Throughout baseball history, the conventional wisdom has been that hitters who occupy the two-hole should be scrappy, contact oriented, possess the bat control to bunt and execute a hit-and-runs, and get on base enough to set the table for the team’s best hitter waiting on deck. It is no wonder that according to Baseball-Reference.com, the number two slot in the lineup has an 85.6% contact rate since 1961, which is the highest number for any lineup position. As recently as 2014, this conventional wisdom has held true as the second spot in the lineup had the lowest wRC+ out of any lineup position other than leadoff hitters that season. On the other hand, the 3 and 4-hole hitters were ranked first and second respectively according to this same metric. However, in the last few years, as sabermetrics began to dominate the thinking of MLB front offices, managers have begun to question whether this traditional lineup construction was actually conducive to scoring more runs. The answer? It’s not.
Increasingly, teams have began inserting their best hitter in the second spot of the lineup in order to increase the number of at-bats he will receive over the course of a season, while still him ample RBI opportunities. Recent analysis shows that a hitter is deprived of roughly 25 additional at bats throughout a season for every spot they are lowered in the lineup. Additionally, the RBI per plate appearance for two-hitters vs. three hitters has corresponded directly with managers starting to hit their best hitters second instead of third. In 2014, 2-hitters averaged about .090 RBI / PA compared to .125 RBI / PA for three hitters. However, in 2016, 2-hitters closed this gap by averaging 1.06 RBI / PA versus just 1.12 RBI / PA for 3-hitters. This illustrates that by putting a team’s best overall hitter in the 2-spot instead of hitting of hitting him 3rd, that hitter will increase his PAs, while hardly sacrificing any RBI opportunities.
Since managers began to adopt this philosophical change prior to the 2014 season, this strategy has undeniably produced positive results. In 2014, there were six teams whose two-hitters posted a wRC+ of less than 80. In 2015, there were only two hitters who posted a wRC+ that low. Similarly, in 2014 there were 11 teams who had two-hitters with sub 90 wRC+ totals, but only four such teams with that low of production in 2015. Altogether, two-hitters league wide raised their wRC+ from 102 to 107 between 2014 and 2015. This trend continued last season when the wRC+ from two-hitters reached an all-time high of 112.
When looking at the hitters who occupied the second spot in the lineup last season as well as the projected two hitters for the upcoming 2017 season, it is easy to see why these changes have occurred. Both AL and NL MVPs — Mike Trout and Kris Bryant — have been moved to the 2-hole in recent years. While NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, and catching phenom Gary Sanchez are also slated to hit second for the first time this year. These developments indicate that the rise of the two hitter should continue in 2017.
While managers are increasingly adhering to the statistical analysis of their front offices when constructing their lineups, there are still managers that are stuck in their old ways. The most glaring examples of teams that would benefit by moving their best hitters up in the order are the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals.
In the Marlins case, currently projected two-hitter Marcell Ozuna posted a wRC+ 25 points lower than Christian Yelich last season while posting an OBP about 50 points lower. As for the Washington Nationals, the decision to put Bryce Harper behind Daniel Murphy despite Harper’s far superior walk rate is questionable as well. Harper needs protection behind him to get more pitches to hit, especially considering his 2016 struggles after being pitched around for the first few months. It is not surprising that old-school managers Don Mattingly and Dusty Baker are resistant to new lineup philosophies; but by simply adopting this new wave of thinking, their team’s offenses would benefit.
Since 2014, the rise of the two hitter has been evident across Major League Baseball. If more managers are able to liberate themselves from their outdated modes of thinking, the notion that the best hitters should hit 3rd will be totally obsolete in just a few years.