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2 Be or Not 2 Be: Who Bats Second for the Mariners in 2017?

A brief review of the terrible twos, and what the M’s can do to solve them

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Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

On Monday I delved into the Mariners’ situation at leadoff, from their struggles to find production at the top spot in recent years, to their plan to begin 2017 with newcomer Jarrod Dyson in the irons. Whether or not this is a viable solution is debatable. For better or worse, to start the season, the M’s have decided to try it out.

So on to the next question: who’s on deck?

For the better part of the past 15 years, Mariners No. 2 hitters have been, to put it mildly, bad. Since 2002, they are 23rd in baseball in terms of wRC+, and 29th in that time span in wOBA. They have only finished in the top half of the league four times in the past 10 seasons in wRC+, and only in the top 10 once, way back in 2006 (thanks to a combo of Adrian Beltré and Jose Lopez in his lone All-Star season).

In 2014 they nearly made the playoffs with the league’s 27th best production from the 2-spot, courtesy of Dustin Ackley, James Jones, and Brad Miller. And like their counterparts hitting leadoff that season, this paltry potpourri finished dead last in OBP.

Meanwhile, Mariners No. 2 hitters fared much better in 2015, for reasons (cough, Kyle Seager) I will discuss later in the piece.

Finally, 2016 showed further improvement, especially after Scott Servais moved on from Ketel Marte after 17 games. He was replaced by the paternal platoon of Seth “Dad Who Hits Righties” Smith and Franklin “Dad Who Hits Lefties” Gutiérrez.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
“Now remember, the single most important thing in life is a firm handshake”
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The M’s were actually the top team in baseball with a true platoon hitting second, largely due to the excellent right-handed bat of Gutiérrez. From the 2-spot, he slashed a very respectable .284/.357/.898, finishing with the 5th best wRC+ of all players with at least 150 plate appearances hitting second. However, his production was dampened by a high K rate (27.4%) that was third worst in baseball among No. 2 hitters (min. 150 PA).

Smith was merely middle of the road, taking 373 reps from the 2-spot, primarily against right handed pitching, accumulating a wRC+ of 105 which was good for 16th in the league out of the 25 players with at least 250 plate appearances at No. 2.

Mercifully, the last two seasons have shown a marked improvement from a largely dismal decade. But now both Guti and Smith are gone, and much like the rest of the roster headed into 2017, the second spot is somewhat of an unknown. According to Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais, it seems promising that some combination of newcomers Jarrod Dyson and Jean Segura will occupy the leadoff spot, at least to start the season.

I will throw out a few options for No. 2, but in order to get some context, let’s first take a look at the state of the 2-spot around the league.

2 Fast: 2 Furious

According to traditional logic, the primary function of the No. 2 hitter is, pure and simple, to put the ball in play. A high contact rate is crucial, combined with a solid OBP and decent speed to advance the leadoff runner in the hopes of avoiding double plays. Power is not essential; your goal is merely to set the table for the big boys at 3-4-5.

In this school of thought, middle infielders like Placido Polanco, Dustin Pedroia, Derek Jeter, and Michael Young—the men with the most PA hitting second since 2002—are prototypical No. 2 hitters.

Take a look at this chart of the 10 best seasons in terms of wRC+ by a No. 2 hitter (with at least 300 plate appearances) from 2002-2012:

With the exception of Curtis Granderson’s homer-heavy 2011 campaign on a juggernaut Yankees club, we see this logic in action: balanced, high OBP seasons from guys who are not traditional power hitters.

However, in the last four seasons, the landscape of two hitters has changed dramatically.

As you can see, the 5 best seasons by a No. 2 hitter (with at least 300 PA) since 2002 have occurred in the past four years, as well as 8 of the top 10.

Three of those seasons belong to baseball wunderkind Mike Trout, who has spent much of his young career occupying the 2-hole. Following in his footsteps are Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant, who, like Trout, have won the MVP while hitting primarily second (those seasons highlighted in yellow).

Donaldson’s 2015 MVP season was his first with the Blue Jays, and manager John Gibbons initially struggled to optimize his use. He bounced around the middle of the order for the first month of the season, failing to find his stroke—until they moved him to No. 2. He proceeded to positively mash, going on to lead Toronto in plate appearances, hits, runs, home runs, RBIs, SLG, and wRC+, while posting an fWAR of 8.7.

Kris Bryant has a similar story. After starting his career hitting mostly 3rd, he found a home at the 2-spot during the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run. And though cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist is a more prototypical 2-hitter given his lesser power numbers, Joe Maddon and company haven’t looked back.

These trends confirm what baseball statisticians have been arguing for years: it’s beneficial to bat your studs second.

In seminal Sabermetrics treatise The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, the authors argue that contrary to traditional logic, your No. 2 man should be as good as, if not better than, your No. 3:

The #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player. Doesn’t sound like someone who should be sacrificing, does it?

This logic has been corroborated by various statisticians and analytics experts, from Fangraphs to FiveThirtyEight, who suggest that there’s a strong case to be made for your best all-around hitter at No. 2.

Accordingly, in the last several years, we have come to see a completely new breed of baseball player occupying the 2-spot, as managers have become less afraid to take advantage of their best talents higher up in the order, regardless of power.

Which brings us back to the question at hand: what about the M’s?

Jean Segura

When the Mariners traded for Jean Segura last fall, many prognosticators assumed that the move was to secure the reliable leadoff hitter the team had been missing since the departure of Ichiro.

Last season, Segura had one of the best offensive seasons of anybody in baseball, topping all leadoff hitters in plate appearances, hits, doubles, and triples, while slashing .319/.368/.499. He had tremendous success hitting leadoff on a subpar offensive club (though shoutout to Bishop Blanchet and University of Washington product Jake Lamb who led the team in homers and slugging), managing to score 102 runs in the process. With Dyson slotted in at leadoff on Opening Day, however, Jean Segura is pegged to bat second.

The Mariners’ front office has made a point of infusing the roster with speedy, athletic guys who strike out less and walk more, and while neither Segura and Dyson walk much, they don’t strike out much either, a far cry from the since departed platoon of Guti and Seth Smith. Their speed, to use the parlance of another Seattle sports icon, is fast.

Between Dyson and Segura, Scott Servais seems inclined to go full speed ahead with the top of the order, hoping to catalyze a Mariners team that finished 24th in steals and 26th in BsR last season. In fact, Dyson (30) and Segura (33) alone tallied more steals in 2016 than the entire Mariners team combined.

The hope seems to be that this emphasis on speed at the top of the lineup will set the tone for the rest of the squad, and ultimately give the big boys in the heart of the order a good chance to drive in some extra runs.

And while Segura hasn’t taken significant reps batting second since his 2013 All-Star season in Milwaukee, the Mariners believe his improving ability as a run producer will be emphasized in the 2-spot.

We saw what this can look like on Monday:

His next time at the plate, Segura flashed some of his burgeoning power, mail ordering a nice souvenir directly to the gentleman in the red plaid sitting on the hill behind the fence in left-center field.

Monday’s impressive showing against the Royals proved to be a microcosm of Segura’s 2016 season, illustrating not only his speed, but his skillset as a complete hitter with power. However, though Segura had an outstanding campaign for the Diamondbacks both on the base paths and at the plate, some concerns about his lefty/righty splits linger:

Segura bats right-handed, but interestingly has had markedly more success against righties throughout his career. Skewing these numbers downward are his miserable 2014 and 2015 campaigns in Milwaukee – possible reasons for which Lookout Landing has discussed at length.

As I mentioned Monday, Jarrod Dyson has shown susceptibility to left handed pitching in limited reps, and should be nowhere near the top of the order with a southpaw on the mound. Though Segura’s numbers against lefties could use some improvement, they are still significantly better than Dyson’s, and should give him the edge to hit leadoff on those days.

So if Dyson is removed from the top of the lineup against lefties, and Segura slides up a spot, some new possibilities are created at the top of the order. What should the M’s do with them?

Danny Valencia

Over his career, Valencia has demonstrated an insatiable appetite for southpaw souls – and devoured them he has, slashing .321/.373/.500 with a wRC+ of 139. In fact, his career SLG, wOBA, and wRC+ against lefties are better than any other current Mariner except for Nelson Cruz.

His high on-base percentage, combined with his unique ability to get onto the field in a number of defensive positions, should allow him to take the field whenever a lefty is on the mound—and as we’ve noted, sometimes even against righties, too.

Seattle Mariners Photo Day
The Dark Side...and the Light
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

He’s only recorded 80 career plate appearances while batting second, with 72 of those occurring last season for Oakland. However, aside from Khris Davis basically hitting a home run on every third hit, the middle of the A’s lineup struggled to produce behind him.

Hitting in front of Canó, Cruz, and Seager, in Seattle, Valencia could have a lot of success from the 2-spot against lefties—as long as he keeps his hands to himself.

Mitch Haniger

Haniger has proven himself at every level of the minor leagues as an excellent hitter with a patient approach and an ability to consistently get on base. He demonstrated these abilities in exemplary fashion in AAA for the Diamondbacks last season, where in 312 plate appearances he slashed .341/.428/.670, generating a commanding wRC+ of 185.

He can also do stuff like this:

Haniger shines in particular against left-handed pitching, which he demolished across all levels last season, slashing .374/.466/.633 . He seems poised, sooner rather than later, to compete with Danny Valencia for the esteemed title of “Lefty Masher in Residence.”

In addition, following in the trend of athletic youngsters brought in by Jerry Dipoto, Haniger is a base-stealing threat, having recently expressed confidence in his ability to swipe 20 bags this season.

At the age of 26, with only 123 career big league plate appearances to his name, he’s not ready to take on the responsibility of being a top of the order guy just yet. Still, his profile fits exactly that of an athletic No. 2 hitter who has solid plate discipline, a high walk rate, and some pop to boot. If he proves early in the season that that he can be a regular contributor on offense as the everyday right fielder, don’t be shocked to see Haniger taking some reps batting second in the near future.

Guillermo Heredia

The Cuban national celebrated his 26th birthday in January, but has only recorded 107 big league plate appearances. He has made good work of these limited reps, earning 12 starts at leadoff, and an additional 4 starts batting second, while making Jerry “Control the Zone” Dipoto proud with impressive vision and bat control that belies his lack of pro experience.

As a right handed hitter, he’s poised to get some playing time against lefties in a platoon with Jarrod Dyson. And given his athleticism and methodical approach at the plate, he has all the tools to be a solid contributor in the more traditional slasher and dasher No. 2 hitter mold.

Robinson Canó

Okay, just humor me for a second here.

Before you get stuck on a mental loop of him running to first base (sorry, “running” is probably too strong a word), let’s think about this like rational people.

You might not be shocked to hear that Robinson Canó has taken the second most career reps of any current Mariner in the 2-spot, after only Kyle Seager. To say that his base running leaves something to be desired, however, is an understatement:

Though he certainly fails the eye test, it’s worth noting that Canó’s BsR in 2016 (-1.8) was virtually identical to Kyle Seager’s (-2.0).

Canó’s ridiculous power numbers last season are almost certainly due for a regression, but according to most models his OBP will remain north of .340, and he will even see an increase in his walk rate. While he thrives with a righty on the mound, he’s a proven producer against both lefties as well, which makes him an intriguing candidate at No. 2.

The Mariners could certainly find worse options to bat second, especially if they are interested in following in the footsteps of teams like the Blue Jays and Cubs that stick their best all-around hitter second—even if they decide to go completely rogue and mash 39 home runs.

Kyle Seager

Last Friday, a rather innocuous comments thread on our daily links post turned into a lengthy discussion about lineup optimization, centering around one Kyle Seager, and his seemingly fixed role in the 5-spot. Prompting that discussion, the tweet heard ‘round the blogosphere:

Many of you asked very pertinent questions, to the effect of: are the Mariners maximizing their offensive output by burying one of their best hitters at No. 5?

And many you gave very pertinent answers, to the effect of: No. They are not.

In turn, a common suggestion was that the Mariners should consider batting Seager second, where he will get more plate appearances and thus have more opportunities to do more damage.

Sticking Seager at second with the lineup otherwise in its current iteration creates a LOOGY issue, with the back-to-back lefties in Seager and Canó hitting second and third. So why not just switch Canó and Cruz to preserve the L–R–L heart of the order they’ve thrived on for the last two years?

As a few of you astutely pointed out, for much of the second half in 2015, that’s exactly what they did.

From opening day through mid-July, the M’s were locked into their Canó-Cruz-Seager keystone at 3-4-5. The second spot in the order was represented most days by some combination of Austin Jackson, Seth Smith, and Brad Miller. But after managing to a 42-50 record, and failing to spark a struggling Robinson Canó, manager Lloyd McClendon was getting desperate.

Starting July 20th a switch was made.

For 61 of their remaining 69 games, the Mariners trotted out Seager-Cruz-Canó at 2-3-4. And over this stretch, they were a completely different offensive team.

We cannot credit this jump in offensive production simply to an adjustment in batting order. Canó flipped a switch, and proceeded to demolish pitchers from the 4-spot for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, the rest of the lineup was bolstered by the resurgence of Mark Trumbo and Franklin Gutiérrez, and the revelations of Brad Miller and Ketel Marte leading off. Perhaps even the hiring of Edgar Martinez as hitting coach at the end of June played a role in this improvement.

But all in all, the fact that one of the team’s best hitters saw markedly more plate appearances at a key spot in the order cannot be overlooked.

With Seager taking nearly all of the Mariners’ plate appearances from the 2-spot, the team improved dramatically in every single offensive category. And if you assumed the team’s production from the 5-spot suffered without Seager, think again.

Seth Smith, Franklin Gutiérrez, and Mark Trumbo all chipped in at No. 5, picking up production even from when Seager was entrenched there. And though each of those players have since left the team, a new crop of dynamic young Mariner hitters, led by Mitch Haniger and Daniel Vogelbach, appear ready to contribute a bit of pop to the middle of the order in 2017.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Jarrod Dyson is an exciting proposition at the top of the Mariners’ lineup that has been devoid of bona fide athleticism and base stealing ability for years. But will receiving more at-bats than Kyle Seager really give the team the best chance to win?

Seager receiving regular reps batting second is likely contingent upon Dyson underperforming in an everyday role, paired with enough success from Segura to bump him up to primary leadoff man. But Scott Servais shouldn’t be afraid to put one of his best all-around hitters in at second if it means getting him measurably more plate appearances.

Over the past three seasons, Mariners No. 2 hitters have averaged 45 more plate appearances than Mariners No. 5 hitters. For American League teams in 2016, that number averaged out to 49. As I explained above, the 2-spot is more important than traditional wisdom gives it credit for, and the changing lineups around the league in the last few years have reflected this shifting perception.

The 2015 Mariners showed that they could find offensive success without being hemmed in by the limiting logic of traditional lineup formats. Headed into 2017, the Mariners have a strong lineup with no shortage of bona fide run producers in the heart of their order. Kyle Seager is one of the best hitters in the American League, and deserves more plate appearances than he currently gets, locked into the 5-hole.

This possibility, however, comes with one small caveat—Seager has not been great against lefties in his career. Instead, given the their lefty-heavy lineup, the Mariners would be wise to employ the bat of Danny “Southpaw Slayer” Valencia near the top of the order against LHP.

Valencia’s high OBP approach could make a lot of sense at No. 2, regardless of who between Segura and Dyson leads off. And given his historical success against lefties, it makes sense for him to hit higher in the lineup than Seager on southpaw starts.

Regardless of lefty/righty splits, however, the top of the order in 2017 has the promise to be better than any the Mariners have had since the days of Ichiro. The front office has built a balanced roster, bolstering their core of proven veterans with some exciting new prospects. In the not too distant future, it’s entirely possible that we will see guys like Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger taking regular hacks higher in the order.

But if things don’t go according to plan, Scott and Jerry shouldn’t be afraid to slide Seager up. Trends in baseball show that it never hurts to put a little pop at the top.