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Role of No. 2 hitters continues to evolve

Role of No. 2 hitters continues to evolve

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- In some ways, it's one of the most desirable positions in sports, short of catching passes from Peyton Manning or dishing the basketball to LeBron James. The job requires a specific skill set and the ability to be able to set teammates up for success.

For years, the kind of player that managers wanted to put in the No. 2 spot in a batting order was someone who could hit behind runners, drop down a bunt and set the table for the big bats in the lineup. They didn't get much of the glory, but they were as vital to the offense as the streak-of-lightning leadoff hitter or barrel-chested sluggers.

Not that hitting in front of Albert Pujols or Mark Teixeira doesn't have its privileges.

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But the game has changed, and the role of the No. 2 hitter morphed as well in recent years. Instead of slap hitters who put down bunts and work counts, many teams are opting to have a hitter capable of hitting 20-plus homers batting in the second spot in the order. Brawn over finesse, though having a combination of the two is even better.

"It has changed," said Manny Acta, in his first season as manager of the Cleveland Indians. "You don't need a guy who can just bunt and move the guy over. You need to get him on base a lot because you have the No. 3 and 4 hitters coming up behind him. It's a very key part of the lineup."

That's why Acta is moving leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore to the No. 2 spot in the batting order this year in an attempt to take better advantage of his power and run-producing potential. Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, who like Sizemore, can run and has some power, is another example of the ideal player managers are looking for to fill the two-hole these days.

"I don't think it's as it used to be, when the No. 2 guy was primarily a bunt guy or a hit-and-run guy," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "For me, a No. 2 hitter has to be kind of a complete hitter ... a combination of speed and the ability to drive in a run."

The change of philosophy could have more to do with a change of personnel. There are more players capable of hitting for power than in years past, with smaller ballparks and watered-down pitching staffs. When the New York Mets steamrolled to the World Series title in 1986, punch-hitter Wally Backman batted primarily in the No. 2 spot and had one homer and 14 sacrifice bunts.

With so many teams featuring sluggers capable of striking fear in pitchers sitting in the No. 3 spot in the batting order, two-hole hitters are seeing more pitches from hurlers eager to get an easier out. If those hitters can make them pay with the long ball, advantage offense.

Last year, the Texas Rangers, featuring Michael Young, had the highest batting average (.307) from the second spot in the order, followed by Philadelphia (.306), Houston (.301) and Oakland (.299). The Phillies were second in on-base percentage (.376) from the No. 2 spot behind Boston (.378), and third in slugging percentage behind Toronto (.501) and the Yankees (.492), who had Johnny Damon hitting second.

Philadelphia's success in the No. 2 hole was because of Shane Victorino, who hit .292 with 10 homers and 62 RBIs last year with an on-base percentage of .358. He also stole 25 bases and had four sacrifice bunts and struck out only 71 times in 621 at-bats. And he hit in front of Chase Utley.

The Blue Jays had second baseman Aaron Hill hitting second in 2009 and he was a bona fide power-hitter with 36 homers, 108 RBIs and a .330 on-base percentage. He put up comparable numbers to cleanup hitter Adam Lind, who hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBIs.

Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, who hits third in Houston's order, likes the hitter before him to ultimately be able to get on base while working counts and tiring out the pitcher. Berkman said he's read some studies that argue the best hitters on a team should bat second and fourth.

"You need a guy that can give you a tough at-bat, even against a great pitcher," Berkman said. "I don't think your No. 2 guy has to hit with a lot of power, but I do think he has to have a knack for coming up with big hits because I do think you're going to be in a big situation a lot. The most important thing for me is that a No. 2 hitter makes as few outs as possible, which translates into a high on-base percentage."

Not all teams find success in the No. 2 hole so easily. Seattle, which had a league-worst .224 batting average in the No. 2 spot last year, had 11 different players bat in that spot in the order to start a game. Cincinnati, which hit a National League-worst .235 at No. 2, had 12 different players bat second, led by Jerry Hairston's 55 starts.

Houston also had somewhat of a revolving door at the No. 2 spot last year, with Miguel Tejada getting 69 starts, Kazuo Matsui 35 starts and Jeff Keppinger 30 starts. Matsui, a switch-hitter who can run, hit just .246 in the No. 2 position last year, forcing the Astros to turn to Tejada.

Tejada is gone, and the Astros are trying to decide who should follow Michael Bourn in the order in 2010. Matsui will get another look, and the Astros will probably refrain from hitting All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence second because the bottom of the order lacks punch. Pence will likely hit fifth behind Berkman and Carlos Lee.

"It would be great to have a No. 2 hitter to be able to drive the ball, but you don't want to sacrifice the rest of your lineup," Astros first-year manager Brad Mills said. "You want to be able to spread those hitters out to give yourself a chance to drive in some runs."

For some managers, it all depends on personnel and who's hitting first and third. The deeper the lineup, the easier it is to afford to put some power in the No. 2 spot.

"I think the skill set is it's important for a guy to be able to get on base," Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch said. "Ideally, depending on if you have speed at the top of the order, it could be a guy where you could put runners in motion with him. But again I think it depends on the makeup of your club. If the guy that hits second hits 30 [homers] and drives in 100 [runs], that wouldn't bother me either.

"In an ideal, perfect world you've got a guy to set the table for the middle part of your order, and I think traditionally that's a nice thing to have. More importantly to me, it's about a guy that can put up a quality at-bat in front of the quality of your order."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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