Change comes to baseball the way water erodes a rocky landscape: very slowly through time. One adaptation in baseball recently is teams having their best hitter bat second in the batting order.
The Brewers have been no exception to this, having Christian Yelich in the two hole for the majority of the last two seasons. But to start the 2021 season, Craig Counsell decided to bump him back to the three spot, with disastrous results. Not that Yelich’s numbers are suffering, as he does have an On-Base Percentage of .406 from the three spot this year. However the offense itself struggled mightily through the first seven games, averaging only 2.86 runs per game.
In the eighth game, Counsell finally adjusted the batting order and sent the struggling Keston Hiura down and bumped Yelich up to the two spot. Now while a one game sample size is almost meaningless in baseball, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they scored nine runs, almost half of their season total to that point.
Why bat your best hitter second
The most obvious reason to bat your best hitter second is it leads to more plate appearances. Each drop in the batting order is worth around 15 plate appearances over the course of the season. That might not seem like much, but it’s hard to argue against giving Yelich more at bats.
Then you might think, why don’t they have him lead off? It’s the give and take between runs scored and runs batted in. If he leads off, the odds of him hitting with men on base goes down, even though the odds of he himself scoring a run goes up. The goal isn’t to get Yelich to score, it’s to get anyone to score, so you trade those 15 plate appearances in for plate appearances with a better chance to drive in runs.
Does it really matter?
According to the nerds that are much smarter than me, yes. If you plug the Brewers usual starters into Baseball Musing’s lineup analysis, the top 24 lineup variations all have Christian Yelich hitting second. That’s while using only the numbers the players have produced in a Brewers’ uniform, except for Kolten Wong, whose sample size is way too small.
According to the lineup analysis the best lineup for the Brewers would be:
According to the analyzer, this lineup should produce 4.3 runs per game.
The Brewers Two Hitter So Far
I can’t sugarcoat it. It’s been bad. Mostly caused by an atrocious start by Hiura, the Brewers two hitter through 4/11 has produced a slashline of .111/.200/.139. That’s the worst batting average, slugging percentage, and subsequently OPS in the league, with only the Braves producing a worse on-base percentage.
How does the difference affect Yelich?
Now while Yelich is a good hitter no matter where he is in the batting order, his best numbers do come out of the two spot. That excludes the eight spot, however, where he got a base hit in his only plate appearance. His career OBP/SLG from the two spot are .409/.568 versus .379/.465 from the three spot. His numbers as a Brewer are even better, .411/.604 from the two spot versus .404/.547 from the three spot.
Since the analytics say Yelich should hit second, Yelich’s numbers say he should hit second, and the Brewers current lack of success in the two hole say we need a better second hitter, it’s probably a good idea to have Yelich hit second.