The San Francisco Giants’ Batting Order Problem
Who am I to question Manager Bruce Bochy? Well, nobody, of course…other than being a guy writing a San Francisco Giants blog. That said, because I am, indeed, a guy writing said blog and I have some thoughts, I’m going to question Bochy on something: I just don’t understand his batting order philosophy.
It’s generally believed that the order in which players take their at-bats should be arranged in a manner that optimizes run production, and in turn leads to more wins. The Giants batting lineup, however, doesn’t seem to be optimally arranged on most days—which might have something to do with the team’s recent struggle to win games.
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While there have been times in which either Buster Posey or Hunter Pence has batted third this year—29 games this season, to be exact—the team’s two best hitters have for the most part batted cleanup and backup cleanup (i.e. fourth and fifth). This is, quite frankly, a poor deployment of the team’s best hitters.
(Eerily similar Posey and Pence 2016 stat lines: Posey – .290 average, .362 on-base percentage, .460 slugging percentage, .823 OPS; Pence – .290, .367, .457, .824)
I’m not a fan of the recent trend to bat a team’s best hitter second. The Cubs, for instance, often do that with Kris Bryant, and the Angels used to do that with Mike Trout. But it’s a good idea to make sure the team’s best hitter goes to the plate in the first inning, preferably while batting third. This is particularly easy to arrange when a team has two star hitters—such as Posey and Pence.
In the season’s early going, Bochy stubbornly stuck with Matt Duffy in the three-hole. Even if he had produced at his 2015 level, Duffy does not profile as a championship-caliber, middle-of-the-order hitter. This isn’t to flick at Giants Nation’s still-aching heart in the wake of the Duffy trade. It’s just to say that Duffy would better serve his team batting second or sixth, where he is in more of a complementary role.
(Strange Duffy statistical split: in 35 home games this year before the trade, he batted .356; in 35 road games, he batted .144.)
Bochy eventually turned to Brandon Belt. That made some sense, considering that Belt’s on-base percentage has hovered around .400 throughout the season, and he hits for some power. But Belt has been a lot better while batting fifth and sixth in the order: he has an .837 OPS in 37 games batting third, a .915 OPS in 37 games batting fifth, and an a .992 OPS in 15 games batting sixth.
It could be a coincidence that Belt has produced more while batting lower in the lineup. But it’s more likely related to the pressure of batting third (which includes stiffer pitching). Belt just fits better behind Posey, and even better when behind Posey and Pence.
All the while, the lineup has not had a consistent presence in the three-hole. Along with Duffy, Belt, Posey and Pence, Joe Panik has batted third, as have Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker (both of whom are in the Minors now).
Sure, Pence missed two months with an injury, and so Bochy was constantly trying to arrange the pieces around Posey. And the Giants front office didn’t seem terribly motivated to add a slugger prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. (Adding Ryan Braun or Jay Bruce would have remedied all this!) But that doesn’t change the fact that when Pence is playing, the Giants don’t get to their best hitters until the fourth and fifth spots. Over the course of a season that means less at-bats for the best hitters. That means waiting an extra at-bat to get to the best hitters in key situations. And ultimately, that could mean the difference of a few runs in key situations.
Plus, the power void in the lineup’s first three hitters seems to be either empowering to opposing pitchers or deflating to the Giants’ offensive synergy. Collectively, Denard Span, Joe Panik and (fill in the blank) don’t quite strike enough fear.
It also doesn’t help that the Giants haven’t had great leadoff production. Span was signed to be that guy, but he has been below average. For one, he’s tied with four others for 18th in the National League with 11 stolen bases. Stolen bases aren’t everything, but if he’s not going to steal his way into scoring position, at least he could hit his way there. But among the 22 players with 11 or more stolen bases, he’s 14th in both extra-base hits and on-base percentage.
Now, not everyone who steals bases is a leadoff hitter, and not every leadoff hitter is expected to steal bases. But this shows that among the NL’s speedsters, Span isn’t all that speedy. And he really doesn’t make up for it with great hitting or on-base skills.
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So why not try something else? Presumably that’s why the Giants acquired Eduardo Nunez, for a spark at the top of the order. But he’s been batting all over the lineup. How about Bochy just settles on Nunez at leadoff and bats Span eighth? While we’re at it, how about we just set the entire lineup: