There has to be a better option than this. (Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE)
The traditional idea with second spot in the lineup is that you want someone who can “handle a bat” – which generally means being able to make good contact so you can advance the leadoff runner who has theoretically gotten on base and has good speed.* There is also the theory that you can put someone who struggles there, because hitting in front of the 3-4-5 hitters (theoretically your best) will mean that pitchers will give them something to hit because they don’t want to put baserunners on.
Some of these ideas have proven to be fallacies. “Protection” in a batting order doesn’t really have an impact on how well hitters do as discussed here and here . Also, batting order rearrangements just don’t make that big of a difference over the course of the season. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. This study, for example, found that the difference between the best and worst possible lineup configurations yielded a difference of approximately 0.15 runs per game, or 24 runs over the course of the years.
However, we saw this year that the White Sox were only a few marginal mistakes away from making the playoffs – and the way these playoffs have worked out, I think the White Sox would have had as good a shot as any at making a deep run. Further, it is objectively true that the higher you hit in the batting order the more frequently you will hit. I.e. your leadoff and #2 hitter are getting the most plate appearances on your team.
Combine these two ideas and I suggest the following: The White Sox may have seriously harmed themselves with the production that they chose to place in the 2nd spot in the lineup. White Sox 2-hole hitters managed a .221/.296/.354 line for the season, which is absolutely abysmal. Indeed, the White Sox decided to give the 2nd most plate appearances on the team to hitters that produced the 2nd worst OPS on the team, and the 3rd worst OBP. One minor hurdle with trying to “fix” this is that there was no single hitter who really was their #2 hitter until Youkilis was brought in, and he did a perfectly good job getting on base. However, virtually all of the non-Youkilis guys who hit 2nd for the White Sox – Gordon Beckham (213 PAs), Alexei Ramirez (64PAs), Brent Morel (49 PAs), Brent Lillibridge (35 PAs), and Eduardo Escobar (27 PAs) – are horrible at getting on base, to the point where one wonders if Ventura’s plan was to boost their OBP by chasing some lineup protection instead of looking to plug a good OBP guy into the spot. It doesn’t really make sense to try to improve a bad hitter’s abilities slightly by hitting him in front of someone good at the cost of reducing the odds of having more baserunners in front of the heart of your lineup.
Shuffling your batting order around will only have the most minor of impacts on your team. However, it’s something that’s eminently within your team control and something that you can fix for free. Even if it’s only an improvement of .1 runs per game of a difference, if it doesn’t cost you anything, why not do it? There really isn’t any justification to handing out that many plate appearances to some of your weakest hitters, or shoving those outs in the middle of the most productive area of your lineup. Who knows what an extra five or six runs in the right spots might have done for this team?
*I always thought this was kind of silly, because if you already want to play for one run at a time such that you prioritize base stealing and speed at the leadoff spot, shouldn’t he just be able to steal second or advance to third on a single? Why are you throwing away more outs to move him up 90 feet at a time?