Often times, White Sox Twitter conversations inspire articles. This is one of those times.
As the White Sox have played without Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert for large chunks of this season – and will continue to do so – more focus has been placed on lineup construction than usually would for a contending team. This is because for a team without some of its stars, every decision makes a difference. Much of the conversation has surrounded one particular spot in the lineup: the #2 hitter.
The reason for this is simple: the leading player for number of at-bats in the 2-hole – Adam Eaton – has been incredibly ineffective as of late after an early-season surge. With players such as Leury Garcia and Billy Hamilton forced into the daily lineup due to injuries, the top of the lineup has become incredibly important, because who else can you count on to drive in runs?
This article attempts to take a look at each of the leading candidates for the 2-spot in the lineup, look at how they stack up against the “typical” 2-hitter, and make a decision based on the available information.
Let’s first review the biggest assumption I made: there are certain spots that are more or less “locked” into their current position: Tim Anderson 1st, Yoan Moncada 3rd, and Jose Abreu 4th. This is important because, if you really looked at the numbers, Yoan Moncada would make a FANTASTIC two-hitter. However, with Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez not around, he is far too valuable in the middle of the lineup. More to come on this, however.
With that, let’s begin.
What Makes a Good 2-Hitter?
I think this is a natural place to start for an analysis like this. Many people have offered their opinions on both who should hit 2nd in the White Sox order and why. Everyone has their own opinions of what a 2-hitter should be doing. Before incorporating my own opinions, I’ve done a few things: I’ve looked at the league numbers for two-hitters, and I’ve also compiled some of the most common considerations for the makeup of the “ideal” 2-hitter.
The Evolution of the 2-Hitter
As with much in baseball, the idea of who should hit second has shifted over time. For decades, the typical 2-hitter was similar to your 8th and 9th hitters in the lineup: someone who was going to make contact, could bunt well, and probably wasn’t going to hit for all that much power. In other terms, they’d be characterized as “good bat handlers” and were often middle infielders. They were there to make sure the leadoff man was in scoring position by the time the heart of the order came up.
The game has changed. Now, teams are looking for their 2-hitters to be able to do damage themselves as well.
(Side Note: wRC+ stands for Weight Runs Created Plus. It looks to measure how many runs a player creates for his team over the course of a season. It’s a really good measure of total offensive value.)
Teams want their two-hitters to take place in the run creation themselves – they don’t want them to just give themselves up and move runners over. Teams don’t just play for one run anymore – they are playing for multiple at every chance they get. This is all reflected both in the wRC+ chart by year for 2-hitters above, as well as in the chart below detailing the current slash line for 2-hitters across baseball:
It’s pretty clear what’s happening in baseball today: teams value players who are going to create some value by adding to the offense themselves. Whether it’s getting on base or driving guys home, the idea of the two-hitter has changed from one that is focused on getting one run home to one that is focused on trying to create a big offensive inning. Whether you look at OBP, walk rate, wRC+, or whatever you like, these guys aren’t just moving guys around the bases anymore – they’re getting on base too.
Baserunning Abilities (BsR)
However, an important aspect of being a 2-hitter remains from previous decades: teams like to have someone up there with some decent speed who can run the bases well. Over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, there have been over 220 stolen bases by 2-hitters, with a success rate on SB attempts of approximately 75%. There’s no doubt that speed – among other things – is an important part of the overall equation.
However, speed alone doesn’t make you a good baserunner. For the purposes of this article, to measure a player’s baserunning abilities, we will take a look at both opportunities to take the extra base specifically (Explained Later) and FanGraphs’ baserunning stat: BsR.
BsR (Base Running) takes into account stolen bases, caught stealing, and other base running plays (taking extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, staying out of double plays, etc) into runs above and below average. BsR allows us to capture most of a player’s value on the bases with reasonable accuracy and adds to our understanding of a player’s all-around value.
Quality of At-Bats
Which is a more valuable at-bat: a first pitch routine fly out, or a seven pitch strikeout?
Well, since in both situations the player made an out, the one that made the pitcher work harder was more valuable. There’s a value, especially for guys early in the lineup and game, to see more pitches, make a pitcher work more, and get a better understanding of the pitcher on the mound. Even though both result in outs, the guy who struck out learned a lot more valuable information – pitches a guy is throwing, how well he’s locating, early tendencies – than the player who flew out on the first pitch.
How about this one – a four pitch leadoff single, or a four pitch leadoff walk?
In this scenario (though, granted, not all), the walk is indeed as good as a hit. However, the point is that they are both valuable because they both avoided the most important thing to avoid in baseball: making an out. As a team, your most valuable commodities are the 27 outs you’re given at the beginning of the game. Every time you go up to the plate and you don’t cause your team to use one of your 27 outs, you’ve had a productive at-bat. Now, granted, stats like wOBA, wRC+, and the like exist because not all non-out at-bats are equally as productive. However, as long as you’ve avoided making an out, you’ve had a productive at-bat.
Hence, I will view “Quality of At-Bats” in two forms:
1) Did you avoid making an out?
2) Whether you made an out or not – did you make the pitcher work?
Based on both the criteria laid out above, as well as my original assumption based on current “locks” in the lineup, I have identified four candidates to receive the majority of at-bats from the 2-hole for the rest of the season: Adam Eaton, Yasmani Grandal, Nick Madrigal, and Andrew Vaughn.
Personally, I don’t look at that list and point to one guy who’s a perfect fit for the 2-hole. So, we are going to go through the pros and cons of each candidate before arriving at a final verdict.
Before we get there however, let’s take a look at these guys compared to one another, based on what we looked at in the last section. All individual statistics are through 6/3/2021. BsR and P/PA are through 6/2/2021:
And here’s each of them compared to the rest of the league numbers:
Pros: Speed, Walk/Strikeout Rates
Cons: Mid-Season Struggles at the Plate
Let’s start with La Russa’s favorite choice for the #2 hitter in the lineup, Adam Eaton. Eaton’s early-season slash line of .268/.379/.482 justified what still felt like an odd decision from La Russa – in a lineup with Luis Robert, Andrew Vaughn, Yasmani Grandal, Yoan Moncada, and (in Spring Training) Eloy Jimenez, why was Eaton getting the second most at-bats in the lineup? Since that season high, however, Eaton is hitting just .152/.250/.283 with a near 30% strikeout rate. He’s hit a few big homers, for sure, but how long can those justify giving someone who’s getting on base just 25% of the time the second most at-bats?
In many ways, the “ideal” Adam Eaton fits the typical 2-hole hitter: he’s quick, he’s by far the best baserunner of the four candidates for the spot (career average 2.8 BsR), he strikes out at a pretty league-average rate, and he walks at about a league-average rate for two-hitters. However, with some of the worst individual stats on this team right now, he can’t utilize his speed if his at-bats are so poor that he can’t get on base. There are better hitters in this lineup who should be getting the second-most at-bats on the team.
Pros: He gets on base and creates runs
Cons: Below-Average Speed, Strikeout Rate
Why do we like Yaz again?
Yaz’s appeal is pretty straightforward in this spot. No one walks more than him – he is in the 100th percentile for walk rate – and he’s not going to chase pitcher’s pitchers. This has led to a chase rate in the 98th percentile and a very wide lead in pitches per plate appearance both on the White Sox and among our four candidates. While his batting average continues to be a talking point for everyone, his wOBA, OPS, and wRC+ are either at or well-above average for #2 hitters across the league. With a hard-hit rate in the 97th percentile and a barrel % in the 85th percentile, very few make more hard contact consistently than Grandal. For him, it’s very clearly been about making contact versus the quality of contact – and that “making contact” part has still been a bit of an issue, evidenced by his sub-.200 batting average.
The real question is: does his ability to get on base outweigh his 4th percentile sprint speed?
BsR begins to answer this question – currently, his baserunning has been worth about a half a run below average this season. It’s the worst among these candidates but is not a dealbreaker by any means (if anything, his career numbers should be far more concerning than this year’s baserunning numbers). In a normal season, his baserunning can’t be described as much else other than “below average” according to FanGraphs’ interpretation of BsR. So, as we can all tell by watching him run, it’s not great.
However, I wanted to take a look specifically at how often Grandal takes the extra base compared to other candidates – one of the main pieces of BsR. The chart below takes a look at situations in which each of our candidates was the lead runner on the bases in the following situations: a single when he was on first, a single when he was on second, and a double when he was on first. It’s not a large sample set, but it can give us an idea of how frequently or infrequently Grandal takes an extra base.
This is over the course of the 2020-2021 seasons (Eaton’s data is just 2021):
This chart really does outline a lot of what we already know – in most cases, Grandal isn’t going to take the extra base, and this is one of the main drivers of his below-average BsR rating. This isn’t a perfect picture, since we only looked at when each candidate was the lead runner on the bases. However, it gives us a good sense of confirming what we already knew. At the same time, however, the differences aren’t as drastic as some might have you think they are.
One thing to consider behind these numbers is the fact that, on a few occasions, both Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn were thrown out trying to take an extra-base – in Madrigal’s case, he was even thrown out once at home. Sometimes, the risk isn’t worth the reward – I’d rather have a guy safe at second than out at third.
Grandal is still sixth on the team in runs scored, so he’s still able to find ways to score runs despite his well below-average speed. His baserunning has really only “cost” the White Sox half a run and, in theory, his on-base percentage should more than allow him to make up those runs. His wRC+ makes it clear: he’s creating the opportunity for runs by getting on base. It’s now up to the White Sox to put him in the best position to score runs – and for us to decide where that is.
Consider this: Grandal’s speed is only one of the reasons he hasn’t scored more runs this season – runs scored are heavily influenced by who is hitting behind you. Does it make more sense for Grandal to hit in front of Yoan Moncada and Jose Abreu, or Leury Garcia and Billy Hamilton? One duo is far more likely to drive in Grandal than the other. Grandal’s ability to get on base is optimized when he hits in front of guys who have a propensity for driving in runs.
Pros: Contact, Speed
Cons: Quality of at-bats, Concerns for the rest of the lineup, Chase Rate
Nick Madrigal, in many respects, is theoretically both the perfect 2 and 9 hitter in a lineup. Madrigal is going to put the ball in play and, as we’ve come to see, is going to get hits a good number of times. He currently leads among the candidates in batting average and – oddly enough – slugging percentage. When Madrigal is playing well, he puts together solid at-bats and finds holes in the defense.
The problem comes in two forms for Madrigal. First, the quality of his at-bats – when they don’t end in hits – isn’t great. He sees the fewest pitches per plate appearance among the candidates, which is an important part of being a two-hitter, especially when leading off the game. Additionally, as we’ve learned, Nick Madrigal replaces a lot of the swing and miss typical in most players by chasing pitches that eventually wind up as ground balls. His 34th percentile chase rate is a big reason why his swing and miss rate is the best in baseball – Madrigal would rather ground out than strikeout. In theory, this is a good thing. However, with runners on base, this poses more of a problem. Indeed, his 60% ground ball rate hints at exactly this. Not to mention that, while he is faster than Grandal, whether or not Nick Madrigal is actually a good baserunner (evidenced by his BsR) still remains to be seen.
Finally, Madrigal’s absence from the bottom of the lineup also leaves a pretty big hole down there. Madrigal serving as the “second leadoff hitter” and turning the lineup over to Tim Anderson with a runner on base is valuable. In many cases, while he’s flawed, it’s not as if Nick Madrigal is a “bad” candidate for the #2 spot. However, much like with any of these candidates, it’s about optimizing both your team’s performance and a player’s performance by putting everyone in the best position to succeed. The question really comes down to whether Madrigal serves the team better hitting 9th or 2nd.
Pros: Quality of Contact, At-Bats
Cons: Growing Pains as a Rookie
Andrew Vaughn has been a popular choice among some fans to hit 2nd in the lineup. The appeal is pretty clear: with a hard-hit rate in the 85th percentile a barrel % in the 76th percentile, Vaughn is going to make pretty solid contact when he puts it in play. He also walks at an above-average pace (54th percentile). He also sees almost four pitches per plate appearance which, while it isn’t the best on the team, is still solid.
The biggest problem for Vaughn is the fact that he’s currently going through some of the typical rookie growing pains we’ve become used to with young Sox hitters. While his struggles are nowhere near what we’ve seen in the past with guys like Moncada or Robert, at the end of the day, does it make sense to give a struggling rookie the second-most at-bats on the team? He’s swinging and missing a lot (18th percentile in swing and miss) and chasing a lot too (30th percentile in chase rate).
For a spot in the batting order that prioritizes getting on base, in the near future, Andrew Vaughn might be great hitting 2nd. What we have to decide, however, is whether or not today is the best option for that.
If you follow me on Twitter, the verdict of this article should come as no surprise: I would hit Yasmani Grandal 2nd in the order. His on-base percentage is just too much to overlook for other candidates. Someone who is getting on base nearly 38% of the time needs to be hitting in front of people who can drive him in. In addition, even when Grandal makes an out, he’s working the count in doing so. There’s a lot of hidden value in that – and a lot of value that tends to get ignored.
If we take a look at the chart above one last time, Grandal is well above our other candidates in most offensive categories through two months of the season. Shouldn’t someone producing more value on offense get more at-bats?
I know people hate that he’s hitting under .200 – trust me, I’m not thrilled about it either, even as a fan of his. However, when you begin to view on-base percentage as the number of times a player avoids making an out (remember, our 27 most valuable commodities), you can hopefully start to increasingly see why people place so much value on OBP. Getting on base – no matter how you do it – creates more opportunities for your team to score runs. More opportunities to score runs means, theoretically, more runs scored and more games won.
Consider this fun fact as well: batting a high OBP catcher second isn’t out of nowhere for the White Sox. Back in 1983, with the White Sox struggling, Carlton Fisk was moved to the #2 spot in the lineup. He had the highest OBP on the team, and in games he hit second, the White Sox were 68-27. They finished 31-34 in games he didn’t hit second.
The manager behind this move? None other than Tony La Russa himself.
If I had to write a lineup right now, here’s what I’d do:
I think this optimizes the entire White Sox lineup – put the guys who get on base the most in front of Moncada and Abreu and allow a guy like Madrigal to use his plus-plus hit tool to turn the lineup over to the top with runners on base. Yes, I understand Yasmani Grandal’s baserunning is less than ideal. However, what we’ve seen in the above analysis is that Grandal’s baserunning is not going to hinder the team so much so that it makes more sense to bat him in front of Leury Garcia and Billy Hamilton. Again, there is no ideal candidate for the #2 spot – all have their flaws. It’s about determining whose positives outweigh their negatives the most. I believe that’s Grandal. His skillset is optimized when the hitters behind him are known for driving in runs, and in a lineup down two stars, optimization is key.
As we go through this, it’s important to keep in mind that the ideal number two-hitter in this lineup probably isn’t the ideal two-hitter when Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert are healthy again. Truthfully, both of those guys make a lot of sense in the #2 spot in the lineup, and I think long-term, Robert would be my ideal #2 hitter. But, for now, with the White Sox down two main offensive stars, every move made on offense makes a larger impact than before.
La Russa has tried batting Grandal 2nd this season just a few times recently – Grandal responded with a hilarious .091/.333/.091 slash line in four games. I think that was too short of a time to experiment with the move, and with Eaton continuing to struggle, I think the time is now to make Grandal to 2nd a long-term move. He does have a career slash line of .228/.388/.461, which does get exactly to the point of what we’re trying to do here.
For me, it comes down to this:
All your life, you’ve grown up watching a game where, in the bottom of the ninth, you’re praying the top of your team’s order gets on base so that the heart of the order can drive them in and win the game. By this logic, wouldn’t you want to ensure the hitters in front of the middle of the lineup were doing everything to ensure they weren’t making an out?
If you remember one thing from all of this, remember my favorite phrase:
“Because he gets on base.”
Who do you think should hit 2nd for the Sox? Respond below or find me on Twitter @jlazowski14
Featured Photo: 670 the Score (@670TheScore) / Twitter