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Pirates embrace unusual lineup, but will it really make a difference?

The Pittsburgh Pirates, authors of 17 consecutive losing seasons, are employing a different approach to to their batting order to help them break out of their nearly two-decade-long slump. The Pirates don't exactly have the most talent-laden roster in the National League, but they're doing everything they can to squeeze out every last run from their lineup this season.

On Opening Day 2010, manager John Russell debuted his lineup, much to the puzzlement of some observers. Chief among the unusual choices was the choice to bat pitcher Zach Duke eighth, and shortstop Ronny Cedeno ninth. Managers have been trotting out their lineup cards with the pitcher in the last spot in the order for the past 100 years. So why the change?

According to Russell, the move gets more runners on base for the top of the Pirates' order, consisting of Akinori Iwamura, Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones. When the pitcher bats ninth, he usually makes an out, leaving fewer base runners for the top of the order. Moving the pitcher up in the batting order creates more opportunities for Iwamura, McCutchen and Jones to drive in runs. In recent years, this strategy has been used most often and to great effect by Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who batted the pitcher eighth in order to get more at-bats for sluggers Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols. La Russa was right, though he has since abandoned the tactic. However, while La Russa sometimes seems to make unorthodox moves simply for the sake of making them, my guess is that the Pirates' decision is based on cold, hard logic and statistics. Their GM, Neal Huntington, has talked about the high importance of statistical analysis, and the Bucs employ at least two good sabermetricians, in Dan Fox and Joe P. Sheehan (no, not that Joe Sheehan).

It's not surprising then, that the numbers back up the unusual lineup construction. In the great book on baseball strategy, fittingly titled The Book, authors Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin find that batting the pitcher eighth is often a good move for National League clubs. Going through a complex series of simulations and calculations, they find that the cost of having the pitcher come to bat slightly more often is outweighed by the advantage of having a decent hitter in the nine hole, which results in more men on base for the top of the order to drive home. When all factors are accounted for, the statistics show that having this "second leadoff hitter" results in increased run production. Russell feels so strongly about the move that he claims he never even considered batting the pitcher in the usual nine spot.

But the Pirates' unorthodox moves don't stop there. Batting leadoff is the un-leadoffish Akinori Iwamura. The second baseman doesn't fit the prototype for a leadoff man, considering that he has never stolen more than 12 bases in a season. The move is even more curious when you consider that McCutchen, Jones and Lastings Milledge all have stronger stolen base capabilities, yet are hitting further down in the order. But according to the statistics in The Book, the leadoff man's most important attributes are to be a very good hitter overall and to have the ability to get on base, which Iwamura is very adept at doing. In fact, the advantage of speed at the top of the order is actually somewhat mitigated by the fact that you don't want to risk getting thrown out stealing ahead of the best hitters in the lineup.

Moving to the heart of the order, Russell also insisted on putting McCutchen, expected to be the Bucs' best offensive force, in the No. 2 hole rather than the No. 3 spot. With his combination of power, speed and run-producing ability (especially relative to the rest of the Pirates' lineup), he certainly doesn't fit the mold of a typical No. 2 hitter. But in fact, statistical simulations show that the No. 2 hole is the ideal spot for a team's best overall hitter, not a punch-and-judy bat-control player, as conventional wisdom says. This was explained as long ago as Pete Palmer's classic 1985 book, The Hidden Game of Baseball, and as recently as The Book. Despite the evidence, managers have refused to listen, and great players from Bonds to Pujols continue to hit in the No. 3 spot (which is suboptimal because they tend to often come to bat with the bases empty and two out). By hitting McCutchen second, Russell is eschewing conventional wisdom in order to try to maximize his team's run production.

Granted, Andrew McCutchen isn't Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds, but the move still gives the Pirates the best chance to win. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, even though Russell may be pulling all of the right strings, choosing a great strategic batting order can only take you so far. According to The Book, even great lineup strategy can only provide a team with 10 to 15 extra runs per season. That translates to just 1 to 1.5 wins. For as much as managers and fans agonize over possible batting orders, it's not going to make or break a season, and it certainly can't make up for poor players. In baseball, everybody eventually comes to bat, and because of that, the batting order can't have an enormous effect on the outcome of the game. Vastly more important, of course, are the players in the lineup, regardless of how they are arranged. Russell may be doing all he can, but he can't make gold out of lead just by shifting the order around. The result is likely to be another losing season, followed by media proclamations declaring the batting order experiment a failure. However, in reality, the 2010 Pirates will likely lose in spite of, rather than because of John Russell's clever and unusual lineup machinations.

Regardless of how the Pirates fare this season, their unorthodox lineup is a boon for the future of the franchise. Small-market teams must maximize their advantages where they can, and picking up a win here or there by employing clever, evidence-based strategies is a sign that they are on the right track. Moves like batting the pitcher eighth won't win any pennants on their own, but the ability to make smart decisions regardless of conventional wisdom surely can. With more decisions like these, it won't be long before Pittsburgh emerges from its long spell of misery and brings home a winner.

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