Wednesday night against the Reds, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny penciled center fielder Jon Jay's name in the lineup's No. 2 spot. The move was long overdue. Matheny should bat Jay second over second baseman Kolten Wong moving forward—and not because Jay rapped out three hits and notched yet another hit-by-pitch against the Reds.
The No. 2 spot has been a productive one for the Cards in recent seasons. As Joe recently broke down, this is largely because Matheny regularly made one of the best uses of personnel during his tenure as manager by batting switch-hitter Carlo Beltran in the second slot. Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Cardinals No. 2 hitters posted a .301/.360/.450 line. While 14 players took ten PAs or more batting second over the two seasons, Beltran notched 554 plate appearances batting second or 37% of the St. Louis team total (with 369 of those PAs coming in 2013).
The Cardinals have posted a .251/.312/.393 line from the No. 2 spot to date in 2014.
A tenet of sabermetrics is that lineup order doesn't matter all that much. In a single game, it barely matters at all. Over a 162-game season, though, it matters some.
Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin looked at lineup construction in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball (a must-read for any baseball fan). They concluded that MLB teams should bat their best hitter second. As Craig advocated during the offseason, this means that the Cards should be batting Holliday second. To Matheny's credit, he tried batting Holliday second earlier this year. But after the brief experiment did not immediately ignite the offense, the manager abandoned it. So we'll assume that there is little or no chance that Holliday will once again bat in the No. 2 slot this year.
The Cardinals offense has gradually warmed up since its ice-cold start to the year. And recently Matheny has settled into a somewhat regular lineup that features rookie Kolten Wong batting second. On the year, Wong is batting .243/.281/.387. That batting line equates to an 88 wRC+, so just 12 percent below the MLB hitting average when adjusted for home park. It's right on par with the .251/.309/.363 (88 wRC+) line posted by MLB second basemen so far this 2014 season. Not too shabby, but not second-hole worthy.
Now you might be thinking that Wong is fast, that he's electric on the bases, and that the Cardinals need Wong's speed at the top of the order. The problem with this line of thinking is that Wong must reach base safely in order for his speed to be a factor. And Wong does not reach base safely at a high rate.
Through the bizarro prism of Out Percentage (Out%), Wong is making an out 71.9% of the time he digs into the batter's box. Therein lies the problem. The lineup is like a run-manufacturing assembly line. The more times the line cycles through over the course of a game and the season, the more runs a team creates. Outs disrupt the line and limit how many times it cycles through. So why would the manager give the second most PAs in a game, week, month, or season to a player who makes outs 71.9% of the time? He shouldn't. Especially when there are other options who make outs at a far lesser rate.
This brings us to Jay, who is currently slashing .313/.385/.407. Is his batting line punchless? Sure. Jay is no Beltran. His .093 Isolated Power (ISO), a stat that excludes singles and looks at only extra-base hits, is more Schumakiavellian than Beltran-esque. And Jay's 5.6% walk rate is not very impressive, either. The Chief Justice is a one-tool player whose skill is hitting for average. As we saw last year, when Jay's BABIP sags, the ripple effect is seen in a low BA and OBP. But this year—and not all that surprisingly—Jay's grounders and fliners are finding the safety of the outfield grass, just as they did in 2011 and 2012. As a result, Jay's .385 OBP is the highest on the team among those Cardinals who have taken 20 or more PAs this season. Jay's OBP is over 100 points higher than Wong's. That's why Jay should bat second for the Redbirds down the home stretch of the pennant race.