Best hitter third or fourth, it's all in good order

Best hitter third or fourth, it's all in good order

Best hitter third or fourth, it's all in good order
"Batting cleanup" is a phrase that has long carried the distinct connotation of being the spot for a team's most-feared hitter. Kids on playgrounds everywhere clamor to claim the right to bat fourth, but it's rare to hear someone pounce on the No. 3 spot, which lacks an ominous nickname.

Yet, one look at the box scores will reveal that players like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and David Wright all hit third -- and surely there can't be more feared hitters following any of those sluggers to the plate.

So that begs the question of which is the better strategy, to put your best hitter third of fourth in the lineup? Opinions vary throughout, based on which manager you ask, and sometimes, a manager's thoughts may change depending on the day.

Take the situation on the South Side of Chicago last year. Paul Konerko, the team's captain and most consistent hitter over the past few seasons, made his first 84 starts of the year batting cleanup. On July 7, then-manager Ozzie Guillen bumped Konerko up to the No. 3 spot, where he remained for his final 64 starts.

"I'm tired of seeing Paul Konerko leading off in the second inning," Guillen said at the time. "Every time we get there, P.K. is leading off. I want him to get a shot in the first inning to see how we can go. I want to get him as many at-bats as I can."

It's that perspective that sums up one managerial approach -- put your most potent bat in the spot that provides a balanced combination of RBI opportunities and maximum plate appearances.

Last season, No. 3 hitters throughout the Major Leagues accumulated 492 more plate appearances than the ones hitting directly behind them. But even with so many extra chances, they couldn't match the numbers put up by the cleanup hitters, as the four-spot produced 148 more RBIs and 30 more home runs.

Those splits have shifted in the other direction during the first two months of this season. Entering play Wednesday, No. 3 hitters have combined for 244 home runs, while the No. 4 hitters have gone yard 221 times. Cleanup hitters do hold a slight edge in RBIs, though the differential was just one before a breakout Tuesday during which the cleanup hitters drove in 26 runs to the three-hitters' 10.

A manager's biggest concern when it comes to filling out his lineup card, however, is rarely where to place his biggest power threat. It's the coveted spots protected by those sluggers at the top of the lineup that often give managers the biggest headaches.

To many, Pujols joining the Angels symbolized a potential boon for second baseman Howie Kendrick. Instead, Kendrick struggled in front of Pujols over his first 19 games, hitting .250 and striking out 21 times in 80 at-bats. He batted .275 in 43 games in the two-spot last season before breaking out to the tune of a .321 average in 67 games hitting in the fifth and sixth spots.

The solution seems to be the same this season, as he's hit .306 with just 11 whiffs in 79 at-bats over 20 games in the six-spot.

"You have to adjust," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think that if you look at where the pieces fit, and what was slowing our team down, we were sitting on a .295 on-base percentage for a long time, under .300. ... I think it's just putting players in a comfort level."

It's that comfort level as much as anything else that may go a long way in explaining the polar-opposite starts of the Angels and Rangers. Whereas the Angels haven't used any one lineup combination more than twice all year, Texas has benefited from using the fewest lineup combinations. The Rangers have had the combination of Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre, respectively, at the top of their order in 35 of their 50 games.

Similarly, the White Sox and Indians -- currently first and second in the American League Central, respectively -- join the Rangers as the only teams to use fewer than 30 different lineup combinations so far this year. The preseason-favorite Tigers, on the other hand, trotted out their 39th different batting order Tuesday night as they fell to 4 1/2 games behind Chicago with a loss in Boston.

"There's nobody else. That's our team, I like our team," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said recently about any potential lineup changes. "We are wracking our brain to try and get some offense going. There is no secret to it; the guys we've got have to produce."

Sure, there are some anomalies, usually caused by injuries -- such as the Rays being tied for a share of the AL East lead despite using 45 different lineups in 50 contests -- but for the most part, winning records coincide with lineup consistency.

There's no right or wrong answer as to who belongs third and who should take the long-coveted cleanup role. It simply comes down to getting production out of the entire lineup, one through nine, and it's when that doesn't happen that questions begin to swirl.

"It's like trying to catch lightning in a bottle when you start screwing with the lineup," said Royals manager Ned Yost, whose team is 14-13 this month after a dismal 6-15 April. "I just try to take advantage of who is hot now and try to get them in front of guys that are hot. We need to get our lineup going so we can just set it and just leave it. Not moving guys around."

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.