Should J.D. Martinez Hit #2 For The Detroit Tigers?

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The Detroit Tigers have a dilemma.

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By consensus they have one of the most powerful offenses in the American League, but  lack an obvious number two hitter against right handers.

It’s expected Ian Kinsler will lead off against righties, while sliding to number two against lefties with Rajai Davis in the leadoff spot.

Not exactly ideal–Kinsler’s OBP was only .307 last year–but acceptable under the circumstances.

But try as you may, it’s challenging to identify a player who fits comfortably into the number two-hole against right handers.

There are candidates, of course, but for every nominee there’s a closet full of skeletons.

Take Alex Avila, for instance, who gets on base regularly against right handers. That in itself is a good thing, yet it’s undermined by his ponderous foot speed.

By far the most persuasive argument for not hitting Avila second will be evident when his number comes up in critical late-game situations. Hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera, Avila will regularly have to face a legion of LOOGY’s, whom he simply does not hit. Manager Brad Ausmus will then have to either pinch-hit for his best defensive catcher or tolerate an automatic out.

Since neither option is acceptable, Avila is better situated lower in the line-up, far removed from the two-hole.

The other contenders in play are equally suspect hitting second in the line-up.

Nick Castellanos? His youth, low OBP, and sluggishness on the bases suggest otherwise.

How about Jose Iglesias, who hit .259 in 2013? Maybe down the road, but he’s coming off a full year layoff and has yet to demonstrate he’s a top of the order hitter.

Anthony Gose‘s name has also been bandied about as a potential second hitter.

Though he handles right handers better than left handers, that’s not saying much because he’s been abysmal against portsiders. Initially at least, his speed and light hitting play better at the bottom of the line-up.

Then there’s the newly acquired Yoenis Cespedes.

The problem is the new Tiger is too much of a free swinger to hit near top of the line-up.

That’s not intended to malign Cespedes, but merely suggests his hitting style is better suited to knocking in runs than setting the table for others.

Having exhausted virtually every viable candidate, it’s time think out of the batter’s box.

How about last year’s phenom, J.D. Martinez?

What the !$@#, you say?

Read on, my profane friend. It may not be as crazy as you think.

Let’s start with OBP, a prime qualification for the second hitter.

Here’s a list of the two-hole candidates and their 2014 OBP’s against right handed pitching (note: Iglesias’s OBP is for 2013):

J.D. Martinez: .357

Iglesias: .354

Avila: .340

Gose: .329

Cespedes: .311

Castellanos: .301

So based on recent performance, Martinez passes the foremost test for a second hitter, as he is more likely to reach base safely than the others under consideration.

Okay, but what about his power and run production? Won’t that be wasted hitting him so high in the line-up, where he is less likely to bat with runners on base?

The answer is an emphatic no.

A generation or two ago the second slot in the batting order was reserved for a pesky contact hitter. He had to be skilled at getting on base and advancing base runners by every means possible.

Think Nellie Fox and Junior Gilliam.

Now while the above attributes remain valued, over the past couple decades sabermetricians and other assorted analysts have fully dissected the qualities that comprise an effective two-hole hitter.

As it turns out, the results are at odds with the traditional view.

In general, they’ve found power hitters who make regular contact tend to fit very neatly into the second spot in the order. They further argue the number two-hole hitter should be one of your top three hitters, if not your best hitter.

Their rationale is based on several factors:

1. The two hitter gets better pitches to hit because he precedes the three hitter, normally the team’s best bat.

2. In the American League, where the pitcher doesn’t hit, the number eight and nine hitters feed nicely into the top of the order, enhancing the two-slot’s importance as a run producer.

3. Over the course of a season, the two-hole hitter will get significantly more at bats than someone hitting lower in the line-up.

4. Contrary to popular belief, the second hitter gets nearly as many “high leverage” at bats as the number three hitter.

The analytical work that underpins these conclusions is more than a mere intellectual exercise.

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  • Significant pockets of the baseball world have come to accept its tenets and have used non-traditional number two hitters extensively.

    Among the forward-thinking managers who’ve embraced this approach are Tony LaRussa, Joe Maddon, Davey Johnson, and Mike Sciosia.

    As a result, the list of power hitters who’ve hit in the second spot of the order is impressive–it includes Mike Trout, Jose Bautista, Joe Mauer, Robinson Cano, Yasiel Puig, and Jason Heyward, among others.

    Thus instead of being considered a radical idea hatched by quasi-mathematicians with too much time on their hands, the concept of hitting someone like J.D. Martinez second in the batting order is increasingly viewed as a way to optimize run production.

    The Bottom Line

    We would not be having this discussion if the Detroit Tigers had a hitter who  fit naturally into the second spot in the batting order against right hand pitchers.

    Unfortunately, there is no such player on their roster.

    Even though I believe J.D. Martinez is the team’s best alternative to hit in the second slot, it must be acknowledged there are valid reasons he should hit fifth or sixth.

    First, there’s the “comfort” issue.

    Coming off his breakout year, do you really want to move him around in the line-up? How would he feel about it? Is he open to the idea or resistant?

    In addition, there are no guarantees Martinez will duplicate his surprisingly productive 2014 season, when he hit .323 with 23 homers and an OBP of .358. A significant drop off in performance, especially OBP, would render him less attractive as a number two hitter.

    Finally, if Martinez hits second, the sixth spot (occupied by neither Martinez nor Cespedes) would be less productive and would have to be filled by a weaker bat, diluting the back end of the line-up.

    So with these pros and cons in mind, the Tigers’ lack of an obvious number two hitter against righties at least sets the stage for a spirited spring training discussion.

    I won’t get a vote, but from my perch, hitting J.D. Martinez second in the line-up against right handers forms an elegant solution to an otherwise disorderly problem.

    Next: Miggy progressing, roster choices, Chad Smith gone

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