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Where do you put the best hitter in lineup?

The question of where to put your best hitter in the batting order has been debated by baseball managers, analysts, and fans for decades. Conventional wisdom has often dictated that your best hitter should bat third or fourth to drive in runs, but modern analytics have shown that the leadoff and number two spots are now where teams often place their top hitters. There are good arguments on both sides, as putting your best hitter at the top maximizes their plate appearances and opportunities to get on base and score runs, while using them in the middle maximizes their RBI chances with runners on base. Ultimately, it depends on the construction of the rest of your lineup and the strengths of your best hitter.

Quick Answers to Key Questions

What are the traditional options?

The traditional options for the best hitter are third and fourth in the order. These “clean-up” spots maximize RBI chances.

What does modern analytics say?

Modern analytics show that your best all-around hitter should hit leadoff or second to maximize plate appearances and setting the table.

What factors should impact the decision?

Team construction, strengths of the hitter, whether power or OBP is valued more. A balanced lineup is ideal.

Traditional Logic of Batting Order Construction

For generations, traditional baseball wisdom dictated that teams stack their best three hitters at the third, fourth, and fifth spots in the order. This concentrates the team’s power in the heart of the order where chances to drive in runs would be maximized with runners on base.

Typically, the thought process went:

– Leadoff hitter: a speedy batter to get on base and “set the table.”

– Number two hitter: a contact hitter who can move the leadoff batter over with a bunt or hit.

– Number three hitter: The best overall hitter on the team. A power threat to drive in the top two batters. Often your best RBI and HR man.

– Number four hitter: Another excellent hitter, often your second or third best overall, that further drives in runs. Backs up the number three hitter.

– Number five hitter: Another strong hitter to knock in the big boppers ahead of him.

So in a traditional lineup, managers wanted table-setters before their big boppers in the heart of the order. The idea was for the top of the order to get on base before the team’s best sluggers have a chance to drive them in.

The Leadoff Spot

During the 1980s, with the rise of sabermetrics, baseball analysts started to rethink batting order orthodoxy. In particular, the importance of the leadoff spot began to crystallize.

Bill James wrote in his Baseball Abstracts during this time that the leadoff spot was the most important in the lineup and that your best hitter should occupy that position. Since table-setters only get one plate appearance before the heart of the order, you want the batter with the highest OBP (On-base Percentage) there to maximize scoring chances.

Advantages of Your Best Hitter Leading Off

– Gets more plate appearances than batting lower. Up to 150 over the course of a season.

– Sets the table for the rest of the order right away instead of waiting.

– Can extend innings and set the table multiple times if they get multiple PAs.

– Forces the opposing pitcher to face the heart of the order with runners on base.

– Scoring more runs leads to winning more games over the long run.

Disadvantages of Your Best Hitter Leading Off

– Limits RBI opportunities with runners on base.

– Their extra PAs are often with the bottom of the order batting behind them.

– Power hitters often don’t fit the traditional speedy leadoff profile.

– Wastes their power-hitting ability without runners on base.

So the tradeoff is maximizing PA and setting the table vs. maximizing run production lower in the order. A manager has to consider their lineup construction carefully.

The Number Two Spot

In the 1990s and 2000s, the importance of the number two spot also came into focus. Analysts realized that batting your best power hitter second, behind a high OBP table-setter, was an excellent run-producing option.

Your best hitter gets almost as many PAs as leading off, and they are now guaranteed to hit with runners on base in the first inning following the leadoff batter reaching. Sandwiching your two best hitters at one and two concentrates talent at the top and makes the lineup deeper.

Advantages of Your Best Hitter Batting Second

– Still gets tons of PAs and plate appearances.

– Will hit with runners on base after the leadoff batter reaches.

– Separates lefties and righties better frequently.

– Avoids double plays and clogging up the bases.

Disadvantages of Your Best Hitter Batting Second

– Slightly fewer PAs than leadoff over a season.

– Number three and four hitters now see fewer runners on base.

– Wastes RBI opportunities lower in the order at times.

So again, lineup construction depends on your personnel. Do you want to maximize your best hitter’s PAs or their RBI chances?

Lineup Optimization Factors

Here are some key factors managers must weigh when deciding where to bat their best hitter:

The Team’s Other Hitters

Look at the strength of the rest of the lineup. Is there already another slugger to bat third or fourth? Is the bottom of the order weak, limiting RBI chances there? Construct the lineup to avoid stacking too many similar hitters together. Separate lefties and righties.

The Hitter’s Strengths

If your best hitter excels at getting on base and scoring runs, batting them leadoff or second makes sense. Are they more of a masher who knocks in runs with power? Then third or fourth may be optimal.

Team Philosophy

Some teams focus more on maximizing run scoring, while others want run production and RBI chances. Know whether your lineup leans more toward Moneyball or traditional old school tendencies.

Game Situations

Specific situations like what hand the opposing starter throws with, defensive alignments, or the ballpark dimensions can factor into the decision too. Play to your hitter’s matchups and strengths.

The Element of Surprise

Managers will sometimes bat their top hitter out of place to gain the advantage of surprise or throw the opposition off balance. This can work, but usually not over the long run.

Lineup Variants and Examples

Let’s look at some lineup variants managers can employ using a team’s top hitter effectively:

Batting them leadoff

1. Mike Trout CF
2. Young Hitter SS
3. Veteran Slugger 1B
4. Power Hitter DH
5. Contact Hitter 2B

Maximizes Trout’s PAs but limits RBI chances for mashers behind him. Great if he gets on base a ton to set the table. Risks wasting other hitters.

Batting them second

1. Speedy CF
2. Mike Trout DH
3. Power Hitter 1B
4. Veteran Slugger LF
5. Contact Hitter 2B

Very effective. Trout hits with runners on base after the speedy CF reaches safely often. Balances lineup well.

Batting them third

1. Speedy LF
2. Contact Hitter 2B
3. Mike Trout CF
4. Power Hitter 1B
5. Veteran Slugger DH

Classic run-producing spot. Trout sees lots of RBI chances with table-setters in front of him. Risks fewer PAs over season.

Batting them fourth

1. Speedy SS
2. Contact Hitter RF
3. Veteran Slugger 1B
4. Mike Trout DH
5. Power Hitter 3B

Another classic clean-up option. Trout drives in top of the order guys and offers protection to hitter behind him. Reliable strategy.

Unconventional spots

Managers sometimes bat top hitters out of traditional order to surprise opponent or break up same-handed batters. This can work but is generally less optimized over time.

Lineup Optimization Research

Baseball researchers have done mathematical lineup optimization studies to identify the best batting orders. These consider game situations but generally show the same principles:

– Bat your best OBP hitters up top.

– Use your best overall hitters in the 1-5 slots.

– Balance left/right batters.

– Consider strengths, matchups, situations.

A lineup optimization study

In 2007, statistics experts Andy Dolphin and Mark Pankin analyzed historical baseball data and used computer models to optimize batting orders. They considered the hand, power, and on-base skills of hitters.

Some key findings:

– Best OBP hitters should bat 1st and 2nd.

– Best overall hitters should bat 2nd and 4th.

– Balanced L/R/L/R lineups optimal.

– Player strengths matter more than batting order.

Their computer simulations showed properly optimized lineups scored 4-5% more runs on average. This can translate into wins over a season.

When Do You Want Your Best Hitter Up?

Managers are often tempted to bat their best hitter third or fourth to have them up in key late game situations. However, studies have shown that your best hitters actually get more critical late inning PAs when they bat atop the order.

Why? Because batting leadoff or second generates 5-15 more plate appearances over a season. This translates to 4-6 more PAs in the crucial 7th inning or later when games are on the line.

So don’t worry about saving your best hitter for imaginary late game scenarios. Bat them at the top and let their sheer number of PAs do the work for you. They’ll see plenty of clutch situations no matter what.

How Modern Managers Approach Lineup Optimization

Many current MLB managers take a very analytical approach to writing their batting orders rather than relying on tradition. They consider the factors discussed above and play the percentages to maximize run scoring. Some examples:

Aaron Boone, New York Yankees

Frequently bats Aaron Judge 2nd to have him hit with runners on base after a top OBP player reaches. This has proven very effective.

Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays

Is flexible based on matchups. Bats top hitters like Randy Arozarena anywhere from 1st to 5th based on that day’s situation. Puts OBP batters atop the order.

Alex Cora, Boston Red Sox

Loves having Rafael Devers bat 2nd where he can drive in the leadoff man. But Cora will drop him to as low as 5th if he wants to break up lefties in the order.

Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers

Counsell has batted Christian Yelich as high as leadoff and as low as 5th depending on slumps, injuries, and who needs protection. He’s very adaptable.

The Role of “Protection” in the Batting Order

Managers also think about “protecting” their best hitters when arranging a lineup. This means batting a power threat behind them so the hitter sees better pitches to hit and doesn’t get intentionally walked.

Research shows protection effects are likely overstated, as pitchers will pitch to great hitters cautiously no matter what. But some key points:

– If your best power hitters bat back-to-back, it’s easier to pitch around them.

– Separating them with an OBP threat makes sense so they see pitches.

– Don’t overthink protection. Your two best hitters will produce regardless.

– Focus more on pairing runners on base with your big boppers. That’s what generates runs.

So while protection matters, it shouldn’t dictate your lineup construction. Use your best OBP and overall hitters at the top and trust them to produce.

Data-Driven Lineup Optimization in Action

Let’s look at a real example of lineup optimization using the 2022 Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most analytical MLB franchises.

The Dodgers have several great hitters, so manager Dave Roberts optimizes the lineup daily using data and matchups.

Player Strengths Stats
Mookie Betts High OBP, Power .854 OPS
Freddie Freeman OBP, Avg, Power .921 OPS
Trea Turner Avg, Speed, Scores Runs .298 Avg
Will Smith OBP, Power .864 OPS

Roberts often bats Betts leadoff with Freeman, Turner, and Smith stacked behind him. This loads the top with multi-skilled producers to drive Betts in. He’ll tweak the order based on matchups but generally keeps the best hitters atop the order.

This analytics-driven approach led the Dodgers to a 111-win season in 2022. It reflects the modern view that your best hitters should bat high in the order to maximize opportunities, not buried in the clean-up spots.


In summary, optimizing your batting order involves a balance of new school and old school logic. While analytics point to stacking your best hitters at the top, you also want to consider their skills, opposing pitchers, and lineup construction. The perfect order balances maximizing PAs for top hitters with putting your big boppers in run-producing spots. This requires playing to player strengths while maintaining lineup versatility.

The keys are using your top OBP threats up top, keeping your most balanced hitters high in the first 2-5 spots, separating left/right batters, and avoiding wasting your best hitters behind weaker ones. Do this while factoring in game situations and matchups.

There is no single perfect batting order. But by optimizing your lineup using modern data-driven principles, you’ll give your hitters the best chance to maximize their run production over a long season. This will lead to more wins for your team in the long run.