Baseball rarity: Cubs, Rockies hit pitchers in eighth slot

When Colorado manager Walt Weiss exchanged lineup cards with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon on Friday for the Rockies' home opener, we were treated to something relatively rare in baseball history: Both pitchers -- Travis Wood for the Cubs and Tyler Matzek for the Rockies -- hit in the eighth slot. It's just the 12th time in history that has happened and the first time since this Cardinals-Pirates game in 2008, at a time when manager Tony La Russa was frequently hitting his pitcher eighth.

Maddon submitted lineups with pitchers in the eighth slot seven times in interleague games when he was manager at Tampa Bay, and he has kept a similar strategy so far with the Cubs. Known for managerial and clubhouse innovations, Maddon believes it is a good idea to hit the pitcher eighth if the starting pitcher has a history of going only five or six innings. Then a pinch hitter appropriate to the situation can be brought in when the pitcher was about to be removed anyway.

Weiss has not yet received any accolades for managerial wizardry, but he played for La Russa and fellow Hall of Famer manager Bobby Cox and seems eager to try some new ideas this year with his lineup. He hit his pitcher ninth in the team's opening sweep over the Brewers, but during spring training he discussed hitting his pitcher eighth. "The concept behind it is to get another hitter up before the middle-of-the-order guys," Weiss explained. "If you can get an on-base guy in that ninth spot, it’s like a second leadoff hitter for when the lineup rolls over."

Weiss' spring-training lineups were also somewhat atypical; he used one of the team's elite hitters in the No. 2 slot instead of a traditional "bat handler" or (gasp) good bunter. Yes, the Rockies have a history of bunting from the second slot, even at Coors Field, where Cory Sullivan logged seven sacrifices over two days in 2006.

The plan this year will be different. Troy Tulowitzki logged quite a few plate appearances this spring batting second and was there Friday against the left-handed Wood; against the Brewers, Carlos Gonzalez hit second all three games.

"I’m not big on that No. 2 slot being a situational hitter," Weiss said this spring. "When I played for La Russa, he hit Dave Henderson there in Oakland, he used Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds in St. Louis. I like the fact that when the lineup turns over, it’s dangerous. With the length of our lineup, it can stay dangerous for a while."

Now he'll try the pitcher in the eighth spot for the first time. According to blogger J.G. Preston, who wrote about the history of managers who didn’t bat their pitchers in the ninth slot, Weiss becomes the 31st manager since the integration era to make such a move. Terry Collins of the Mets has also experimented with hitting his pitcher eighth; he did it 10 times last year and did it the other night with Jacob DeGrom.

The question of lineup construction comes up frequently among sabermetricians. Mitchel Lichtman, co-author of "Inside The Book: Playing The Percentages," thinks with most rosters, batting the pitcher in the eighth slot is not optimal, although it could depend on the exact configuration of the lineup. Most likely, he says, it’s a coin flip on whether it will create more offense. Also, having a better hitter in the No. 2 hole has little to do with the run-scoring effects of bunting, but rather instead of using an early lineup spot on a subpar hitter, the best hitters should hit as high in the order as possible so they get more plate appearances.

As an example, Lichtman notes that a player in the No. 2 slot could get about 100 more plate appearances over the course of a season than the No. 9 hitter. In the Rockies' case, that’s the reason he thinks one of the team’s best hitters, Corey Dickerson, should hit higher than sixth, where he batted the first three games. (Dickerson hit leadoff on Friday.)

This all assumes that the player is comfortable hitting in the No. 2 slot. During an entire season, Lichtman believes that any reasonable lineup is probably within five runs, or half a win, from any other reasonable lineup. That half-win can matter, but he acknowledges that what the players think could matter more.

As a former player, Weiss seemed to extend that courtesy to his players. "We experimented with [lineup ideas] in spring training to get the players comfortable with the idea. But I also told them we’re not going to win because I adjust the lineup; we’re going to win because we play the game hard," he said. "But it’s intriguing enough to me."

And maybe it's a trend that will catch on. After all, it was Maddon and the Rays who began popularizing the infield shift several years ago.

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