In seven games with the pitcher batting eighth, the Braves have a 4-3 record. Three of those wins came against the Cubs, a non-contender in 2014. We’ve scored a lousy 2.5 runs per game, even lower than our season average of 3.16, and most of the success can be attributed to the pitching and defense. Still, I see this lineup adjustment as a good experiment, and it’s too early to revert to a traditional lineup.
On the surface, it’s a silly tactic. The pitcher will always be the least effective batter in the game, so it is best to limit his at bats by putting him last in the lineup. Such is the conventional wisdom. But there are clear benefits to this adjustment as well, and these benefit are particularly suited for the current Braves roster.
First and foremost, having a position player in the ninth spot increases the chance of a base hit prior to the top of the lineup. It’s almost like having a second leadoff hitter, and while the Braves don’t even have one prototypical leadoff hitter, they have several players who would fit nicely ahead of J-Hey and J-Up. Think Pena, Pastornicky, BJ, or Schafer. These guys are all decent contact hitters (except BJ) with above-average speed (especially BJ). This could create good hit-and-run opportunities for Heyward/Justin, and relieve some of the pressure they have to get on base in front of Freeman.
Second, putting the pitcher higher in the lineup does not necessarily mean he will get more at-bats. Pitchers will still get 2 or 3 ABs per game (four if they are pitching a gem). Late in the game, having the pitcher spot eighth can mean an earlier opportunity for a pinch hitter. The Braves have good options on the bench, although I wish Fredi would give Doumit a rest.
One more thing: Braves pitchers can’t bunt. It’s sad, but true. Only three Atlanta pitchers (Teheran, Wood, Harang) have succeeded in sacrificing this season, for a combined 6 sacs in 37 games. Ouch. So even if a position player batting eighth manages to get on base, we can’t bunt him into scoring position for the top of the lineup to drive home. Our pitcher spot is almost guaranteed to be an unproductive out. The only question is when do we want to take that out.
Here’s a tough fact: the 2014 Braves don’t have a great offense. That’s been made clear in these first six weeks. We will not score a lot of runs. To win games, we must rely on great pitching and superb defense. That’s not the best formula for a winning season, but it’s what we’ve got.
Moving the pitcher to the eighth spot won’t help a ton, but it might help a little, and we need every run we can score. Sure, it’s gimmicky. So what? Are we afraid the other teams will make fun of us? What is this, junior high? Should we try to make our lineup fit in with the cool teams? Heck, not too long ago, playing a shift was gimmicky, and now it’s just a fact of the game. Now shifting wins games.
Fredi has made it clear that he intends for this adjustment to be temporary. It’s purpose is to shake things up, and he plans to get back to a traditional NL lineup once the hitting improves. I hope he changes his mind and sticks with the pitcher eighth for the rest of the season. If for no other reason, it would expand that sample size on this interesting experiment.