108: Why Donaldson hits second

Hitting "THE BRINGER OF RAIN" second will always be the right play for Blue Jays (Photo: TORONTO SUN)

Hitting "THE BRINGER OF RAIN" second will always be the right play for Blue Jays (Photo: TORONTO SUN)

May 3, 2016

By: Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

With the Blue Jays’ offence struggling like nobody could have predicted, many short-wicked fans have taken to social media to advocate for drastic change.

Like trading Troy Tulowitzki or demoting Brett Cecil. Or invading Russia. Or moving the Rogers Centre to the east-side of the CN Tower “where the wind is better.”

But despite all the frustration, nothing I’ve seen has been more blasphemous than the suggestion of moving Josh Donaldson out of the No. 2 spot.

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You must understand, there is a very good reason why Donaldson is hitting second.

And no, it is not simply “he hits better there”, nor does it have anything to do with the egos of Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion ...

Or at least if it does, John Gibbons should never, EVER admit that.

Rather, the reason Donaldson has hit second since being moved to that spot on April 17th of last season is because he’s unanimously become the Jays’ best all-around hitter. 

Donaldon’s .297 batting average in 2015 was 47 points higher than Jose Bautista’s (.250) and 20 points higher than Edwin Encarnacion’s (.277). He also led the team in home runs (41), extra-base hits (84), SLG (.568), and RBIs (123).

If you want to get fancy, his wins above replacement (8.81) was miles ahead of the rest of the team. Oh, and he also won this little thing called the American League Most Valuable Player Award - I believe you may have heard of it.

But wait a minute ... now hold on just a second. Isn’t your best hitter - especially your best power-hitter - supposed to be hitting third or fourth in the lineup?

Hasn’t that been the strategy for the last 100 years?

As Goose Gossage might say, leave it to Moneyball and those damn baseball “nerds” to screw up a century of bogus tradition!

I mean, who cares if those “nerds” are right ... 

Right?

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Imagine this: it’s the ninth-inning. Tie ballgame; nobody out. Michael Saunders leads off with a hard single to left. Donaldson steps to the plate. The crowd is going nuts. The whole stadium is chanting M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P. 

The MVP gets a fastball right down the middle ... And then then MVP bunts ...

(Honestly, I’d probably cry.)

As ridiculous as that scenario seems today, the spot in the lineup now occupied by Donaldson used to be held be someone who was expected to bunt and hit for contact. Traditionally speaking, the job of the two-hitter was to move the leadoff guy over by any means possible, setting the table for the big swingers. 

But, for better or for worse (actually no, it’s just better), saber-metrics and baseball’s statistical era has all but destroyed that notion.

The new norm is to put your best hitter second.

Whether on account of dumb luck or some really savvy baseball IQ by Gibbons, the Blue Jays correctly joined the modern movement when they bumped Donaldson to the two-spot a year ago.

There are many reasons as to why this was the correct approach, however most of them focus on advanced math equations that I can only pretend to understand and won’t even try to explain (although if you’re interested, I refer you to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom M. Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin - widely considered to be gospel on such topics).

But don’t worry, there is another argument in favour of hitting Donaldson - or Mike Trout, Joey Votto, whoever -  in the two-hole that doesn’t require a PhD to grasp:

For every spot higher a player hits in the lineup, he gets roughly 2.5% more plate appearances each season.

That’s it. That’s the argument. And although there’s nothing crazy or revolutionary about it, it can make a massive difference.

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In 2015, Jose Bautista had 664 plate appearances (PAs) in 151 games (after subtracting the two games where he entered as a pinch hitter) - meaning he averaged 4.397 PAs per game last year. If you were to multiply that over 162 games, Bautista would have stepped to the plate 712 times had he played a full season.

Contrast that with Donaldson, who had 710 plate appearances in 157 games (again subtracting the one game where he pinch hit). This equates to 4.522 PAs per game, or 733 per year when averaged out for a 162 game season. 

In other words, all things being equal Donaldson would have come to the plate 21 more times if he and Bautista both played 162 times - all because he hit just one spot higher in the lineup.

So what difference can 21 extra hacks really make over the course of a six-month season? A hell of a lot more than you think.

Put it this way, 21 additional plate-appearances is like having Donaldson hit in five extra games. What team wouldn’t want their best hitter playing an additional bonus week of baseball? This is especially true when your best hitter also happens to be your most clutch.

I know the image everyone remembers from last year is Bautista’s three-run bomb in Game 5 of the ALDS, but the Bringer of Rain had more than his share of dramatic moments as well.

In the eight extra-inning games the Jays played in 2015, Donaldson hit .375/.444 /1.000 with a 1.444 OPS after the ninth inning. Bautista, on the other hand, went .125 /.222 /.500 with a .722 OPS.

Donaldson tied the Blue Jays’ franchise record for walk-off home runs in a season with three. He also added a walk-off single. Who knows what would have happened in those four games had he never got the last at-bat.

And to illustrate how important four wins can be, the top three teams in the AL West were separated by just three wins. The Los Angeles Angels missed the playoffs because of it.

Over the last three years, Donaldson has had 11 walk-off hits - the highest total in all of baseball over that span. I mean, you have to give that guy as many rips as humanely possible.

OK - for all you wise-guys and gals reading this and saying “then why not bat him leadoff?” to that I say, touché. But I also say - and this is reiterated by people much smarter than I - that you need your best-hitter coming to the plate with runners on.

According to The Book a leadoff hitter bats with runners on base just 36% of the time, which is 8% lower than any other position in the lineup.

But when you compare the amount of times a two-hitter bats with runners in scoring position compared with the three-hitter, the difference is only marginal (it’s math guys, I don’t know what you want me to do).

Last year Donaldson hit with runners in scoring position 176 times. Bautista hit in that situation 183 times, just seven more than Donaldson.

Hence, the two-spot is the right place for such a balanced hitter like Donaldson - someone who can drive in runs AND keep the lineup moving.

So for now, let’s hope he keeps getting those extra-at bats.

Lord knows they Jays could use ‘em.

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Follow Tyler and #Section108 on twitter: @TylerJoseph108