If you’ve read and listened to the modern takes on baseball strategy and statistics, you’ve heard a million times that batting order makes little-to-no difference. There are many arguments and theoretical metrics to support that belief.
But what if certain players actual do perform better in certain spots in the lineup, because, they are human and other on-field factors may play a role? The Milwaukee Brewers have a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their lineup with Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. The offense is definitely reliant on their production.
Both men are terrific offensive threats with different pros and cons. They could likely bat anywhere in a lineup and add value to a team. For the most part this season, manager Craig Counsell has hit Cain first and Yelich second, and it certainly seemed like a successful formula.
At times, due to injury or matchups, Counsell has moved them around a touch or one has been out of the lineup, creating a few different looks for the batting order. With the recent addition of Mike Moustakas specifically, Counsell has used Yelich to leadoff more frequently, with Cain to follow. This is mostly to keep a R/L split throughout the lineup for potential reliever matchups late in the game.
The sample sizes are way different, but there appears to be a sizable benefit to having Cain at the top and Yelich to follow instead of the reverse. With the Cain then Yelich lineup, the Brewers average 4.7 runs per game (62 games entering Tuesday). An order of Yelich then Cain has only yielded 3.5 runs per contest, including the five runs Milwaukee scored on Monday night (12 games) . That’s more than one run better per game with Cain hitting first and Yelich second.
Sure, the amount of games is easy to point to as an unfair factor; however, 62 games is a solid sample to say that order works in the long term. The Brewers overall are scoring 4.37 runs per game (19th in MLB). That 4.7 mark with a Cain-Yelich order would make them a top-10 scoring offense in baseball.
Interestingly, when Cain hits first and anyone other than Yelich hits second, the Brewers average just 3.44 runs (9 games). While in games that Yelich hits second and anyone but Cain leads off, the Brewers still score 4.48 runs each contest (21 games). In a handful of those scenarios, it was Thames hitting first and Cain hitting third.
The first vs. second order has always made a difference individually for the pair. Yelich’s OBP is 68 points higher in the two-hole, while he strikes out less often and walks more often. His average is also 28 points better hitting after Cain, and there could be some reasons for his success there.
Yelich hits a lot of ground balls. Assuming Cain is on first base around 30% of the time, it creates a bigger hole on the right side - Yelich’s pull side - with the first baseman holding Cain on. Additionally, Cain is a stolen base threat, meaning the pitcher will likely throw more fastballs and have his attention divided between Yelich and Cain. All three of these small factors could create a sizable advantage for Yelich.
There is also the possibility that Yelich isn’t comfortable being the first batter of the game. Many players feel uneasy in that leadoff spot and it can affect one’s psyche - even if you can’t necessarily put a number on it. Or maybe he has some issue hitting after the pitcher. Who really knows?
Cain, meanwhile, has basically the same OPS hitting leadoff (.809) or second (.812). The difference is in how he gets there. Batting first, Cain has a strong .366 OBP, but an even more impressive .443 slugging percentage. In fact, all nine of Cain’s home runs have come while hitting leadoff - and 24 of his 31 RBI.
Hitting second, Cain has an other-worldly .429 OBP with a .324 average, but his slugging sits at just .384 in that spot this year. Perhaps because of the inconsistency of the middle and bottom of the order, the .429 OBP in the two-hole has been less valuable than the .443 slugging in the leadoff spot.
It’s tough to find ways to analyze his better power while hitting first. Perhaps he is more likely to be aggressive with (often) no one on base. There simply appears to be a comfort in Cain’s demeanor when leading off.
Maybe it’s all noise. Perhaps it’s randomness or coincidence. I lean toward, “there is something to it.” Regardless, what would it hurt to run with the order of Cain then Yelich? Yes, Counsell likes to use the R/L lineup, but it’s not the end of the world to hit lefties back-to-back, especially if one of them is Yelich (.957 OPS against left-handers in 2018).
With the Milwaukee Brewers in (essentially) an eight-team race for five playoff spots and fewer than 40 games to play, every little advantage helps. Even if you don’t believe it matters, if the numbers say “maybe,” it’s worth a shot.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs