Opening Day Lineup Optimization: Batting Second

Finally, every team in Major League Baseball has taken their first pitch of the 2016 season. Mother Nature ruined a few Opening Days, and for some reason the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins were scheduled for their season debut on the third evening of the season. In fact, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Rays were already on their third game of the season the same time as the Tigers and Marlins played their first.

With 30 teams’ first games, we have 30 Opening Day lineups and the second guessing of managers can begin. There was some intrigue right off the bat (pun intended) with Clint Hurdle’s lineup in the league’s season opener. Andrew McCutchen was in the second spot in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup for the first time since 2010, his first full season in the bigs. He hit third every game he started in both the 2015 and 2014 seasons.

McCutchen wasn’t the only eyebrow-raising selection by managers in their lineups on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. The number two selection is, in this author’s opinion, the most interesting choice due to its high relevance according to sabermetrics in addition to the mixed beliefs shared throughout baseball of its true role.

In the list below, here are the Opening Day starters for all 30 teams in the second spot in the lineup, sorted by 2015’s wRC+ to show which teams are in belief that the spot deserves its high importance.

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First thing to point out, some of these players didn’t have enough qualifying plate appearances for a full season, and numbers can certainly be inflated (i.e. Corey Seager) or deflated (i.e. Daniel Nava) by that fact. Regardless, forty percent of the league (12 of 30) uses a hitter who would be in the top 50 of the league in wRC+ for their second hitter, if they qualified. Clearly these teams have bought into the idea that the spot is of the utmost importance. Nine of those 12 teams were playoff teams last year – possibly more than a coincidence. The only playoff team from last year to not use an above average bat, according to last year’s numbers, is the Yankees, who are trying out their offseason prize of Aaron Hicks. (The Yankees used Brett Gardner (105 wRC+ in 2015) in the second spot most often last season, and will still presumably see much time there this year).

But the important question remains – are teams using their BEST hitter in the second spot? Again using 2015 wRC+ stats, regardless of qualification or league, only five teams used their best hitter in the second spot. The previously mentioned McCutchen, Josh Donaldson, Corey Seager, Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Kipnis make up the five whose managers believe their talents fit best for the second spot. Seager comes with an asterisk, since his season was only made up of 113 big-league PAs. Kipnis is also debatable since Michael Brantley put up the team’s best numbers last year, but was not in the Opening Day lineup due to injury. By contrast, 17 teams are using their best hitter in the three spot. Even with statistics telling teams otherwise, the history of the “old-school” still remains firm throughout the league.

The Pirates may only be the first team to make the statistically-backed move in 2016. The Toronto Blue Jays put Josh Donaldson in the second spot in 2015 and watched him win the American League MVP. And while some teams are showing signs of buying in to the movement, there still remain others that refuse to even hint at it. The Marlins, Braves, White Sox and Angels all have clear “best” hitters, but they all trotted out hitters with less than a 90 wRC+ in their second spot on Opening Day.

It’s only one game out of 162 and lineups will change, sometimes nearly daily. Lineups will be different based on the handedness of the pitcher or which player may be facing a particular cold streak. As teams get more statistically inclined, it will be fascinating to see if there will be a larger movement towards the new-fashioned lineup construction.

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