For more than a decade, hitting third has been a badge of honor for the Cardinals, given to the team's best hitter. Albert Pujols took over for Mark McGwire after a brief Jim Edmonds/J.D. Drew interlude. After Pujols and Tony La Russa, the manager who pencilled in his name every day for a decade, left for respect and retirement, Mike Matheny continued the tradition by putting Matt Holliday in the third spot in the lineup. While some conventional wisdom held that a team should put its best hitter fourth, La Russa believed it important to get the team's best hitter up in the first. Matheny should do La Russa one better and put his best hitter a spot earlier to maximize Holliday's value.
Without delving too deeply into the statistical arguments regarding batting a team's best hitter second, the work in The Book lays out the argument for hitting a team's best hitter second. Keith Law recently advocated ($) for the same regarding Joey Votto, and Beyond the Box Score does a good job constructing the ideal lineup. The argument here aims to supplement the prior analysis with the components of the Cardinals' current lineup.
Last week, Bernie Miklasz over at the Post-Dispatch, discussed Cardinals' potential number two hitters without finding a very good solution. Earlier in the offseason, he argued for Jhonny Peralta based on his solid ability to get on base combined with decent pop. Carlos Beltran fit this mold well for the Cardinals, but he was also one of the best overall hitters on the team. Peralta is a solid signing, but he is most likely the sixth best hitter on the Cardinals in 2014. Slotting him four spots higher would give him roughly seventy more plate appearances over the course of the season that could be going to Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, and Matt Adams.
Kolten Wong fits the mold of the prototypical two-hole hitter. He does not have a lot of power, but he has hit for a high average in the minors and shown the ability to get on base at a high rate with a .365 on-base percentage in the minors. If he could reproduce his Triple-A numbers of .303/.369/.466 he would be an excellent candidate to hit behind Matt Carpenter. Those numbers, although not as good as Holliday's, put him right in line with Molina, Adams, and Craig. At this point, expecting those numbers from Wong is unrealistic. None of the projections at fangraphs have Wong with an on-base average over .321 or a slugging percentage over .400. The Cardinals have the luxury of more proven hitters to hit higher in the lineup and can allow Wong to develop as a hitter in a less pressure-inducing lineup spot.
Over the course of the season, each lineup spot receives, on average, eighteen more plate appearances than the spot below. As a result, the lineup is best maximized with better hitters getting as many plate appearances as possible. As the leadoff hitter will hit with the bases empty more often due to leading off a game as well as typically hitting after the pitcher, Matt Carpenter is well-suited to that role due to his ability to get on base. That leaves Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Matt Adams for the two-through-five spots in the lineup. Here are their 2013 statistics:
While Molina, Craig and Adams were all very good in 2013, Holliday was great. Adams showed more power, but Holliday's on base percentage beat everyone in the group by a comfortable margin. Holliday is also the only person in the group who is a positive on the basepaths. The BsR number, from fangraphs, shows how many runs compared to average a player is on the bases, including steals. While he may look awkward sometimes out in the field, he is a smart runner and good athlete who will not clog up the bases for the hitters behind him. Here are the ZiPS projections from fangraphs for the same players (link):
Again, Holliday outclasses the field. The main argument against placing a player like Holliday after the leadoff hitter is that it deprives him of plate appearances with more runners on base. While he is likely to see slightly fewer runners on base, that problem is mitigated by Carpenter's on-base skills ahead of him, and the extra plate appearances make up for fewer opportunities with runners on base. If losing those opportunities is troublesome, Matheny could bat the pitcher eighth. Running the ZiPS projections through the lineup analysis tool available at Baseball Musings, the top 20 run-scoring lineups for the Cardinals all had the pitcher batting eighth.
Admittedly, placing Holliday second as opposed to third is not likely to make a big impact on run-scoring for the Cardinals. However, just because it will not make a big difference is no reason to ignore a simple change that is more likely to net a positive result on the field. Hitting second as opposed to third should not be seen as a demotion for Holliday. Having the Cardinals' best hitter in the third spot of the lineup is a notion that should have left St. Louis along with Albert Pujols.