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Batting Eighth, for the Cardinals...

Does putting a speedster eighth inhibit a team’s running game?

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When I was in college, I absolutely loved watching The OC. I might be dating myself here, but the second season came out my first year of college, and it was a pretty spectacular show relative to the rest of TV at the time. Kids these days have their Netflix and their Hulus and their Ebays, but at the time my suitemates and I hurried home every Thursday night to catch it live- who had the money for DVD’s, anyway? Why am I dating myself with mid-2000s TV references? Well, we’re working towards an analogy here, people. Give me some space, okay? There’s one scene in particular that I quote a decent amount, all these years later. Here’s a quick clip. “You know what I like about rich kids? Nothing” is just an incredible quote. First of all, it works really well when talking about actual rich people. It’s way more versatile than that, though. Is there something you don’t like anything about? Throw this quote at it. Let’s get back to my introduction, then- you know what I like about winter? Nothing. I don’t like the cold. I don’t like city streets all gross with snow. I don’t like walking to the train station while my face and hands freeze and my soul slowly leaves my body. I don’t like the short days and long nights. I don’t like that there’s no baseball. Winter sucks, is my point here.

If there’s one bright spot to winter (and again, there isn’t really), it’s that I have time to indulge in some incredibly pointless research. During the baseball season, there are games and things to react to. Right now, though the topics are few and far between, there’s nothing too small to write about. Take today, for example. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are out there, unsigned, and here I am, writing about who’s batting eighth for the Cardinals next year. Anything goes, and I love it. Where were we? Right, who’s going to bat eighth? Well, here’s the thing- the Cardinals’ lineup is going to be stacked next year. Here’s a quick preview going around the diamond from pitcher to right field, according to ZiPS projections:

Projected 2019 OPS+

Player OPS+
Player OPS+
Pitcher Bad
Molina 90
Goldschmidt 130
Wong 97
DeJong 98
Carpenter 129
Ozuna 110
Bader 89
Fowler 97
O'Neill 115

The worst projected hitters on the team are Yadi and Harrison Bader, with some combination of Wong/Fowler/DeJong coming next after that. I think the DeJong projection is ludicrously low, but that’s neither here nor there. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Bader should probably bat 8th against righties, with Wong filling that slot against lefties. Why not Yadi? Well, Yadi Bats Fifth (™). More seriously though, Yadi’s plate appearances in 2018 were pretty evenly divided between second, fifth, and sixth. It probably makes sense not to slot your slowest runner in front of the pitcher, so sixth or seventh seems like an okay slot for him this year. Here’s the thing though- Bader and Wong can’t steal if they’re batting eighth. They are the two fastest players on the team, after all. The Cardinals haven’t been very aggressive on the basepaths of late, and that can’t change with the team’s fastest players tied to first base with a pitcher up, right? Right?

Well, again, it’s winter. Let’s do the math. This way, come April, we won’t have to stop watching actual exciting baseball to wonder about such a small point. Let’s go through this logically. The first thing we need to find out is how often Bader and Wong have stolen when they’re not tied down by the pitcher batting after them. With the caveat that I’m using single-season stats (Bader because that’s all we have, Wong because he’s dialed down his aggression on the basepaths in recent years and I want to use that more recent data), the easiest thing to look at is what percentage of plate appearances each player turned into stolen base attempts. Is this a perfect statistic? Not exactly, because all kinds of things affect how often a player attempts a steal. How good is he at getting to first base? Upon reaching first base, how often is he covered up by a runner on second? How does the game situation affect how much sense it makes to steal? Well, look, I didn’t calculate all that. Who am I, Mitchell Lichtman? In all seriousness, though, we’ll cover this angle a bit more at the end, but for now let’s ignore them. Bader attempted a steal in 5% of his plate appearances outside the 8th spot- 16 attempts in 325 PA. Wong takes off a little less often- a mere 3.3%. How do they fare when batting eighth? Both of them attempt a steal in a little under 2% of PA’s when batting eighth. There, then, we can count out our missing steals. Bader and Wong combined for 270 PA in the 8th spot last year, worth 10.5 steal attempts if they had stolen at their regular rate. Instead, they managed only 5 attempts, a loss to the team of 5.5 basepath adventures. If you think the duo will combine for around 450 PA in the 8th spot next year (with a backup catcher or random minor league callup handling the rest), with Bader getting 70% of those PA, that would equate to around 12 missed stolen base attempts.

Well, first of all, that’s not all that many extra chances at a steal. Twelve steals is certainly not worthless, but it’s not making or breaking the offense. Wait a minute, though. That’s not even twelve steals- it’s just twelve steal attempts. Plugging in Bader’s and Wong’s success rates (81% and 76% respectively), we can figure out how many runs those steals are worth. Last year, per Fangraphs’ Guts page, a steal was worth .2 runs and getting caught stealing was worth -.407. Thus, our twelve steals net the good guys a whopping .85 runs worth of value. That’s right- 450 PA of the fastest batters on the team having their stolen base rates depressed by batting eighth is worth essentially nothing.

Just to complete the circle, let’s consider one reason that a stolen base rate might not be representative of how often a player would steal. What if Bader just had a super low OBP on his non-eight-spot plate appearances last year? To control for this, I redid the math based on how often Wong and Bader take off when they reach first base. Again excluding plate appearances in the eight hole, I looked at how many walks, HBP’s, and singles each player got, and how often they attempted a steal. This misses other ways of reaching first base, and it still doesn’t control for either runners blocking a base or steals attempted from second. We’re, uh, we’re not dealing with those corner cases today though. Using these rules, Bader took off 19% of the time after reaching first base, while Wong went 13 times. Using ZiPS’ projections for percentage of the time that each will reach first base next year and the same plate appearance estimates from above, and comparing that to how often they have taken off from first base while batting in the eighth spot, we get ten missed opportunities to steal a base. That’s an even smaller difference than my estimate above, largely driven by the fact that Bader is projected to get on base less often in 2019 than he did in 2018.

At the end of the day, batting your fast guys in the eight spot isn’t that much of a disaster when they don’t get on base very often. Moreover, neither Wong nor Bader is a premier base-stealing threat. Though Bader is obviously incredibly fast, he hasn’t attempted steals at a tremendous rate, even when not hitting eighth. Wong is more of a pick-your-spots baserunner than anything else, which is a nice thing to have but nothing gamebreaking. It feels wrong, absolutely wrong, to put the team’s best speed threats in front of the pitcher. It’s just ugly, you know? The thing is, it just stone doesn’t matter. One of the lovely things about baseball is that it can be quantified, so I don’t have to think something like ‘well this seems wrong but I’m not sure if it is.’ In this case, the answer isn’t satisfying, but it’s going to make me feel better the first time I see Bader step to the plate with John Gant awkwardly clutching a bat in the on-deck circle. In the dead of winter, that’s about the most useful baseball thing I can do with my time.