The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Pitch to Barry

Although it seems that Barry Bonds has come back to Earth a little bit (last night his average fell below .500 for the first time in awhile, and one would think it will remain there for the duration of the season), in terms of how locked in he is at the plate, I’m still hearing a lot of discussion about where the Giants should bat Barry in the lineup. Felipe Alou has chosen to bat Bonds fourth in the lineup this year, which many people think is not an ideal spot. Others argue that since the Giants lineup is so poor without Bonds that it makes sense to bat him there, because in many cases the 4th batter will lead off the second inning and in instances where he doesn’t, there will be at least one runner on base in the first.

Generally, there are four places in the lineup that you could arguably bat Bonds. Most popular amongst people other than Felipe Alou, is 3rd. This is the traditional place for a batter with power, who also hits for average and in ideal cases, who possesses some speed. Bonds may not have the speed that he had in his earlier days, but he is also not the slowest person in the league either. As you may know, Barry is the only player in the history of major league baseball to have hit 500 home runs and to have stolen 500 bases. Actually, he’s the only man to ever hit 400 homers and steal 400 bases (yeah – I know, I would have thought that Mays was a 400-400 guy too, but I looked it up and he isn’t).

Fourth is also a popular choice for Bonds. It’s difficult to argue with the logic of Felipe Alou, who has been in baseball for a long time, and who managed Barry and the Giants to a division title last year. Batting fourth also gives Barry the best theoretical opportunity to come up with runners on base. This can be a good thing or a bad thing though, at least in a sense, because if runners are on second and third when Barry comes to the plate, he will almost definitely be walked – lately even regardless of the situation. But if he is pitched to, having runners on is exactly the situation the Giants are looking for with Barry at the plate. The downside to having Barry bat fourth is that each spot in the batting order gets about 20 fewer plate appearances than the spot ahead of it over the course of a season (I don’t have any data to back this up, but it seems to be conventional wisdom, at least according to the SABR-L posts I’ve read on the subject). Sure, this isn’t a whole lot (maybe one plate appearance per week, give or take a little), but given the pace that Barry’s been on over the last four years, there’s a better than 50% chance that he’ll reach base somehow or another and that gives your team a good chance to score runs. When you are as run deprived as the Giants are and will be (without an acquisition of some sort) this year, increasing your ability to score runs is of paramount importance.

Others have argued that Bonds should bat much higher in the lineup. Some have suggested that he should bat lead-off. This would guarantee Bonds the most possible plate appearances. It would also present opposing managers with an interesting dilemma at the start of every game – whether to walk Bonds and give the Giants a base runner to start things off, or to pitch to him and risk him reaching base anyway or putting the Giants on the board with a run rather quickly. The downside to this strategy is that Bonds would only be guaranteed to lead off an inning once per game; in the other innings, Bonds would likely bat after the 8th and 9th hitters batted, meaning that there would likely be very few runners on base during his plate appearances. Not having a lot of runners on when Bonds bats isn’t ideal either, as it limits his ability to produce runs.

Based on the premise that it is important for runners to be on base when Bonds bats, others have asserted that Barry should bat second, behind speedy lead-off man Ray Durham. On the surface this strategy appears to make sense, as it would put Barry behind a solid hitter who reaches base quite frequently; on the other hand, Durham is capable of stealing a lot of bases, but this skill would likely be negated with Bonds hitting behind him, because Durham would not want to steal second base and have Bonds walked as a result (since there would be an open base behind Durham). The benefit of getting Barry to the plate 40 more times over the course of the season may outweigh the reduction in stolen base opportunities for Durham. I’d have to run the numbers on that to be sure.

Personally, I don’t like that the Giants are batting Bonds fourth. I think it limits his plate appearances and given the bats that surround his in the lineup, I don’t think it offers him any additional opportunities. There are rarely going to be runners on base ahead of him, and when those runners are on base, it still likely isn’t going to be a situation where the opponents will pitch to him. If I were the manager of the Giants, I would bat Bonds third in the lineup; I would bat Ray Durham and Marquis Grissom ahead of Bonds, although I am not sure who I would have bat first and who would bat second. After those three, the Giants lineup is not very intimidating. If the Giants are able to stay in the race this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make a run at Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Beltran, or another big bat that might be available later in the year. With the start that Bonds is off to this year, it would be a shame to waste a historic offensive performance by surrounding him with inferior offensive talent. So far though this year it looks like that is what is happening.


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