A point of contention that has reared its head just two weeks into the season is the subject of Ohtani’s spot in a crowded, powerful lineup. He is already slugging like the most fearsome of clean-up hitters from a position in the batting order that is generally reserved for defensive specialists, role-players, and pitchers who are not two-way superstar rookies. Thus, the topic on many minds has been that of when Scioscia will finally move Ohtani up in the order.
I have written about lineup construction in the past when examining how best to keep Albert Pujols from killing two birds with one stone while Trout is on first base. Billy Eppler, who must have read my plight, quickly traded for Justin Upton (who matched the profile of the number three hitter we needed) thereafter. I think Scioscia has it right this time though, regardless of how much this deviates from traditional or modern lineup construction thought. Well, about as right as he can be while still putting Pujols in the cleanup spot.
The current lineup on days that Ohtani bats looks something like this.
- Ian Kinsler
- Mike Trout
- Justin Upton
- Albert Pujols
- Zack Cozart
- Kole Calhoun
- Andrelton Simmons
- Shohei Ohtani
- Martin Maldonado
Maybe you swap Calhoun and Simmons, maybe you don’t. However your version of this lineup looks, Ohtani has been consistently placed in that number 8 spot. Without even delving into the stats, it is not hard to see why.
This lineup is deep. For comparison, let’s review the 2014 starting lineup in a blowout over the Rangers (7-10-14).
- Kole Calhoun
- Mike Trout
- Albert Pujols
- Josh Hamilton
- Erick Aybar
- Howie Kendrick
- David Freese
- CJ Cron
- Hank Conger (backup behind Chris Iannetta)
Despite 2014 having been career years or close to it for Kole Calhoun, Hank Conger, Chris Iannetta, and CJ Cron while Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, and Albert Pujols all experienced unexpected success, I would bet on the 2018 lineup over the 2014 lineup any day. That lineup four years ago scored the most runs in baseball and won the most games; yet, I haven’t felt this comfortable top to bottom since probably 2009.
The point being, who do you move him ahead of? Do you put him in front of the Andrelton Simmons who currently leads all of baseball in hits? Maybe you could move Calhoun down probably even though he is on a hit streak and surging again? I don’t think so, and this is why.
Ohtani represents a second cleanup, and in that role, he has raked and caused the three players above him to rake. While Kinsler was down, these were the players usually in the 5, 6, and 7 spots, respectively: Calhoun, Simmons, and Valbuena. In terms of runs scored out of the number 5 spot, the Angels are currently third with 10. Out of the 6 spot, first with 15. Out of the 7, tied for first with 10. Number 8 hitters for the Angels are currently leading all of baseball in runs batted in (yeah, I went there) with 16 and it isn’t even close. Ohtani accounts for 11 of those and would still be first in that statistic for 8’s by himself.
Historically, the Angels have been bad in the 8th spot for years. From 2015 to 2017, the Angels were second to last in wRC+ with 66. This means that Angels hitters in that spot have been 34% worse than league average even after positive adjustments due to a pitcher’s park. From 2012 to 2017, the rise of Mike Trout, the number 8 spot for the Angels has been the 7th worst in baseball. It has been a free out. This has costed the hitters after the number four spot and has forced the Angels to only try and maximize returns from the top half, forcing the 5-7 to focus more on power (making up for Pujols’ mistakes) and less on getting on base.
In my opinion, having Ohtani bat in the number 8 spot makes sense because the Angels’ 5-7 are too good to not be scoring runs. There are other arguments too: Ohtani’s comfort, letting him get more looks at a pitcher before coming to the plate, etc. But with a true slugger near the bottom of the lineup ready to drive in the above average hitters that aren’t in the first half, there is no part of the order that the opponents won’t fear.