Earlier this week, I suggested Matt Holliday should hit second in the Cardinals lineup. In that post, I mentioned the possibility of batting the pitcher eighth to get the most out of the lineup. While Tony La Russa used the tactic to jumpstart a lagging offense, Mike Matheny could hit the pitcher eighth so that his best hitters at the top of the lineup have as many opportunities to drive in runners as possible. In Peter Bourjos, Matheny has the ideal player to hit behind the pitcher.
The traditional logic for hitting the pitcher ninth is fairly simple: every spot higher in the lineup receives, on average, eighteen more plate appearances over the course of the season. However, between interleague play and pinch hitters, the pitcher hit in the ninth spot for the Cardinals last season in roughly 60% of plate appearances. This reduces the number of potential extra at bats from eighteen down to eleven. To make the pitcher hitting eighth worthwhile, additional opportunities at the top of the lineup must outweigh the extra eleven plate appearances the pitcher will receive.
The nightmare scenario is the pitcher coming to the plate with runners on and two outs, but that does not occur often. Cardinals' pitchers had 370 plate appearances last year. Bumping them up to the eighth slot probably gives them ten more (assume one more pinch-hitting opportunity). That amounts to 6.1% of the Cardinals plate appearances. Even assuming an equal distribution of runners-on two out situations between lineup slots, that amounts to 70 plate appearances during the season. Given a 150-point difference in on-base percentage between pitcher and non-pitcher, the difference results in eleven fewer successful at bats over the course of the season. Of course that means 59 more times the better hitter leads off the next inning, meaning nine more times Matt Carpenter comes to the plate runners on.
The above is not the only scenario where Matt Carpenter has more runners on base. If the eighth place hitter gets on base with under two outs, the pitcher is likely to bunt and make an out. If the pitcher hits eighth in a non-bunting situation, roughly 75% of plate appearances, he will get on base 15% of the time. Taken with the ninth place hitter's .300 OBP, they will both reach 4.5% of the time, giving Carpenter thirteen more base runners during a season.
Peter Bourjos' skill set and approach at the plate make him more suited to the ninth spot in the lineup than the eighth. Hitting in the National League, the eighth place hitter gets an artificial boost in his walk rate due to being pitched around to get to the pitcher. In the National League in 2013, the eighth place hitter received a walk 7.9% of the time compared to the 7.7% overall rate. Of those eighth spot walks, one quarter are intentional, presumably to get to the pitcher. Bourjos does not draw a lot of walks, 5.5% career walk rate, making him a poor fit against pitchers attempting to pitch around him.
Bourjos basestealing capabilities would go unused from the eighth spot. If there are two outs, it is highly unlikely the Cardinals would risk a steal which would result in the pitcher leading off the next inning. If there are less than two outs, the pitcher is going to bunt. Matt Carpenter is an ideal hitter for Bourjos to take advantage of his base stealing capabilities. Carpenter saw 4.12 pitches per plate appearance (3.83 is average), and walked in 10% of his plate appearances. Bourjos would have ample time to test the pitcher and catcher. Even if Bourjos did not steal, he could use his speed to score on Carpenter's extra base hits.
While batting Kolten Wong eighth and Peter Bourjos seventh would help some, there are still fewer stolen base opportunities with the pitcher's spot approaching. Plus, Wong is better suited to hit in front of the pitcher, walking in more than eight percent of his minor league plate appearances. Even in the minors, Bourjos only walked 6.5% of the time. If Wong and Bourjos are paired together, it will take two hits plus a steal or one of the hits as an extra base hit to score one of them. Separating them sacrifices the out between them, but eliminates the need for an extra base hit or steal to score a run.
Batting the pitcher eighth is not a gimmick. It is not a strategy that is only useful with a stagnant offense and one good run-producer. Using a second leadoff hitter at the bottom of the order is a viable strategy to create more runs for the offense. With Peter Bourjos at the bottom of the order and an excellent hitter in Matt Carpenter at the top, the Cardinals have the personnel and the forward-thinking management to execute this unused advantage.