With the trade of Jorge Cantu and the injury to Chris Coghlan, manager Edwin Rodriguez had to make some changes in the batting lineup. One change that should be familiar to fans is the move of Hanley Ramirez back to the leadoff spot from the #3 hole. With Hanley’s performance so far this season, fans might support the move, citing Hanley’s lack of power at a traditionally power-producing spot in the lineup.
I too support the move, for more than just a lack of power. Moving Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins’ best hitter, to the leadoff spot is actually a better use of his talents than leaving him at #3. Let me tell you why.
Remember the rules
Recently over at FanSided’s general baseball site Call to the Pen, I’ve written a series of articles on lineup optimization and talked a bit about what an idea lineup would look like. I’ve also done some of that here for the Marlins as well, before the season began. All of the rules that are mentioned in the articles are researched by the excellent writers of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. One of the critical rules to remember from that book is this basic principle:
Your three best hitters should occupy the #1, #2, and #4 slots in the lineup.
For most fans, that is a bit counterintuitive, since they are used to seeing their best hitters in the middle of the lineup. Of course, because of the surplus in opportunities for #1 and #2 hitters, two of your best hitters should take advantage and hit in those slots.
In addition, your leadoff man should have a generally high OBP, as getting on base is more important for leadoff hitters due to their higher number of PA with the bases empty. In addition, leadoff men should be good baserunners, though not necessarily good base stealers.
How does Hanley fit?
We all remember how well Hanley for years as a leadoff man. The Marlins moved him to the #3 position to get him more opportunities with men on base, but batting him leadoff would help by getting him more opportunities to hit as a whole, which should make up for some of those extra men on base. With more opportunities, and particularly with more bases empty opportunities, getting on base is fairly critical, and Hanley’s numbers this season still suggest a good OBP hitter. Even in a “down” year, he still has a .360 OBP, and ZiPS projects him at a .379 OBP the rest of the way. His walk rate is also at 10.2%, the highest it has been since 2008 (though 10 of his 48 walks are intentional). Hanley is also well known for his speed and baserunning prowess, as he has over 20 stolen bases again this season, still stealing at a successful rate (75%).
Of course, none of that would be important if Hanley wasn’t one of our three best hitters, but there is no dispute that, even with this relatively poor season, he is still the best hitter on the team. His .349 wOBA ranks third on the Marlins, and ZiPS projects a much brighter picture going forward, with a .388 projected wOBA for the rest of the season. According to the rest-of-season projection, Hanley is still on pace for a .288/.366/.461 season, a far cry from his 2007-2009 monster years, but a still very respectable .368 wOBA line. That is well among the top three hitters on the Fish, and the other parts of his skillset only magnify his appropriate use at the top of the Marlins lineup.
Still needs to improve
That being said, no move in the lineup is going to help with Hanley’s issues at the plate this season. Yes, he is still a top-flight hitter for a shortstop, but the lack of power is still quite disturbing. ZiPS rest-of-season projections have him filling out to a season total of just 29 doubles, which would mark the first time Ramirez failed to reach 30 doubles in his career. The projection also has him hitting 23 home runs, an acceptable if not disappointing total. If Hanley continues to kill worms with his increased ground ball rate (currently at 54.2%), his power will not increase. He needs to get under the ball and start lifting some pitches into the outfield in order to let his natural power take over.
This continuing issue may be worth an investigation via Pitch f/x data, comparing 2008-2009 batted balls versus the 2010 results. Keep your eyes posted for that.