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What Happened to the Cleanup Man?

Players who hit fourth in the lineup are meant to be feared, but in 2014 they have been far from fearsome.

Mitchell Leff

The idea of a manager agonizing over his lineup card is one of the most iconic concepts in baseball. Like many iconic baseball concepts it might not be that meaningful to the bottom line of wins and losses, but it has a special place in the game nonetheless.

Not only does lineup construction not matter THAT much, but the physical lineup cards seem archaic at a time when there's no practical reason why inputting the starting nine couldn't be done electronically. Even so, the image of two managers ambling out of the dugout to show the umpires a piece of paper somehow feels right to the ever-nostalgic sport of baseball.

Lineups are also a constant source of debate for fans and the media. It is rather amazing the amount of fury that can arise about a manager's decision to put Player X in the 5 hole as opposed to the 3 hole. I don't mean to completely dismiss lineup optimization here, there are runs to be obtained by ordering your hitters in a sensible manner, but it does seem that there is a disproportional amount of fuss about the whole thing a lot of the time.

As a sabermetrically-inclined fellow who follows the Blue Jays closely, Toronto's insistence on batting Jose Bautista third instead of second may be annoying, but there are far more important issues going on with the team tactically. And yet, the debate rages.

One thing that most people in baseball agree on is what to do with the fourth spot in the lineup. From the most old-school folks to the biggest stats guys, everyone likes the idea of having a guy with real power hitting fourth. The idea is that this player will bring home the top three hitters, who should get on base consistently.

Teams tend to put their most menacing hitters in the cleanup spot, and usually guys hitting fourth league-wide put up some pretty impressive numbers. For instance in 2003 cleanup hitters league-wide hit 288/.372/.501. That was a different era offensively, but the 126 wRC+ shows that those guys were raking, even within the context of their environment.

This year, not so much. I could probably wrap up the article now by saying the player in 2014 with the most plate appearances as a cleanup hitter in 2014 is Ryan Howard. Honestly, that says it all, but this is Beyond the Box Score and there must be at least one chart.

In this case, the chart below shows how cleanup hitters have fared across the MLB in the last 10 seasons:

2005 0.277 0.355 0.485 0.208 15.3% 119
2006 0.283 0.371 0.502 0.219 15.9% 122
2007 0.283 0.363 0.489 0.205 13.9% 119
2008 0.280 0.357 0.483 0.203 14.3% 119
2009 0.272 0.350 0.473 0.201 13.9% 114
2010 0.269 0.346 0.461 0.192 12.9% 116
2011 0.267 0.344 0.448 0.181 12.8% 116
2012 0.273 0.345 0.467 0.194 14.9% 120
2013 0.269 0.338 0.451 0.182 14.2% 117
2014 0.256 0.330 0.422 0.166 12.4% 109

Something about a .256/.330/.422 line just doesn't scream "intimidating power hitter". Interestingly , cleanup hitters are more or less alone in their struggles among those in the middle of the lineup this year.

Third hitters are posting a 121 wRC+, tied for the second best total for that lineup slot in the last 10 years while the 109 wRC+ is their best number in the same time period. The question is, why is this happening?

Are MLB teams moving their best hitters to other lineup positions and away from the cleanup spot? It seems unlikely, it is the conventional wisdom to have a masher in the four hole and there's no sabermetric reasoning to depart from that convention.

Instead, the answer is probably a matter of struggling sluggers rather than a structural change in how teams are building their lineups. In 2014 their are an inordinate amount of good cleanup hitters who are doing far worse than expected.

Chris Davis has disappointed, Dayan Viciedo has been brutal, and Allen Craig has been dumpster fire-esque at the plate. Consistent offensive performers like Evan Longoria, Carlos Santana and Billy Butler have been league-average at best. The reality is that teams aren't going to take these stars out of positions to drive in runs, even if they have struggled for half the season. Teams know that they are likely to return to something like their career norms in the near future.

Cleanup hitters in general, and some of the examples above in particular, have been very underwhelming this year. However, in the majority of cases they should rebound. Most of the players who are struggling have the talent to cease bringing shame to the title of "cleanup hitter" and make the four hole feared once again.

Except Ryan Howard.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.