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Number One at Number Two

If you're like me, you've probably spent some time staring at the ceiling thinking about number two hitters (that statement seems to be innuendo proof). Oh sure, every stathead and, uh, whatever the epitaph is for their opposites, has debated the merits of a good leadoff hitter. And the number three and four spot, well those are the guys that baseball fans talk about constantly; they win the awards. But pity the man in the number two spot, the unsung hero at a crucial point in the all-important top of the order.

At the office yesterday as my blank stare looked beyond the flickering screen, I wondered to myself just who was the best number two hitter in the league last year...and how to effectively argue for that distinction. Status quo says a high contact hitter with good bunting ability makes for a solid candidate for the job. But that's the old way of thinking, and as I looked over the list of the best #2 hitters in the league it really struck me as just asinine it would be to have a Chase Utley or Derek Jeter bunt and use up an out when they're just as likely to get a hit or take a walk to put another run on base for the 3 and 4 hitters who are 99.9% of the time the best hitters on the team. But that's the old way. Today - progressive sods that we are - we also know that some power is desirable and a high OBP - that is not exclusively based on batting average - are qualities to look for in the two hole hitter. The two hitter has the weighty tasks of getting on base in front of the number three and four hitters as well as moving the leadoff man into scoring position - or driving in the run himself.

To look at two-hole hitters, I limited myself to guys with 200 or more plate appearances, for reason that should be fairly clear. As you can see, there are 35 players on this list, but not all MLB teams are represented here. It's worth our time to take a quick look at the overall team numbers for hitters in the second spot. Let's take a quick look using only the OBP and OPS lenses.

Team      OBP      OPS
PHI    .396    .920
NYY    .381    .826
TOR    .372    .853
WAS    .362    .743
ATL    .361    .803
LAA    .357    .783
TEX    .356    .789
SF    .353    .734
LAD    .353    .755
ARZ    .351    .817
CWS    .349    .760
MIN    .349    .726
COL    .347    .803
HOU    .346    .786
KC    .342    .758
OAK    .340    .756
SD    .340    .795
CIN    .339    .716
STL    .338    .764
NYM    .338    .737
BOS    .334    .700
FLA    .332    .700
BAL    .331    .731
TB    .330    .793
SEA    .329    .800
CLE    .326    .721
DET    .326    .731
PIT    .325    .710
MIL    .323    .748
CHC    .319    .709

You can see there are two teams not represented on the list of #2 hitters with 200+ PA, the Cubs and the Brewers. You can also see that those two teams were among the league's worst in OBP and OPS from the #2 spot. Coincidence? Doubtfully, but that's for another time.

Moving on, let's get into the individuals, starting with the easiest, most popular metric for judging a hitter at the top of the order, on base percentage.

hitter    OBP
Jose Vidro                .410
Derek Jeter        .404
Chase Utley        .403
Maicer Izturis       .379
Frank Catalanotto .377
Edgar Renteria      .372
Shane Victorino    .369
Chris Duncan       .368
Adrian Beltre        .367
Mike Cameron     .366
Michael Young     .365
Carl Crawford      .361
Kenny Lofton       .360
Mike Lamb          .359
Luis Castillo        .357
Paul Lo Duca       .355
Nick Swisher       .353
Felipe Lopez        .353
Eric Byrnes           .351
Nick Punto            .351
Omar Vizquel       .350
Tadahito Iguchi    .350
Orlando Hudson  .349
Mark Loretta        .346
Dan Uggla            .343
Orlando Cabrera  .343
Tony Graffanino    .343
Mark Kotsay          .336
Melvin Mora          .332
Jason Michaels       .330
Mark Grudzielanek  .329
Placido Polanco      .328
Jack Wilson            .318
Jose Lopez            .316
Clint Barmes          .309

The top three guys on this list are notable for impressive on base percentages, topping .400 is no easy matter. In fact, there's a steep precipice after Utley's .403 OBP, separated from the pack by a full .024 (a number that seems less impressive than it is written out in that manner). So that's it, matter settled, right? Well, no, because unlike the leadoff hitter whose primary job is to get on base, the number two hitter has a different set of duties and corresponding desirable qualities, the ones discussed above. Slugging percentage and the ability to hit for extra bases are also important qualities for a #2 hitter, per Pankin's gold standard analysis of batting orders. The ability to hit for extra bases adds a great deal of value to the two hole, as an extra base hit is likely to score a run and put another runner in scoring position for those guys hitting behind them.

I elected not to use Isolated Power (ISO) to compare the list of candidates, as it measures ONLY the hitters' ability to produce extra base hits. Instead, the analysis called for something that could measure hitters' ability to gain bases from other sources - extra base hits, walks, and steals - all features deemed desirable from the two hole. My tool of choice is secondary average (SecA) because it combines those features mentioned above, a handy tool indeed!

hitter      SecA
Chris Duncan       .425
Eric Byrnes           .398
Nick Swisher        .395
Mike Cameron     .361
Carl Crawford      .357
Adrian Beltre       .353
Chase Utley         .340
Felipe Lopez        .302
Derek Jeter           .288
Dan Uggla           .287
Edgar Renteria     .283
Mike Lamb           .264
Orlando Hudson   .262
Maicer Izturis       .261
Frank Catalanotto .251
Tadahito Iguchi    .250
Kenny Lofton        .248
Orlando Cabrera   .234
Tony Graffanino    .223
Jason Michaels      .222
Mark Kotsay         .219
Michael Young      .216
Omar Vizquel        .214
Nick Punto            .208
Jose Vidro             .207
Melvin Mora          .202
Jose Lopez            .194
Clint Barmes          .188
Shane Victorino     .187
Luis Castillo           .180
Mark Grudzielanek .170
Jack Wilson           .164
Paul Lo Duca         .158
Mark Loretta         .156
Placido Polanco     .100

I am, however, uncomfortable awarding the above list the final rankings for our little pageant. SecA tends to showcase a hitter's strength and hide his weaknesses. For instance, Nick Swisher has the third best SecA, but it's really based on mostly on his 0.153 BB/PA rate. He just didn't hit the ball enough (.220 AVG as #2 hitter) to bring enough added value to the lineup position, and his high number of home runs makes him better suited for other spots in the order, where he eventually found himself. Crawford was my prime suspect for the award coming into this. He hit for power, he steals bases, high contact hitter. I was somewhat surprised by his 0.052 walk rate, and it ultimately keeps him from getting the crown. It feels a bit like nixing a really good Ms. America candidate because of her answer to the "If you could make the world a better place" question, but we've got high standards `round here. Eric Byrnes posted a good OBP hitting second, even when his overall OBP was just .313. He struck out in 16% of his two hole PA and his walk rate was just .075 in the two spot, which still makes him better suited to hit lower in the order.

Hitter         RC27
Chase Utley        8.75
Chris Duncan     7.94
Derek Jeter         7.52
Adrian Beltre      7.38
Carl Crawford     7.30
Eric Byrnes          7.29
Jose Vidro           6.86
Mike Cameron    6.84
Maicer Izturis       6.24
Dan Uggla           6.23
Mike Lamb           6.13
Edgar Renteria     5.97
Frank Catalanotto 5.96
Michael Young     5.95
Shane Victorino    5.60
Paul Lo Duca         5.37
Kenny Lofton        5.35
Orlando Cabrera    5.34
Tadahito Iguchi     5.32
Tony Graffanino    5.12
Nick Swisher         5.11
Felipe Lopez          4.98
Orlando Hudson    4.98
Luis Castillo          4.97
Mark Grudzielanek 4.91
Nick Punto             4.78
Omar Vizquel         4.78
Melvin Mora          4.77
Clint Barmes          4.74
Jason Michaels       4.73
Jose Lopez             4.63
Mark Loretta          4.61
Mark Kotsay          4.44
Jack Wilson           3.95
Placido Polanco     3.78

Where would we be without runs created and runs created per 27 outs? Yeah, that's right, society would still be pretty much the same: war, pestilence, etc., but sabermetrics would be playing ball in dystopic place where every team is managed by Frank Robinson. Let's fall back to RC27 and take the top three: Chase Utley, Chris Duncan, and Derek Jeter. All three are in the top ten for SecA, OBP, and OPS. Utley is the best player of the three in terms of the statistical measures used I've used today. So good in fact, that he's a much better fit for the three hole in the Philly lineup, and that's where he finished the season. Does that disqualify him? No. I'll give him the title; he's got it all in all the right the places...for a good two hitter.

Duncan strikes more than the other two, 21% of all PA, which hurts him a bit as second hitter, relative to the other three. His contact rate (75%) and the fact that so many of his XBH (18 of 27 XBH as a #2 hitter) went the distance, makes him a good fit for the four or five spot, depending on the match up. As a Cardinals fan, though, I'd still say he's my choice for the majority of plate appearances as the second hitter on our team. Jeter might be the best of the true #2 hitters on this list; although, I'm sure there are a number of readers who would argue for him to be the Yankees' leadoff man. Jeter's skills are well distributed. He hits for extra bases, 27% of his hits in the #2 spot. He walks, .093 BB/PA. His contact rate was 91%, and he steals bases effectively, making him a good all-around guy to have hitting second in your lineup.

As useful as these measures are in determining who the top hitters in the second spot are, nothing here is absolute. Besides, anything that lets the two hitters of the world get a little recognition is a bonus for us all.