Jackie Bradley and Batting Order

The star of yesterday’s Rays-Red Sox day game was Hanley Ramirez, whose fifth-inning grand slam erased a three-run deficit en route to an 8-6 victory for the Red Sox. Batting ninth in the order, Jackie Bradley was out of the spotlight, but his performance was likely more important to the team’s playoff aspirations given his recent struggles and history of streakiness. Bradley was on third base for Ramirez’s grand slam following a leadoff hit in the fifth inning. He added his own home run to extend the team’s lead to 6-4 in the sixth inning. And he added the team’s final run with a double to right field in the eighth inning. It was Bradley’s first three-hit game since July.

For the season, Bradley has an .855 OPS that isn’t too far above what was expected of him before the start of the season. However, Bradley has pretty much never been an .855 OPS player. Instead, he has at times been one of the best hitters in baseball and at times been an average or worse hitter. Check out Bradley’s performances this season based on some arbitrary splits:

Jackie Bradley’s OPS by Period, 2016
Time Period PA OPS
Before May 14 136 1.001
May 14 – August 26 370 .784
Since August 27 19 1.162

If having a 19-plate appearance split seemed strange to you, then you might have correctly guessed that those splits weren’t actually arbitrary. Bradley started the season batting ninth in the Red Sox’s order and remained there most games until May 14. Then, for the next three-plus months, he never batted ninth. Five days ago, John Farrell returned Bradley to the nine hole, presumably in an attempt to break him out of his extended slump. If yesterday was any indication, that is working out nicely.

Jackie Bradley’s % of PAs in the 9 Spot, 2016
Time Period % of PAs in the 9 Spot
Before May 14 74%
May 14 – August 26 0%
Since August 27 100%

You don’t have to frequent FanGraphs to understand that earlier spots in the batting order see more plate appearances over the course of the year, and so it makes sense for teams to bat their best players at the top of the lineup so they receive more of the team’s plate appearances. What Bradley makes me question is whether some players might actually perform better in certain spots in the order, perhaps because of their ability to handle pressure or because of the perceived responsibilities of certain spots in the order (e.g. seeing a lot of pitches in the leadoff spot or hitting for power in the cleanup spot).

To test whether that might be the case, I looked at the players with the biggest differences in their OPS in their preferred lineup spots and outside of their preferred lineup spots. I determined a player’s preferred spot by selecting the lineup position where they had the highest OPS. I also limited the list to qualified hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in both a preferred lineup spot and in all other spots. Here are players who have benefited the most from a particular place in the batting order this season:

Biggest Performance Increase in Certain Lineup Spot, 2016
In Lineup Spot Not In Lineup Spot
Player Lineup Spot PA OPS PA OPS Diff
Miguel Sano 4 183 .966 227 .643 .323
Brian McCann 5 112 .943 297 .670 .273
Danny Espinosa 8 333 .813 164 .554 .259
Jackie Bradley Jr. 9 119 1.046 406 .799 .247
Starling Marte 4 274 .915 231 .680 .235
Anthony Rendon 6 143 .968 395 .749 .219
Adrian Beltre 4 397 .902 136 .687 .215
Brad Miller 4 117 .987 369 .773 .214
Nolan Arenado 4 243 1.064 327 .852 .212
Chris Carter 4 150 .953 375 .746 .207
Manny Machado 2 164 1.069 402 .863 .206
Mark Trumbo 5 370 .913 181 .711 .202
Adam Jones 1 365 .836 174 .636 .200
Elvis Andrus 8 121 .897 353 .703 .194
Jose Abreu 4 162 .936 400 .751 .185

Miguel Sano pretty much runs away with things hitting .966 in the 4-spot and .643 the rest of the time. Bradley is fourth on the list, and, interestingly, the next closest hitter to him whose preferred spot in the lineup is 9th is Marcus Semien with just a 78-point advantage. That probably means less than I want it to since NL teams almost always bat the pitcher ninth, and many teams have an obvious worst hitter who always bats ninth and so never has the chance to test the theory in another spot in the order.

All I’ve really done here is illustrate that Bradley has been better hitting ninth in the order this season. I could come up with a hundred splits and each of them would show players with extreme differences over small samples like these. The real question is whether Bradley or anyone else can be expected to continue their lineup-based performance trends in the future.

Since 2002, there have been 359 opportunities for repeat performances, i.e. players who had an OPS 100 points better in their preferred lineup spot one season and then had at least 100 plate appearances in their preferred spot and not in their preferred spot the next season. 90 of those batters had an OPS 100 points better or more in that same lineup spot the next season. That’s about 7 batters per year. In contrast, 68 hitters saw their OPS decline by 100 or more points in their “preferred” lineup spots the next season. 68 is not 90, so perhaps that is some small amount of evidence that a handful of batters do see a real effect with their lineup spot, but it is hardly definitive.

Meanwhile, Bradley’s teammate Xander Bogaerts illustrates a possible chicken-and-egg problem with this approach. When you expand the preferred lineup test to 2013-16—which covers Bradley’s full career—and increase the lineup spot requirements to 300-plus plate appearances in and out of the preferred spot, Bogaerts lands in the top 15 with a .144 OPS advantage in the 3-spot. Here’s the thing: Bogaerts has only started to hit 3rd in the lineup because he has improved as a hitter as he’s matured. Whether or not Bradley’s performance is affected by his spot in the order, it might not make sense to compare him to other players who have switched spots in the order previously if those changes reflected their managers’ recognitions of actual changes in underlying ability.

In any case, Bradley himself proves a difficult case to argue when you look at his entire career. His success in the nine spot is pretty much a 2016 phenomenon. Since his debut in 2013, Bradley has actually performed best when hitting sixth in the order.

Bradley’s Career OPS by Lineup Spot
Lineup Spot PA OPS
5 97 .619
6 231 .844
7 108 .585
8 220 .631
9 618 .783

Based on this research, I don’t believe there is much evidence that moving Bradley or anyone else around in the order will affect their fortunes in individual at-bats. Like clutchness, there may not be enough of a real-world sample of the phenomenon to ever prove whether it is real or simply randomness. But Farrell is welcome to keep trying it. At least it seems saner than keeping a pet praying mantis in the dugout for good luck.

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Scott, I think there may be a problem with selection criteria for the group for performance improvements. Only four of those players are in lineup spots for “lesser” hitters (after the 5th spot), but wouldn’t several of those players be in the higher lineup slots due to their production rather than the other way around? The PAs outside the slot in which they were performing could be due to inexperience (Sano), batting against the weak side of their platoon (Miller), being hurt (Adam Jones), or being perceived to be in a slump/underperforming (Abreu, etc.).

Thought the data was quite interesting, but just wanted to flag that, as it struck me that the causation was likely reversed.

Baller McCheese
Baller McCheese

Yeah, if a player gets dropped down in the order it’s usually because they’re not doing so well. If they continue to slump it confirms the demotion; not the demotion causes the slump. (And if they continue to slump, the average production at that original lineup spot would probably be better than at the new lineup spot.)

I think you’d have to only look at players that batted better when lower in the lineup.