Pirates manager Bobby Bragan tested that idea for 40 games in the 1956 season. (His team went 16-24, marginally worse than its 50-64 record in other games.) Bragan tried a version of it again with the '66 Braves-- Felipe Alou enjoyed the best season of his career hitting leadoff--but Bragan was fired in August. "The way I hit that year," Alou says, "if I'd batted fourth, I would have had 140 RBIs, not 74."
"I think about my lineup a lot," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. "My Number 1 priority is to protect the people who need to be protected. That means hitters who are patient behind guys who aren't as patient. Because if you have a good, patient hitter behind an anxious hitter, that anxious hitter is going to get pitches to hit.
"Of course, I remember one year in September when it would take me 20 minutes or more every day to decide on a lineup. And then every day, it seemed, I'd look up in the bottom of the first inning and we'd be losing 5-0 and I'd think, Why did I waste all that time?"
As sabermetrician Bill James wrote in his book The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, "You take any two reasonable batting orders for any team, put them on a computer and play a hundred seasons, and you'll find they score just as many runs one way as they do another."
Of course, in his next hundred breaths James cannot resist laying out rules for his own optimal lineup. He advocates, for instance, disregarding the saw about filling the second spot with guys who move runners ("the number of runs you generate by 'moving runners' is essentially zero") and advises using a line-drive hitter, not a power hitter, in the fifth spot. Not that it matters, mind you.
The problem of playing the Sims lineups game is that the computer assumes a player's production remains the same no matter where he hits. Managers find that laughable. They must constantly deal with players' likes and dislikes about where they hit in the order--to say nothing of hot and cold streaks, injuries, matchup pros and cons, and other flesh-and-blood elements that invite change--and that goes even for the manager of the team that won the World Series last year.
Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona would prefer to bat third baseman Bill Mueller second. But Mueller told Francona that he dislikes that spot and is more comfortable hitting much further down. "That's O.K. with me," Francona says. "It's crazy to force them into a spot where they're not comfortable. I spend a lot of time talking to the players, and the big thing is comfort level. You want your guys feeling good about themselves.
"The biggest problem I have is Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz both want to hit third. Well, only one can hit third. One of them will tell me every week that he wants to hit third."
The batting order carries such psychological heft that it helped grease Sammy Sosa's ugly exit out of Chicago. The slugger complained after last season that Cubs manager Dusty Baker had disrespected him by incrementally dropping him from third to sixth. Former Yankee Kenny Lofton groused last year when he found out that Torre wasn't going to bat him leadoff--before the first game of the season.
Indeed, spots in the batting order have such an acquired emotional value that pitchers sometimes adjust the way they pitch to a player according to where he hits. "I prefer to hit leadoff," Oakland A's centerfielder Mark Kotsay says. "Pitchers are going to come after you. When you hit third, even if the count is 2 and 0 or 3 and 1, they may still throw you a changeup or breaking ball. Nobody gives in to the number 3 hitter."