San Francisco Giants cleanup hitters are batting .252/.324/.378, for a .703 OPS that ranks 23rd in the majors. Reds cleanup hitters are performing even more poorly, with a .249/.323/.377 line. Both teams have a used a variety of guys in the four-hole: Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and a slew of others guys for the Giants (Cody Ross, Pat Burrell, Pablo Sandoval); for the Reds, Brandon Phillips hit OK there, but Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce have hit poorly when batting cleanup.
Both the Giants and Reds are playoff contenders, so my question: Can you make the playoffs with poor production from your cleanup position?
Going back over the past five seasons (40 playoff teams), here are the teams that ranked in the bottom third in the majors in OPS from the cleanup spot.
2010 Giants: .788 (21st)
2009 Dodgers: .769 (23rd)
2008 Dodgers: .778 (26th)
2007 Diamondbacks: .812 (21st)
2007 Angels: .801 (23rd)
2006 Padres: .802 (27th)
2006 Tigers: .805 (25th)
2006 Twins: .764 (28th)
Eight teams made the playoffs and two -- last year's Giants and the 2006 Tigers -- reached the World Series. Some of these teams resolved cleanup issues as the season progressed. For example, the 2006 Twins had Rondell White hitting there early on and he went 6-for-64 in the four-hole. Michael Cuddyer ended up with the most playing time there. The 2006 Twins are also a prime example of why you can't assume 100 RBIs means you're getting great production from the cleanup spot: Despite ranking 28th in the majors in OPS that year, Twins cleanup hitters still drove in 107 runs. Nearly every team gets 100 RBIs from the cleanup position.
The 2008 and 2009 Dodgers made the playoffs in back to back years despite subpar production from their cleanup hitters. In 2008, it was mostly Jeff Kent and James Loney hitting there before Manny Ramirez was acquired at the trade deadline. Ramirez was terrific in the cleanup spot but Joe Torre ended up using Ramirez as his No. 3 down the stretch and in the playoffs that year (with Russell Martin and Andre Ethier hitting cleanup). In 2009, five players started at least 20 games in the cleanup spot -- Casey Blake, Ethier, Matt Kemp, Ramirez and Loney. All told, Dodgers cleanup guys hit .265 with 19 home runs that year.
Last year's Giants similarly used several players there. Huff began the season hitting cleanup. Oddly, Bruce Bochy tried Bengie Molina there for a couple weeks, even though Huff had been hitting well. Eventually, the team would settle on Huff hitting third and Posey hitting cleanup. Huff and Posey actually hit well; Burrell's .155 mark in 30 games in the cleanup spot dragged down the team totals.
The problem Bochy faces this year is the lack of an alternative as viable as Posey. He's been trying Huff there lately, and after a slow start he has been hitting better, so he's the guy for now. In Cincinnati, Dusty Baker would undoubtedly prefer to keep Joey Votto and Bruce -- who both hit left-handed -- separated in the order by the right-handed Rolen, but Rolen just hasn't produced. Baker may be better off hitting Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey in the 1-2 spots, and moving Phillips back to the cleanup spot if he doesn't want the two lefties hitting back to back.
In the end, neither team is necessarily doomed by their cleanup production, but it's a key aspect to keep an eye on as the season progresses.