What's In A Batting Order?

added 2/21/2011 by Dr. Bill McCurdy

(This column is reprinted with permission from Dr. McCurdy's blog, The Pecan Park Eagle.)

How many of you deep blue baseball fans have taken the time to try to explain to your kids and other lesser informed members of your household what goes into the arrangement of your favorite baseball club's batting order and why it often seems to vary from game to game? My guess is that most of you have made the effort and that many of you were understandably glad when the "students" stopped asking questions like "Why don't the Astros get themselves a player like Albert Pujols? Don't we need a player who can hit a lot of home runs too?"

In a few words today, let's cover the ground you probably need to cover in explaining the batting order lineup of any typical National League team. I refuse to even try to logically explain lineups for the American League because of the "designated hitter" rule that alters the whole strategy of how the game is played. I prefer to live in denial, treating NL baseball as the only version of real baseball - and dealing with the DH only during interleague play, the All-Star Game in AL cities, and the World Series in AL parks.

I prefer the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" (K.I.S.S.) approach to explaining bating orders - and not because I'm so smart, but because there are so many places to get totally lost on the subject due to individual variances in philosophy from one school of hitting thought to another. (It almost sounds like rocket science, doesn't it?)

Well, it isn't always rocket science, so much, but human ego that prompts these differences. The old "my way or the highway" dies a slow death with some people. If I'm a "run and gun" manager, I'm not going to care so much if you can hit 40 homers per season. If you strike out too much, if you can't hit behind the runner, and if you can't run when you do hit, I'll care.

If I'm a big percentages guy, I may not be too impressed with your .300 batting average either, if it all seems to come as a result of your record against opposite hand throwing pitchers. I will either platoon, bench, or get rid of you before I start you every day for my club. If you are a .300-average right-handed batter who hits only .230 against right-handed pitchers, you're not likely to start too many games against right-handers, if I have better choices at all.

Here are the four most universal agreements we find in the component sections of most batting orders. For purposes of brevity here, I will use the most popular descriptions I've grown up with to describe them:

(1) Table Setters: Batters 1 and 2. These guys have good baserunning speed, good batting eyes, high on base percentages and, hopefully, good batting averages. They don't have much long ball power, but they are good at reaching base. The number 2 guy is especially adept at not hitting into double plays. These guys understand their job: Be on base when the long ball hitters come to bat. Table setters are often middle infielders or center fielders on defense because those are the spots on defense that also most require speed a requisite quality.

(2) Heart of the Order: Batters 3, 4, and 5. These are the guys who drive the ball into the gaps and over the wall. The number 3 guy is usually the best hitter on the club for average and power. You want him coming up often with men on base and you want him batting third to be certain that he has a shot from the very first inning forward. It helps if he can hit behind runners as a situational hitter as well. The number 4 man is a power guy, and maybe the best home run hitter on the club, Number 5 is a good power and average batter who looms as a punishment for pitchers who try to work around the numbers 3 and 4 hitters. A great number 5 hitter may save the season or career of a powerful number 4 guy who has trouble swinging at pitchers out of the strike zone.

(3) The Ice Man, Batter 6. This is the guy who make the difference between winning and losing. You want him to have power, but more so, you want him to back up the number 5 guy in much the same way that number 5 braces numbers 3 and 4. In fact, if batters 5 and 6 are both solid, theory says that the 3 and 4 guys are both going to see better pitches to hit. The quality of your "ice man" is the maker or breaker on your presentation of a lineup that resembles "Murderers Row."

(4) The Bottom of the Order, Batters 7, 8, and 9. Sadly, this is the biggest wasteland in baseball. For Astros fans, it was often thought of as the Ausmus/Everett/pitcher dead-zone, the place where your two worst hitters and the pitcher clogged up the second or third inning and killed the opportunity for scoring. What you hope for here is that your two worst hitters are not bad hitters. Some managers (Larry Dierker comes to mind) would sometimes try to deal with unclogging the dead zone by hiding one of the two worst hitters at the top of the lineup to unclog the total blockade at the bottom in every game.

That's about it from me on this subject. In sixty years of playing, watching, and studying the game, that's the most common sense I can make out of batting orders and the thinking that goes into putting them together.

The one other thought we do have to keep in mind is that these batting orders are only guaranteed to be in place once in every game - and that's in the first inning. After that, the set-up/back-up plan is only in effect once another inning starts with the top of the batting order. The thing that does remain constant is the way your lineup backs up each hitter as best you are able with other batters who may punish pitchers for attempting to pitch around your best guys. The better your guys are, the better your batting order works, no matter where they are hitting in the plan for attack.

Happy early feel of spring day, everybody. Baseball season gets closer to us by the day.