Jose Bautista has expressed a desire to hit third in the Blue Jays lineup, not second. (Getty Images)
TORONTO – It's no surprise that Jose Bautista finds himself at the centre of the Toronto Blue Jays' whirlwind first-half. Three months of baseball had them left for dead after the first month, and two months later resuscitated and back in a position where the postseason is a consideration. For Bautista, there have been scorching hot streaks coupled with notable cold spells, a couple of fiery umpire-related blowups and through it all he's likely headed to his fourth consecutive All-Star Game.
Lately the debate revolves around whether Bautista should hit second or third in the Blue Jays' lineup. It's a discussion that even the right fielder has weighed in on.
Injuries in recent days to Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion have allowed Bautista to return to his favoured three-spot in the lineup after manager John Gibbons moved Bautista up to second in the lineup and put Melky Cabrera in the leadoff spot while Jose Reyes was unavailable.
Gibbons, known for his twangy tongue and intense nature, may not have the appearance of a sabermetrician or even aspire to be one but the way he manages his bullpen and constructs his lineups is very much sabermetrically inclined.
Common baseball wisdom is that the best overall hitter should hit third for his team. Of course to put that into some perspective, there are still people who put optimal value in RBIs, and pitcher wins and saves.
If you look past the conventional thinking and dig a little deeper, despite his personal preference, the answer is that Bautista is best suited for the two-spot.
"The simple reason is that it's worked since he got into that spot and it might get him that extra at-bat during a game,” Gibbons said. “Being one spot closer [to the top of the lineup] can make the difference that he comes up or that he's sitting in the on-deck circle when the game's over."
It's a topic that extends beyond Bautista and Toronto. Former Blue Jays executive and current ESPN analyst Keith Law makes the case that the Cincinnati Reds should use All-Star first baseman Joey Votto in the two-spot.
The idea of putting your best hitter second, rather than third, is still a novel one within baseball and has yet to gain widespread acceptance, even though the evidence in favor of such an arrangement is pretty strong. Using metrics such as batting runs, estimating the runs gained or lost through changing a lineup, shifting to an optimal lineup is only worth about 10-15 runs, or just over a win, in the course of a full season. That said, the marginal gain in getting your best hitter another handful of at-bats, including extra at-bats at the end of games, makes it worth trying to capture value that otherwise would be squandered. - Keith Law, ESPN.com
Other teams are taking into account this advanced spin on daily lineup construction. Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins, the best all-around hitters in their respective lineups, have had more than 75 per cent of their at-bats hitting second. Baltimore's Manny Machado has hit second for the Orioles in every game he's played this season while the New York Yankees' Robinson Cano and Bautista have both had more at-bats hitting second than in any other spot in the lineup.
On Wednesday against Detroit, Lind was back in the Jays' lineup and Gibbons chose to stick to the math and re-insert Bautista in the two-spot. He went two-for-four with a double in Toronto's 6-2 loss to Max Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers.
It’s not the conventional approach, and Bautista might not agree with it, but putting your best all-around hitter second is the best way to build a batting lineup, and it’s becoming more common across the major leagues.
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