La Russa's Pitcher Hitting 8th: Early Returns

Adam Wainwright is hitting .278

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has taken a lot of heat for batting his pitcher eighth. We look at the numbers to try to determine if the change has made any difference.

On Saturday, August 4, I was with the St. Louis Cardinals on the road in Washington, as they prepared to face the Nationals. It was hot and dreary as the club was in the midst of a dreadful stretch of losing baseball played against losing teams – what would turn out to be five straight losses to the perennial bottom-feeders from Pittsburgh and Washington.

 

The aggregate 41-11 score in favor of the home clubs in those five losses represent arguably the worst stretch of Cardinals baseball up to that point in a season during which plenty of bad baseball has been played by the defending world champions.

 

With the trade deadline past and no significant offensive help added to his struggling club, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, realizing his gun was about out of bullets, knew he needed to do something. With Albert Pujols as his only dependable hitter, how might he get more runners on base ahead of his first baseman?

 

As in many endeavors, there are few new ideas, but many recycled ones from the past. To address this particular need, La Russa turned back the clock to 1998, when Mark McGwire was baseball's most admired and feared hitter.

 

During that season, La Russa batted his pitcher eighth in 76 games starting on July 9, 1998 through September 27. It ultimately was viewed by the manager as a positive factor in his 1998 team improving from a minus six games to a plus four by season's end, yet he abandoned the idea in 1999.

 

Almost 20 years had passed since it had been done before. Specifically, the Phillies' Steve Carlton batted eighth on June 1, 1979. It has been tried infrequently since 1998, with the most recent example in 2005, when the Florida Marlins' Dontrelle Willis hit seventh twice and eighth twice in his final four starts that season.

 

The general idea is to have essentially a second leadoff hitter in the ninth spot of the batting order. With Pujols consistently hitting in the third spot in the line-up, this plan increases the likelihood that runners will be on base when Albert comes to the plate, so the logic goes. (Of course, this does not apply to the first time through the order, but in subsequent passes it surely could.)

 

After consulting with baseball men he respects, including long-time Cardinals coaches Red Schoendienst and George Kissell, on August 4th, La Russa announced his pitcher would hit eighth.

That day, Joel Pineiro went 0-for-1 with a walk, and number nine hitter Adam Kennedy went 2-for-4, including a solo home run - but it was the only run for the Cardinals as they were slaughtered by the Nats, 12-1.

 

As they did in 1998, many baseball watchers scoffed. Those who have enjoyed riding La Russa for years claim this is just another ruse designed to highlight his "genius", with the latter term used derisively. Others point out that if it is such a great idea, why aren't all the other managers in the game doing it?

 

It is a wonder that with thinking like that any changes are ever made to the grand old game of baseball. Folks probably thumbed their noses in the 1980's when La Russa popularized the ninth-inning relief specialist, too.

 

Anyway, there are those who have a far deeper mathematical interest in this subject than I who will undoubtedly undergo a scientific analysis of the pitcher-hitting-eighth phenomena. In fact, several already have.

 

"The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball" by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin showed that it is slightly better to have the pitcher batting eighth to increase the odds of the lead-off hitter having a runner on base to advance. Whether that conclusion was dependent on the particular lineup surrounding McGwire in 1998, I don't recall.

 

But, rather than theory here, I am going to look at recent results.

 

There is no doubt the 2007 Cardinals have experienced trouble scoring runs all season long. Their run differential on the season is currently minus 81, which is fourth from the bottom of the 16 teams in the National League.

 

Here is another way to look at it. The great slugger Pujols has averaged 126 RBIs per season in the first six seasons of his career. Here in 2007, while still batting a most respectable .318 and only slightly worse with runners in scoring position at .308, Pujols just isn't getting the same return for his hits as in the past.

 

Through 143 games in 2007, Albert has just 89 RBI and is on pace to end the year with 98 if he plays every game the rest of the way (160 games total). That would, of course, be the lowest season total in his career by a considerable margin. In 2005, Pujols plated "just" 117.

 

But, is La Russa's grand experiment working? How can we tell?

 

I thought about looking at Pujols' RBI stats or runs scored by the club both before and after the change. But, those numbers are certainly dependent on other factors. Instead, I decided to start with what is not as debatable, the batting average and on-base percentage of the hitters in the number eight and nine spots in the Cardinals batting order.

 

The numbers themselves do tell a story. With roughly six weeks of baseball played since the change, there are enough games in the books, 37, to take notice.

 

Dates

Games

BA #8

BA #9

OBP #8

OBP #9

BA 8+9

OBP 8+9

4/1-8/3

G1-106

0.263

0.240

0.316

0.285

0.252

0.302

8/4-9/13

G107-143

0.254

0.305

0.313

0.345

0.281

0.330

Numbers for the pitchers spot are in bold

 

As you can see, in every case, both the position player at the bottom of the order (in the number eight then number nine spot) and the pitcher's spot improved substantially in both batting average and on-base percentage since the change was made.

 

Improvement
Since 8/4 BA OBP
Pitchers spot 0.014 0.028
#8/9 Position Player 0.042 0.029
Combined 0.029 0.028

 

I did go ahead and add Pujols' RBI rate, the Cardinals rate of scoring (runs per game) and even their won-loss percentage before and after, more as a reference than as any assertion that they were significantly affected by the change in batting order.

 

Dates

Games

Pujols RBI/G

Tm BA

Tm OBP

Tm R/G

Tm W/L%

4/1-8/3

G1-106

0.68

0.270

0.334

4.14

0.472

8/4-9/13

G107-143

0.53

0.278

0.342

4.73

0.514

 

Are there other factors that could have affected this? Sure. As the numbers immediately above demonstrate, the entire team seemed to have been playing better during the recent weeks (though not good enough, but that is another story for another day).

 

Another consideration is the fact that the new number nine hitter (the "second leadoff man") may just be a better hitter than the previous inhabitant of the number eight spot. Maybe not in 2007 though, as the former number eight was often catcher Yadier Molina, who in actuality is having his best career year in both batting average (.277) and OBP (.347).

 

And finally, it is worth noting that Pujols' RBI rate has actually dropped since August 3rd. In fairness to him, the first baseman has been battling a series of nagging injuries.

 

Bottom line, as in any experiment, the jury is still out until a larger sample is secured. But to this writer, the early returns on the pitcher-hitting-eighth experiment, 2007-style, are clearly positive.

 

(A major tip of the cap is in order to David Pinto's Day by Day database for some of the statistics used in this article.)

 

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

© 2007 stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed.

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