Last Spot in the Batting Order

The last spot in the batting order matters.

On many rec league teams, the last spot in the batting order is occupied by the player on the team with the lowest batting average, lowest on base percentage, and the weakest base running skills, as if the last spot did not matter.

In my opinion, this is a mistake. In this post I explain why.

If you read through my series on youth baseball stats, you’ll see that I believe one youth hitting stat dwarfs all others, especially at the 9-10 year old level when pitching and stealing are first introduced:

OBP + ROE (On Base Percentage plus Reach On Error).

A .500 OBP + ROE means reaching first base without creating an out in 1/2 of plate appearances. A .750 OBP + ROE means reaching first (without creating an out) 3/4 of the time.

Why does this matter? Because runners who make it to first, usually make it to 2nd on a stolen base, passed ball, or wild pitch. And runners who make it to 2nd often make to 3rd as well for similar reasons. A walk may as well be a triple. The runner on 3rd will score with the next ball hit into play that isn’t caught.

This sequence plays out especially frequently at the ages of 9-10, but also somewhat at ages 11-12, and even a little bit at ages 13-14 as well. As field size increases, it gets harder to steal, fielding improves, and batting averages decline, so the value of OBP + ROE declines as players get more skilled and move on to bigger fields, but it still matters.

What does this have to do with batting order? A lot. Let’s start with a review of the first 5 spots in the batting order.

If your goal is to maximize run production, you want your highest OBP + ROE players in the first 1-3 spots in the lineup, and then your players most likely to drive then in occupying the 3-5 spots of the lineup, typically the hitters on the team who can hit the ball hardest. The #3 hitter is especially key as you want that player to be both good at getting on base and running the bases competently, and also good at hitting the ball hard and bringing in any runners that are on base. Therefore, the #3 hitter will typically be the player whose batting average (perhaps with ROE added in) is the highest on the team, not a player who gets to first often from a lot of walks.

All this is standard doctrine that doesn’t really change at any level of baseball, though the ROE part becomes meaningless at the highest level of baseball because errors are rare and little influenced by anything the batter does. Stated in terms of general principles:

If you have runners on base, you don’t want them wasted. And if you have players who often get hits, you’d rather them get the hits when runners are on base, causing some or all of them to score.

You won’t see much debate on how to arrange the 1-5 spots of a lineup, assuming everyone agrees that the stats for the players are an accurate representation of their hitting ability and what kind of hitting production is likely in future plate appearances.

What about the spots after the #5 spot? Many times, I see the remaining spots filled in approximately descending order of hitter effectiveness. In other words, in a 12 player batting lineup, the first 5 spots are filled in as described above. Then you rank your batters in terms of hitting effectiveness and put the top ranked remaining hitter in the #6 spot, the second highest ranked player in the #7 spot, and so on until the #12 spot is occupied by the least effective hitter on the team, and often the least effective base runner as well.

Computer simulations suggest that this might actually be the best ordering for MLB baseball. But I can’t imagine that computer simulations would generate the same results for youth baseball, assuming base running, wild pitches, etc. were taken into account in addition to the hitting stats.

Let’s assume in a 12 player lineup that the #8 hitter doesn’t hit the ball hard but gets on base a bit due to walks and dinks down the 3rd base line that often result in singles. This #8 batter is also a fast runner and/or competent base stealer (However, the #8 hitter is not getting on base as much as the hitters occupying the #1 or #2 spot in the lineup). And let’s say the #9 through #12 hitters are all lower OBP + ROE hitters and worse at running the bases. The #12 hitter is the worst base runner of them all.

So here’s what can (and does!) happen. In the first inning of hitting, 2 runs score and the 3rd out is made by the 7th batter with 2 runners stranded, because the hitters at the top of the lineup are, after all, good hitters. The second time this team bats, the 8th batter leads off with a walk. Steals 2nd. #9 strikes out. #10 weakly pops up to the shortstop. #11 grounds out. Inning over, runner stranded.

The 3rd batting inning starts off with the #12 batter striking out. So we have 1 out going into the top of the order, with no runners on. Or even worse, the #12 batter walks, followed by the #1 batter grounding into a double play because the #12 batter didn’t steal 2nd base and was very slow to run to 2nd base when the grounder was hit to the shortstop (or a double play due to a fly ball and the runner being thrown out before returning to first). Yes, I know, double plays don’t happen much in youth baseball, but . . . another possibility is that the top of the order guy makes it to first safely, advancing the #12 batter to 2nd. No stealing is going to happen for the speedy top of the order hitter or anyone else, though, because the bases are clogged. It’s even possible no runs will score this inning despite going through the top of the order with 2 runners on and no outs, again because of the slow leading base runner stopping the running game and increasing the likelihood of force outs or double plays.

So if I don’t like the descending order for #5 through #12, what DO I like?

The baseball savvy among you already know where this is going, as I stacked the lineup to make it somewhat obvious:

The #8 batter who gets on base so much should be the #12 batter. He is absolutely wasted in the #8 spot. He may have the 3rd or 4th highest OBP + ROE on the team, but in the #8 spot he will almost never score. Put him at the #12 spot and he will score a lot of runs, and he will not clog up the bases.

On every team I am the head coach, players hear my spiel about how much I value the batter in the last spot of the lineup. If they start getting on a hot hitting streak and the #1 or #2 hitter cools off, I may rotate between them, moving the #1 or #2 guy to the last spot, and the formerly last batter to the #1 or #2 spot.

The goal of baseball is to score runs. Stranded runners don’t score runs. So the guys who get on base most (but without much power) should occupy the #1, #2, and last spots of the lineup. While I probably value the #3 hitter more than any other on the team, the #1, #2, #4, #5, and last hitter in the lineup are all super important to the game plan as well.

My son knows all this and is actually one of those hitters who gets on base a lot but in most seasons hasn’t had much power. When he is getting on base a lot but always getting stranded because he is #7 or #8 in the lineup, he will sometimes tell me in private he wishes his coach would put him last in the lineup, not just so that he could score more runs, but because he wants his team to score more runs and therefore have a better chance of winning.

For all those coaches out there putting the weakest batter in the last spot of the line up—don’t do it! At the very least make sure the last spot is occupied by a fast and competent base runner, but better yet make sure he gets on base a lot, with an OBP + ROE among the top few hitters on the team.

For all you parents who grumble about your player batting last despite getting on base a lot. Your coach may or may not communicate the reason. But consider that your coach may be doing it because it’s best for the team if your high OBP + ROE player scores a lot of runs rather than getting stranded.

The last spot in the batting order matters.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

5 thoughts on “Last Spot in the Batting Order”

  1. Joe – I couldn’t agree more. At the younger ages (8-9 and below), it always amused me to see parents complain about where their kid was in the batting order. In my opinion, at that age the winning team is the one that makes the fewest fielding errors. Stealing was limited to two bases per inning, and the pitching was so erratic it doesn’t really matter where you are in the order. It seemed like you were equally as likely to get a hit, a walk, or hit by a pitch.

    Last year my son was in the 9-10 group, and the batting order started to make a difference. We had unlimited steals, but were limited to 5 runs per inning. Very few coaches took that into account and would arrange their order best hitter to worst hitter, which would guarantee good hitters/runners would get stranded on base in the first two innings and a quick scoreless third.

    This year my son is in the 11-12 group, but because our league adjusted the age cut offs, it’s really a 10-13 group with unlimited steals and runs. Game management is much more important this year. I still see teams with kids batting in the 3 or 4 spot that hit infield dribblers. In years past, they would get on base 90% of the time because the fielding wasn’t that good. The parents are blaming the new USA bats, or the age range, but the truth is their kid is hitting the same but the outcomes are much different. There are fewer fielding errors so almost any infield hit is an out at first, and the catchers are getting pretty good at picking off steals.

    My son usually starts the year off slow, so, depending on the coach, he gets put at towards the end of the order, which is fine by me and him. Now, he’s cracking balls into the outfield, and getting on base consistently which lets the kids at the top of the order drive him in. Our coach is following your advice, he just doesn’t know it!

  2. Ron – One thing you mentioned is worth emphasizing: Rules vary from league to league and that can impact batting order decisions. I’d have to think it all the way through, but at first glance, a 5-run limit would completely change how you’d want to arrange the batting order. You basically want to maximize the chance of having 4-5 runs scored every inning, and, as you say, avoid the “quick scoreless” inning. That would probably mean spreading out the hitters relatively evenly, not bunching them in the first 1-5 and last spots.

    For anyone else reading this, do keep in mind that the above article assumes no stealing or run limits. Our league does have mercy rules that kick in after 10 run leads but I didn’t consider that for the purposes of the traditional batting order analysis. Even if I had considered the mercy rules, they don’t kick in all that often in our league – maybe 1 out of every 10 games or so.

  3. Joe, much of your off-the-cuff insights on how to handle the 5-run limit are correct in my experience.

    Similar to Ron, our 9-10 league imposes a 5 run limit and stranding runners is problematic if you bunch up your worst OBP+ROE hitters in a group. Also, offensive innings where no hitter reaches base or puts a ball in play tend to bring down the players’ engagement with (and enthusiasm for) the game in this age group.

    My approach is to think in terms of “packages” of four hitters for determining my batting order. We have 12 or 13 players per team and I’ll have three packages that each include one of the three worst hitters on the team, usually in the second slot of the package. I usually have two or three kids who put the ball in play very frequently (85%-95% BIP averages with many weakly hit grounders), are fast runners, and reach base safely (almost 100% of the time) on little dribblers where there is either an error or the hitter simply beats out the throw to 1B. These players are almost always the first batter in a package.

    My second hitter in a package is almost always a strikeout. Our league allows steals after the ball reaches the catcher and I give all base runners a green light to steal. Base runners safely gets to 3B on passed balls or poor catcher throws. The first hitter usually makes their way to 3B during the second hitter’s at-bat.

    My third hitter and fourth hitters in a package are players who tend to barrel up the ball, strikeout a little more than the first hitter in a package, but the probability that one of these two hitters will put a well-hit ball into play is relatively high. And that will score a run.

    This approach gives an expected value of almost a full run for each runner who reaches base. And that expected value tends to stay the same even after outs while hitting tend to “break up” the package of hitters in the batting order. If your third and fourth hitters are more like the first hitter with weak contact, the expected value of a base runner tends to drop by maybe 25%-40%.

    The key insight you make is correct – you need to space out your poor hitters as much as possible.

    As a coach, you have to emphasize the importance of base stealing from the first practice. Our league does not allow unlimited steals – if a team has a 5 run lead, no more steals are allowed unless the score gap narrows again.

    An additional quirk is that our 9-10 league has a “no walk” rule. If a pitcher “walks” a batter, the batter’s coach will pitch to the hitter a number of pitches equal to the remaining strikes in the count. For example, a fourth ball on a 3-and-1 count means that the coach will be able to make 2 pitches to the batter. This is a hard limit – if the coach throws the 2 pitches and the player doesn’t put the ball into play, the batter is out. I like this rule because it does forces hitters to put the ball into play rather than turning every game into a walk-fest because of inexperienced or poor youth pitching.

    I am not totally pleased with how these game rules affect player development. For example, those first hitters with extremely high batting averages on balls in play will struggle greatly in our 11-12 league. Pitching and defensive skills are much improved, fewer casual players continue to that age group, and all those weakly hit grounders are routine outs.

  4. Some good advice here. Spacing your hitters is critical. Also, before age 13 (maybe 12 for high-level club teams), batting order matters little beyond the obvious–i.e. best hitters at top AND recognizing that those at the top of the order get the most at-bats. You do want your better hitters getting that opportunity. The advice of having a group of weak hitters at the bottom of the line-up is also incisive. It kills rallies–especially as fielding and team quality improves.

    Even so, I’d suggest a couple other stats that might be better than the proposed OBP + ROE stat. Partly, this is because ROE is a luck and scoring-judgement dependent, especially in youth baseball. But, mostly, I think GameChanger gives us better proxies, especially for hitters without high averages or high OBPs. These are: Contact %, QAB, BB/K ratio, and HHB. If we recognize our hitters’ tendencies (as we work to make them good hitters), then we can place them in the order more effectively.

    1) I’d mix contact % hitters among some better-quality hitters with speed, even if they don’t have high averages. These guys will always be moving runners up a base or two, even when making outs. Given this high contact % guys accentuate the speed of hitters in front of them. Also, when they come up with runners on base, these guys put pressure on the defense, which leads to errors. Imagine a little guy who is neither fast enough (to beat out the infield grounders he hits) or strong enough (to muscle the ball into gaps.) This player at the 6 or 8 or 10 spot can be invaluable.
    2) QAB. There are some players who don’t have high averages or OBP, but who who see lots of pitches, are difficult to strike out, hit the ball hard, and/or are effective with sacrifices (all markers of a QAB). These players may not hit for high average but they will compete–mixing this hitter up in the line-up can allow you to add depth and avoid grouping poor hitters. It is rare that a player with lots of QABs is a bad hitter because the QAB is a sign they’re catching on (or already are succeeding.) Oddly, some of the best players will have relatively low QABs because they put the ball into play so effectively (and do so early in the count.)

    3) HHB speaks for itself. A player without a high average or high OBP who has a lot of Hard Hit Balls, is either victim of poor luck or is a feast/famine guy (a hard hit ball or a K). But this player can be a good candidate for the 6, 8, 10 slot (out of 12). This is because they allow you to mix up the order and surprise other teams. My advice to my son when he pitches is go after 6-9 (now that he is in HS, but it was 7-12 during his club days). And, never walk them. The HHB feast/famine guy can get more pitches to hit in this system.

    4) Finally the player who is not a great hitter with lots of walks relative to strikes outs is probably the most difficult hitter to place. That is because this hitter gets on base through walks–this clogs up the bases (esp. if it is middle speed runner, and esp. as the kids get older and play better competition.) Their benefit is not making lots of outs via strikeout and keeping innings alive.

    As my son evolved as a hitter (now in HS, but as a youth player from AA to Majors teams), he went through the batter order as this post/discussion suggests: starting as the proverbial rally killer to being the clutch hitter.

    Not all of his coaches effectively deployed the lineup, but those coaches who effectively deployed hitters found ways to reward those who were developing and challenge those good hitters who were struggling. Also, on those teams, there was additional value of batting kids up/down the order–emphasize team aspects of the game, let kids know they have to earn that 4th spot in the line-up etc.

    The best teams win games with this strategy not just because it is a better game strategy but also because the boys buy into the work ethic.

  5. Hi Mark – Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I like and agree with most of them but I’m not following your comment that OBP + ROE is scoring-judgment dependent. The whole point of it is to eliminate scoring judgment. OBP + ROE is the percentage of time a hitter reaches (at least) 1st base without creating an out (such as fielder’s choice). That is completely objective information. At the youth level, it is very often the case that scorekeepers do not know how to correctly score errors, or that even if they do, there is some judgment involved. So therefore OBP or batting average is often a reflection of judgments on whether errors were scored correctly, and not necessarily batting prowess. Furthermore, I have seen more than one instance of daddy ball situations where coaches pressured the scorekeepers to mark a hit instead of an error (or in general be generous in this way) to make their player(s) look better.

    OBP + ROE is of course still not completely perfect as a measure, because luck is involved in terms of where a ball goes when hit into play. It could go right to a fielder or into a gap, and that is for the fast majority of players not something that can be controlled. How HARD they hit the ball is controllable to some extent, though, and that does have a positive impact on OBP + ROE and other stats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *