Why ninth?

The Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast has been asked why DeNa BayStars Alex Ramirez is criticized for batting his pitchers eighth when a great manager like Tetsuharu Kawakami of the Yomiuri Giants did so in the Japan Series?

My answer to that question will drop tomorrow. For today, I’ll ask why would anyone bat their pitcher ninth.

Batting more often

The one reasonable argument for batting a pitcher ninth means the weakest hitter in your order comes up slightly less often. I asked MLB historian John Thorn if pitchers used to frequently bat higher than ninth in the majors. He said it was fairly common when the gap between good-hitting pitchers and regular position players was less stark.

THE most common argument for using a pitcher eighth is that he is a good hitter for a pitcher. But if you really think about an ordinary lineup, with the best hitters bunched 1 to 5 and then declining in quality after that until you get to No. 9, the optimal place for your least productive hitter is not ninth, but eighth.

That’s not cricket

If baseball were more akin to cricket, and each player batted in turn until he was out or until 10 outs were made and there is only one batsman left standing at the crease, then the weakest hitter should go last. But that’s not how baseball works. A baseball batting order may be linear, but it in fact a loop rather than a line with one beginning and one end.

Because baseball isn’t cricket and there are only three outs instead of 10, the worst lineup is not the one that puts the worst hitters at the top of the lineup, but the one that intersperses the best hitters with the weakest ones. If batter “A” has a value of 9, “B” 8, and so on, the worst lineup would something like “I”, “A”, “H”, “B”, “G”, “C”, “F”, “D”, “E” where a weaker hitter always bats between two more productive ones.

Because teams – except for knobs who bat a weak hitter second – stack their best hitters 1 to 5, a pitcher batting ninth is connected not only to the weakest hitting position players batting 6-8, but also the lineup’s very best in the 1-3 spots. And that’s the problem. The cost of inserting the pitcher into the eighth spot where he’ll bat after the sixth and seventh spot is less than that of having an automatic out before the leadoff hitter.

Book learning

Tom M. Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman and Andrew E. Dolphin published a study of this issue in their cost-analysis of baseball tactics, “The Book.” If every other hitter in the lineup is average, then the best place to put an automatic out is ninth, because that spot bats less often.

Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin calculated the cost of batting a pitcher in each different lineup spot in two different contexts, where each of the other eight hitters were exactly league average, and where each of the other hitters were league average for that batting order slot.

In a model when the other eighth hitters are exactly league average, batting a pitcher eighth–and giving him 2.5 percent more plate appearances–would cost a team an average of 0.023 runs per game, or four runs over the course of a 162-game major league season.

Of course, no team–except perhaps the Lotte Marines in some seasons–has a lineup of nine interchangeable league-average hitters. If you change that model to one where each spot in the order is league average for that batting-order position, with the best hitters 1 through 5, then the cost of having the pitcher bat more often is outweighed by the number of times the top of the order comes up with men already on base. The advantage, of having the worst hitter bat eighth is about 0.12 runs per game, or about two extra runs per season.

In contrast to the actual logic of wanting your weakest hitter to bat least often, I suspect the real reason pitchers bat ninth is the game’s historic obsession with runs batted in.

I guess some people still believe that the players who drive in the runs are the ones doing all the work – except of course for the guys who sacrifice. For them, having a runner on base to be driven in by the best hitters, is less important than having a position player in the No. 8 hole to drive in the Nos. 5, 6 and 7 guys.

Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin found that in a DH league, where even the worst hitter in the lineup is much more effective as a hitter than an average pitcher, that indeed, the best place to put your worst hitter is ninth.

He’s a good hitter, for a pitcher

The only time you should be batting a “good-hitting” pitcher eighth is if if he’s actually a good hitter and better than the guy batting eighth. So Shohei Ohtani is a natural to bat higher in the order. So was Kawakami, who became Japan’s “God of Hitting” after he became the team’s first baseman. As a pitcher batting higher than eighth in the Giants’ batting order between 1938 and 1941, Kawakami went 26-for-59.

Joe Wieland, who got Ramirez started down this slippery if smart slope in 2017, had a slash line better than a lot of NPB No. 8 hitters that year: .229/.302/.438. So Joe Wieland goes in that group, too.

Those guys rarely exist now. Daisuke Matsuzaka? Seventh in Game 1 of the 2002 Japan Series because Lions owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi thought it was a good idea? Forget about it.

Bat your pitchers eighth, not because they are good-hitting pitchers, but because they are much worse than your No. 8 hitter.

Tomorrow: The history of pitchers batting in Japan, and how the world’s most colorful and diverse leagues became obsessed with rooting out diversity and non-conformists in the 1980s.

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