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.