Mike Matheny recently discussed his opposition to batting the pitcher 8th, saying he had to bat 9th as a player and didn’t like it, and the analytics he’s seen hasn’t convinced him it was worthwhile.
Setting aside that argument - which I don’t find especially persuasive - one reason the Cardinals may want to keep the pitcher in the #9 spot is that Kolten Wong has been feasting on the #8 position.
As Alex pointed out yesterday, the Cardinals have the 3rd best production in the league from their #8 hitter, and in fact their #8 spot is tied with the #4 spot for the highest wRC+ on the team. For the majority of the season, Kolten Wong has been the #8 hitter.
Now, it’s worth saying up front that having one of your best hitters bat 8th is a bad thing. Over the course of a full season, each spot further down the lineup you move gets about 14 fewer PAs, meaning nearly 100 fewer for your #8 hitter than your leadoff hitter.
That said, Kolten Wong has taken advantage of hitting in that spot, which his skill set is uniquely suited for.
Wong has pushed his walk rate over 10% for the first time in his career, due in large part to the fact that he has taken eight intentional walks. Of the 13 intentional walks the Cardinals as a team have been given, eight have gone to Wong.
Throughout the National League, about 30% of all intentional walks go to the #8 hitter, because of course the pitcher is on-deck. So regardless of who you bat 8th, they’ve got a small leg-up when it comes to getting on base. Who do you want to get that extra little boost in on-base probability? A player like Wong is the ideal candidate.
For one thing, Wong can use the walks. For the first three years of his career, he walked only about 5% of the time, though he did raise that over 9% last season.
Since his 2014 debut, Wong has been the Cardinals best baserunner by a wide margin. So getting him on base is a very good thing. But with a career 6.9% walk rate and .286 BABIP, Wong hasn’t exactly excelled at getting himself on-base so he can do some damage with his legs.
Before his elbows started hurting, Wong was having his best season at the plate, making him one of the team’s better hitters so far this season (damning with faint praise). I’m certainly hopeful that he will continue that production, and the projection systems expect him to be just a tick under league-average for the rest of the season, which would be an improvement.
But if I’m being honest, I expect Wong to regress to something more like what we’ve seen in the past: Somewhat below league average hitter, very good baserunner and defender.
Now, if he’s one of your better hitters, he shouldn’t be hitting 8th - it’s as simple as that. But assuming you can get better production elsewhere in the lineup, Wong’s historical profile is a great fit for the #8 spot.