more could you ask for?


MP said...

"What more could you ask for?"

A manager who is open to the idea?

John Peterson said...


Yea, make him hit 8th.
Not gonna happen.