Prior to Game 4 of the ongoing American League Championship Series, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to make significant changes to his struggling lineup, which had produced just six runs over the first three games against the Boston Red Sox.
The former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper moved slumping leadoff man Austin Jackson down to eighth, then bumped up Torii Hunter to the top spot and slotted Miguel Cabrera in the No. 2 hole. Prince Fielder, who usually handles cleanup duties, hit third, with Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta following.
The reshuffling made sense, if only to move Jackson to a lower-leverage position and get the surging Martinez and Peralta closer to the top of the order where they could do more damage. But the biggest hits of Wednesday night’s Game 4 at Comerica Park were authored by the gentlemen in the first two spots of the lineup.
Hunter, hitting leadoff for the first time since his early years with the Minnesota Twins, drilled a two-run double that highlighted Detroit’s five-run second inning, while Cabrera, in the second spot for just the third time in his decade-long MLB career, collected two RBI singles in the Tigers’ eventual 7-3 win.
With the series now tied two games apiece, Leyland will likely stick to his reconfigured batting order, of which the most interesting aspect is Cabrera batting second. Since the 2012 AL MVP is limited by a nagging lower-body injury, Leyland probably felt more comfortable about shifting him away from his usual No. 3 position.
However, as we’ve learned through advanced analysis of lineup construction, the optimal spot for a team’s best all-around hitter is the No. 2 position. And as we know, the Pirates’ answers to the remarkable Cabrera is center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Batting this year’s NL MVP favorite in the second spot next year could help Pittsburgh make the most of its limited on-base percentage. Although the 2013 Pirates were third in the league in home runs (161), they reached base at a .313 clip, putting them in the bottom half of MLB.
While power is important, not making outs is moreso, and no one on the Bucs got on base more often than McCutchen, whose .404 OBP was far and away the best on the team among full-time starters. Starling Marte (.343) was second in that category, with Neil Walker (.339) coming in third.
Actually, a decent argument could be made for “Cutch” to hit leadoff, as he did rather regularly upon his call-up to the majors in 2009. On the other hand, McCutchen’s burgeoning power – he had 64 extra-base hits and a .508 slugging percentage in 2013 – would be somewhat wasted batting ahead of the pitcher a couple times per game.
If Marte’s batting eye can be expected to continue to improve as it did from his rookie year to his second season, the speedy 25-year-old will be a more-than-adequate leadoff man for years to come. That leaves McCutchen as the perfect No. 2 hitter, boasting equal measures of on-base and extra-base ability.
Beyond his skill profile, simple math tells us moving McCutchen up one spot in the order will give him dozens of additional at-bats, which may be the best argument for the adjustment. Why wouldn’t the Pirates want their top player and one of the best in the sport to get a few more opportunities to make a difference?
Leyland’s nudging of his premier hitter to the second spot was at least partially motivated by desperation – the Tigers needed a win to avoid falling behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. The Pirates’ front office should display that same type of healthy urgency this offseason, as they look into getting the most out of their roster.
Barring the addition of another elite on-base machine over the winter, hitting McCutchen second would be the easiest way to do just that.