Giant's Leading NL Lineup Shift

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Batting the pitcher in the eight spot used to be a calling card for Tony LaRussa’s years in St. Louis. A lot of the time, it came from trying to throw a kink into things, or because he had a really good hitting pitcher. For most National League clubs, it has always been the norm to bat the pitcher in the ninth spot in the lineup. The San Francisco Giants, however, are leading an NL lineup shift, and are batting the pitcher in the eight spot more often than not. Granted, it helps that the Giants have a plethora of good hitting pitchers, with five starters who hit home runs last season.

Madison Bumgarner is the poster-boy for the #pitcherswhorake movement, with five home runs last season, and eleven in his career as a pitcher. Bumgarner has already teed off this season with a solo blast off Clayton Kershaw. The Giants batted him eighth that afternoon. The Giants have done this in six of their eight games to it, and seem committed to doing this when Buster Posey is in the lineup. But why? How does it work? Is it effective? The simple answer would be yes it is effective because they lead the league in runs and home runs. But then you don’t understand how it works. So strap on your seat belts.

How This Works

Instead of writing the pitcher’s name in the ninth spot in the lineup, they write it in the eighth.

 

via GIPHY

 

Ok, just kidding, there is more to it than that. It helps that the Giants have two bona fide lead-off hitters. Angel Pagan and Denard Span each have an approximately .280 career batting average. They both have on base percentages that you would expect from lead-off hitters, with Pagan sitting around .330 for his career, and Span sitting around .350 himself. The Giants have been batting Denard Span in the lead-off position and Pagan in the ninth. The lineup is organized as follows:

  1. Leadoff
  2. Low K/High avg. /High OBP
  3. Best Hitter
  4. Second Best
  5. Third Best
  6. Average Hitter w/Power
  7. Average Hitter
  8. Pitcher
  9. Leadoff 2

A big key is the second spot in the lineup, which is usually claimed by Joe Panik. Having a hitter who literally just grinds out base hits and doubles is a major key to extending innings and getting the lead-off hitters into scoring position. Panik has a major knack for hitting and finding holes in the infield. In 173 career games, Panik has a plus .300 batting average, only seventy-eight strikeouts, and has accumulated a .350 on base percentage. With a low strikeout-to-walk ratio, and by only grouding into eleven doubles plays for his entire career so far, Joe Panik has truly become the key cog to setting up the lineup this way. Essentially, the goal is to have Denard Span on, and then have Panik get a hit and put him in scoring position. Now you have two men on with no outs, and Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt are waiting to bring them home.

Now, imagine an inning in which they’ve gone through the heart of the lineup and have done some damage, and the pitcher just struck out with a runner on third. There are now two outs in the inning, and the pressure is ramped up on the pitcher. They now have to face three straight tough outs, followed by the meat of the order. An example of how difficult this is? Take a look at the Giants twelve-run Opening Day performance.

That exact scenario took place. Brandon Crawford reached base with one out, and the pitcher’s spot proceeded to make an out. San Francisco was then down to two outs and a runner on first. Enter Angel Pagan, a lead-off hitter in the ninth spot. Pagan hit a double in the gap, and the the pitcher had to face Denard Span with runners on second and third. Span hit a three-run homer, and then came Panik and Posey. Both of them homered, and in in the span of four pitches, with two outs, the game went from 7-3 to 12-3. Of course, they aren’t going to hit back-to-back-to-back home runs every time. The whole point is extending innings with two outs when at the bottom of the lineup. The same thing occurred when Hunter Pence hit a grand slam against the Dodgers. Pagan scored on a Span base hit with two outs, Panik and Posey also reached base, and Hunter Pence helped the Giants put up five runs with two outs in the eighth inning. Extending innings to create runs is the key.

Effectiveness

You can theorize all you want¬†about how it should work, but do the results actually play out? After two weeks, the Giants are in the top-ten in every major offensive category, and mostly within the top five. They’re scoring runs, and the offense hasn’t been their biggest issue this season. When the pitching staff gets going, the Giants will be a tough team to deal with. They are also averaging around five runs per game, which is far higher than the last five or six seasons.

Could More Teams Head This Direction?

Several teams have done this occasionally this season, the Cubs and Rockies being the most frequent. A few other NL teams tried it out during Spring Training, but ultimately this only works if you have a team built like SF. It is necessary to have two players who are technically lead-off hitters. Having certain players like Panik and Crawford in their respective spots in the lineup provides protection for other hitters. It’s not a cookie cutter for every NL team to copy at the moment, and it may not entirely catch on. But for now, it is at least working for the Giants.

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