Fantasy Baseball: What Hitting Second Means for Andrew McCutchen
This past St. Patrick's Day, while millions of baseball fans across the nation were glued to the televisions of their local watering hole, watching the first round of the NCAA tournament (or for baseball fans the last stage before baseball season), Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to bat Andrew McCutchen in the two hole for a spring training game against the New York Yankees.
According to MLB.com, Hurdle advised McCutchen that, last season, he had the second-most at bats in baseball with no men on base and two outs. McCutchen, while describing the statistics as "eye opening" to the media, expressed that it seems odd that he has hit so well in his career from the three-hole (career .307/.399/.510 from the-spot) but never reached 100 RBI in a season.
While we will not debate the merits of whether a team's best hitter should bat second (it should) in this article, we will review the fantasy implications of McCutchen permanently hitting second for the Pirates.
The Good News
Over the course of an entire season, a player hitting in the two hole can expect to add roughly 15 plate appearances relative to a player hitting third, which is a good thing for McCutchen owners. Because Run and RBI totals are generally more indicative of the quality of play around the player than the player themselves, a considerable amount of McCutchen's fantasy value will be tied up in those around him.
Fortunately for McCutchen, there is quite a bit of quality around the Pirates' lineup.
John Jaso, who holds a .361 career OBP, will likely be the Pirates lead-off hitter in front of McCutchen. Driving McCutchen in from the three and four spots will likely be a combination of Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang (when healthy), and/or Gregory Polanco.
According to FanGraphs, last season Jaso, Marte, Polanco, and Kang collectively posted a .277/.340/.429 slash line with a 115 wRC+.
So this will not be a Joey Votto situation for McCutchen.
The Bad News
Last season, Josh Donaldson won the American League MVP despite taking nearly every one of his at-bats from the second spot in the lineup. The two hole is generally thought of as a table setting position in the batting order, where a player can expect to be driven home by power hitters who occupy the middle of a lineup. Despite Donaldson's positioning in the Blue Jays lineup, he posted 113 RBI and 108 runs for the Blue Jays in 2015.
RBI should not be an issue for Andrew McCutchen, right? I am not so sure.
Donaldson plays for an American League team that, last season, saw Ryan Goins, Devon Travis, and Ben Revere account for about 50% the team's nine hole plate appearances (the Blue Jays' nine hole hitters were collectively .303 OBP over the entire season -- second-best in baseball).
While that group does not carry star power, it does represent a massive upgrade over the collective .221 OBP that the Pirates nine hole hitters (who are mostly pitchers) posted last season. As a league, AL nine hole hitters posted a .226/.282/.342 slash line whereas the NL posted a .186/.229/.256 slash line from the ninth spot in the order.
If you assume that nine hole hitters will receive on average 550 plate appearances per season, the 8% difference between Blue Jay nine hole hitters and Pirate nine hole hitters equates to 44 more base runners for the Blue Jays (or 5% and 28 base runners on average from the AL to NL).
While Donaldson would not have come to the plate every time that the Blue Jays ninth hitter got on base (there is a hitter in between them after all), I think it is safe to say that Donaldson (and other AL two hole hitters) came to the plate with substantially more RBI opportunities than the Pirates' two hole hitters last season, partially due to the quality of Blue Jay nine hole hitters, and that will likely continue this season.
The argument here has nothing to do with Andrew McCutchen versus Josh Donaldson, but the implication is that National League two hole hitters are more limited in their RBI (and possibly run) opportunities than American League number-two hitters and that transitioning from the number-three hitter to the number-two hitter in a National League lineup is bad news for McCutchen owners.
If you dig through the past five years of National League batting data, you will find that the best two hole hitters by season ended up topping out in the mid 80s in RBI totals (2015 was an odd year because few NL hitters had the majority of their plate appearances exclusively in the two hole).
Odds are, the change in the order will hurt McCutchen from a fantasy perspective more than is being discussed.
McCutchen would need to have a historic season to hit more than 100 RBI from the second spot in the lineup this season.
|Year||NL Two Hole RBI Leader||Total RBI||Two hole PA|
So while it would be easy (perhaps lazy?) to forecast that McCutchen will merely sacrifice a few RBI for a few runs if permanently affixed to the two hole, it seems more likely that McCutchen will see a drop of 10 to 15 RBI over the course of the entire season, but will likely add 7 to 10 runs to his normal output.
The overall result is a net negative, and fantasy owners should make adjustments to their rankings.