In our first two installments of this series, we identified the worst regular leadoff hitters and No. 2 hitters of the past half-century (defined as starting at least one-half of their team’s games in that lineup slot). Now we’re ready to look at the worst of the third-place hitters.
The stat we’re using to rank these stinkers is OPS+. Certainly, OPS+ isn’t the be-all and end-all of offensive measurement, but, hey: This isn’t a serious “study;” it’s just for fun. One might quibble with the exact ordering of these guys, but even the blunt instrument of OPS+ has properly identified them all as hitters leaving something to be desired.
Unlike the No. 2 slot in the lineup, the third-place hitter’s job has never been complicated with any expectation of moving runners over or contributing productive outs. Today and throughout history, the No. 3 hitter is expected to drive in runs and get on base himself. This is where you put your best overall hitter, or at least your second-best.
The only minor complicating factor for deciding who to bat third is the issue of leveraging the value of bases on balls. Unless the first and second hitters in the lineup have extraordinarily high on-base percentages, often in the first inning the No. 3 hitter will be coming up with two outs and the bases empty, the situation in which a walk offers its least value. Therefore, a power hitter who draws a lot of walks (say, 100 or more per season) isn’t ideally suited to bat third; better to bat him fourth, because the fourth-place hitter leads off more innings, where the base on balls is maximally useful.
But that’s a fine point. The overriding issue is quite simple: The third-place hitter should be a very strong all-around offensive performer, delivering both power and average. And the third-place impostors we’ll be examining today pretty much delivered neither.
Before we get to the top (bottom?) 10, here are the fellows who just missed the cut.
(Dis?) Honorable mentions
Team Rank OPS+ Player Pos Year Team Lg OPS+ 22T 91 Carl Yastrzemski LF 1961 BOS AL 94 22T 91 Mike Hershberger RF 1966 KCA AL 90 22T 91 Willie Montanez 1B 1973 PHI NL 92 22T 91 Steve Garvey 1B 1984 SDP NL 98 22T 91 Gerald Perry 1B 1987 ATL NL 100 19T 88 Clarence Gaston CF 1971 SDP NL 88 19T 88 Bill Buckner 1B 1977 CHC NL 89 19T 88 Bobby Higginson RF 2003 DET AL 83 18 87 Tommy Herr 2B 1986 STL NL 82 15T 86 Gus Bell CF 1960 CIN NL 100 15T 86 Ruben Sierra RF 1993 OAK AL 100 15T 86 Paul Molitor DH 1998 MIN AL 86 14 85 Devon White CF 1989 CAL AL 98 13 84 Curt Flood CF 1966 STL NL 90 12 83 Cecil Cooper 1B 1986 MIL AL 90
Perhaps predictably, several of these guys were former top hitters who were heading down the hill, plus one rookie (Yaz) with a whole lot of promise. But a couple of these are rather surprising: Mike Hershberger? And Gerald Perry? Their teams actually batted them third?
Tied for eighth-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 115 518 48 27 54 41 4 36 0 0 5 18 4 2 .273 .328 .358 .686 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 102 451 42 23 50 37 4 33 0 0 5 14 3 1 .271 .324 .352 .676
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 131 574 65 35 58 59 2 63 2 3 3 8 22 3 .219 .301 .323 .624 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 90 388 44 19 47 41 1 43 2 0 3 7 16 3 .234 .317 .333 .650
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 131 559 63 36 72 33 5 128 2 5 9 9 8 8 .246 .289 .361 .650 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 95 398 43 25 51 26 4 91 2 3 5 8 7 5 .238 .289 .349 .638
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 97 431 41 27 30 52 7 72 2 0 2 9 7 0 .246 .340 .358 .698 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 82 360 35 24 27 47 6 60 2 0 2 6 6 0 .246 .347 .369 .716
Okay, Pirates manager Jim Leyland’s deployment of Van Slyke here is completely defensible: Van Slyke had been a terrific No. 3 hitter for many years; this was the season in which he suddenly lost his bat speed. This is the way things often go, and you can’t fault the manager for failing to see it coming.
And, ghastly as Felix’ performance was, the 1992 Angels featured one of the worst offenses in major league history. Just about every other regular hit as abysmally as Felix; it was one of those teams where the batting order could be random and it really wouldn’t make much difference.
But the cases of these two second basemen here were just not good managerial decisions.
Johnny Ray was a very good-hitting second baseman, and he normally hit better than this. But he was a very good hitter for a second baseman; that doesn’t mean he had any business in the third spot in the order. Ray’s batting average was just fine, but that was all he brought. His singles-and-doubles production didn’t deliver a whole lot of RBIs, and he didn’t draw enough walks to make his on-base percentage outstanding. Nevertheless, good old Chuck Tanner began batting Ray third a lot of the time in 1984 and 1985, and when Jim Leyland took over the Pittsburgh job in 1986, he made Ray his full-time No. 3 hitter, and left him there in ’87.
To be fair to Tanner, the Pirates in those years weren’t a good-hitting ball club, and while Ray wasn’t the best choice he could have made to bat third, there weren’t a lot of great alternatives. But by ’86, and particularly ’87, the Pirates were starting to pull together some talent. In that 1987 lineup, Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds were all emerging as stars, and Leyland’s choice of Ray in the third slot was pretty nutty. Ray wouldn’t last out the full season with the team; in late August he was salary-dumped to the Angels.
Doran was a comparable player to Ray: for several years, a very good hitter for a second baseman. Doran didn’t hit for as high an average as Ray, but he drew a lot more walks, and overall his offensive impact was about the same. For most of his career, Doran was sensibly deployed in the first or second slot in the Houston order. But manager Hal Lanier began batting Doran third a fair amount of the time in 1987, and again in 1988 even as Doran’s production slipped.
Things turned truly strange in 1989, as rookie manager Art Howe went with Doran as his primary No. 3 hitter despite the fact that Doran was slumping terribly. The Astros weren’t a great-hitting ball club, but nonetheless Howe had several better choices on hand than the struggling Doran.
The seventh-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 137 598 73 31 83 68 3 62 3 4 12 12 19 4 .263 .346 .331 .677 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 116 505 60 27 75 54 1 46 2 4 12 12 16 4 .248 .326 .319 .645
So what was the deal with singles-hitting second basemen batting third in the National League in the 1980s, anyway?
Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals of this era were an unusually constructed ball club, of course, with an offense that featured high on-base percentages and exceptional speed, and except for Jack Clark, very few home runs. This offense was generally quite effective, and the Cards won a couple of pennants, including this season.
But that doesn’t mean Herzog’s decision to bat Tommy Herr third made sense. Herr was a good on-base guy, but he had precious little power. Herzog moved him into the third slot in 1985, and Herr responded with by far the best season of his career. The media made a huge deal of the fact that Herr drove in 110 runs that year, despite hitting just eight homers, and Herzog was hailed for his genius.
Had Herr continued to hit as well as he did in 1985, batting him third wouldn’t have been a terrible idea. But Herr didn’t continue to hit that well; he didn’t continue to hit anything close to that well. As we see on the honorable mentions list above, Herr’s OPS+ plunged to 87 in 1986, yet Herzog stuck with him in the third slot. And in 1987 Herr’s OPS+ was a mere 80, yet there he was still batting third, leaving runners on base instead of driving them home.
The Cardinals scored the second-most runs in the NL in 1987 despite Herr’s performance in the third slot, not because of it. And while many of the bold decisions the very assertive Herzog made in his long and successful managerial career were good ones, the decision to deploy Herr as his No. 3 hitter was definitely not.
The sixth-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 135 601 76 39 64 26 7 82 1 6 5 19 27 16 .247 .279 .352 .631 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 119 520 64 36 58 19 5 70 1 5 4 17 21 13 .244 .272 .352 .624
Templeton’s career was one of the oddest of all time. In his early seasons with the Cardinals, he was a consistent high-average hitter (though with limited power and terrible strike zone discipline; despite his high averages, Templeton’s managers in St. Louis, including Whitey Herzog, were sensible in almost never batting him third). But he was hugely temperamental; when the Cardinals dealt Templeton to the Padres in a fascinating challenge trade for Ozzie Smith, it wasn’t because of any dissatisfaction with Templeton’s on-field performance, it was just because they’d gotten fed up with his antagonizing personality.
Templeton’s new manager, Dick Williams, decided to bat him third. While a questionable choice, it wouldn’t have worked out too badly if Templeton had contined to be a .300 hitter. But Templeton went to San Diego and lost his batting stroke in one of his moving crates: His performance as the Padres’ third-slot hitter in 1982 was just atrocious. His batting average evaporated, and he was as likely to ground into a double play as he was to draw a walk. Templeton was neither getting on base nor driving in runs, and for good measure he was a lousy percentage base-stealer too.
Templeton never would recover his hitting ability, and Williams would learn his lesson and remove him from the third slot following 1982; Templeton would finally settle in as the Padres’ No. 8. But here’s the really odd part: As irksome as Templeton’s off-field behavior had been in St. Louis, in San Diego he was a model citizen, quiet, serious, hard-working, never bothering anyone. It was as though Templeton underwent a personality transplant, and somehow during the delicate procedure the surgical team inadvertently extracted his batting-average bone.
The fifth-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 97 402 36 28 37 15 2 29 2 5 3 10 3 1 .255 .285 .350 .635 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 78 332 33 26 32 12 2 22 2 4 3 8 3 1 .264 .293 .367 .660
Hatcher was the sort the broadcasters invariably describe as “scrappy.” That’s because there was nothing about him that was athletically impressive: though he was pretty big (6-foot-2, 195), he didn’t hit with power; nor did he have speed, nor did he display any grace in fielding or throwing. But he was one of those guys—Lou Piniella was another—that awkward as he appeared, was just plain good at making line-drive contact.
He’d done nothing but hit well over .300 at every stop in the Dodgers’ farm system (albeit in that organization’s notoriously high-scoring minor league venues of that period). But through the age of 25, Hatcher hadn’t made any kind of a mark at the big league level when the Twins acquired him as the centerpiece of a trade in which they surrendered their fine all-around young center fielder, Ken Landreaux—a questionable deal, to say the least.
But Calvin Griffith made that deal, and managers Johnny Goryl and Billy Gardner handed over Landreaux’ roles as center fielder and third-place hitter to Hatcher. Shall we say it didn’t work out real well? Hatcher proved to be not up to the defensive challenge of center field (in nine subsequent major league seasons, he’d play exactly one additonal game in center), and he didn’t hit for a good average. And if Hatcher didn’t hit for average, it was a problem, because he was capable of making no other manner of offensive contribution.
To be sure, the 1981 Twins were a very young ball club without a lot of talent on hand, so the issue isn’t so much that Hatcher obviously shouldn’t have been hitting third. But Hatcher was a really bad player that year. He’d eventually get his bat going, and turn in a solid journeyman’s career, but it just wasn’t happening in 1981.
The fourth-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 136 595 52 37 57 14 3 81 7 9 7 7 25 9 .238 .263 .346 .609 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 105 463 46 32 50 11 2 53 6 8 6 5 17 6 .234 .259 .354 .613
Patience with a young player is a virtue in the management of a ball club. But the patience the Dodgers showed with Willie Davis went far beyond virtuous. It bordered on the obsessive.
Davis was a tremendously impressive young athlete, no doubt about it. He utterly destroyed the minor leagues, and dropped jaws all around upon his arrival in the majors. Here’s what Roger Angell had to say about him in June of 1962:
Willie Davis, the Dodger center fielder, is the first player I have ever been tempted to compare to Willie Mays. Speed, sureness, a fine arm, power, a picture swing—he lacks nothing, and he shares with Mays the knack of shifting directly from lazy, loose-wristed relaxation into top gear with an instantaneous explosion of energy.
The Dodgers squeezed Davis into their crowded outfield in a semi-regular role as a 21-year-old rookie in 1961, and by ’62 he was their full-time center fielder and No. 3 hitter. GM Buzzie Bavasi and manager Walt Alston then sat back, relished Davis’ splendid defensive contribution and scintillating speed (all through the 1960s he was widely considered the fastest runner in baseball, faster in a full sprint than Maury Wills or Lou Brock), and waited for him to blossom into the superstar hitter it seemed obvious he would be.
Davis rewarded their faith with a strong season with the bat in 1962. His 116 OPS+ wasn’t great, but it was a real good performance for a 22-year-old, and he seemed to be on track toward MVPville. But in 1963 Davis regressed, never getting untracked at the plate until September—and here’s where Alston’s calm, steady patience came through. He didn’t panic and didn’t relegate Davis to the bench, nor did Bavasi send him to the minors, or trade him for Ernie Broglio or anything. Alston dropped Davis down in the order through most of 1963, batting him seventh or eighth as he struggled, but the Dodgers stuck with him as their regular center fielder.
In 1964, the organization’s patience appeared to be paying dividends, as Davis bounced back with a solid offensive year, and reclaimed the No. 3 slot in the lineup. But it was just a solid offensive year (110 OPS+), not star-caliber; through his age-24 season Davis had yet to break out with anything close to the kind of sensational hitting he’d displayed as a 19-and-20-year-old in the minors. But no doubt Alston and Bavasi figured that 1965 could very well be the year for the breakout, as the maturing Davis had weathered the tough times, and seemed ready to put it all together.
Well—no. Davis in 1965 got off to an excellent start, hitting .327 with power in April. But then he stopped hitting, and never got started again. Nonetheless, the astoundingly patient Alston continued to stand pat, leaving Davis not only in the starting lineup but also as the No. 3 man, despite egregious nonproductivity. Sporadically in July and August, Alston sat Davis down, or batted him in the lower end of the order, but all through the memorable month of September 1965, as the Dodgers were mounting their stunning 22-8 run that eclipsed the Giants and captured the pennant, Davis was their full-time No. 3 hitter—while putting up a line of .193/.207/.307.
In the ensuing hard-fought World Series against the Twins, Davis batted third in every game, while reaching base a grand total of six times in the seven contests, driving in zero runs. Yet still the Dodgers won the Series.
That Dodger team was of course famous for its tremendous pitching, speed and lack of punch, but Davis’ performance was nonetheless ridiculous. It wasn’t as though they were trying not to score runs, yet the way Davis was (not) hitting, and the way Alston kept ensuring that he would be at the plate when Wills and Jim Gilliam were on base, was almost enough to make one wonder. But victory is the answer to all questions, and the Dodgers’ victorious results that season (and in 1963) ensured that Alston wasn’t bombarded with second-guessing as to why he’d been so resolutely, stubbornly, glacially patient with Davis.
Alston would continue to deploy Davis in the No. 3 slot in 1966 and beyond. Davis would never again perform as abysmally as he had in 1965, but neither would he become anything close to the star he’d appeared destined to be. At long last in 1969 Davis would change his approach at the plate, shortening his stroke and focusing on up-the-middle contact, and he’d belatedly emerge as a dependable high-average hitter, but even that much-improved version was something less than the Dodgers thought they’d have in Willie Davis.
The third-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 98 435 38 20 44 26 5 29 1 1 4 11 3 1 .253 .297 .323 .620 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 90 392 34 16 41 19 1 27 1 1 4 10 3 1 .256 .292 .316 .608
Mad Dog had been a terrific hitter at one time, of course, but … well …
Bill James’ annual Baseball Abstracts in those years featured capsule descriptions of the regulars in each league in each position. Right under each player’s name was a quick-and-dirty summary of his strengths and weaknesses. For instance, Ron Cey in the 1985 Abstract was summarized with:
Strengths: Power, consistency, ability to drive in runs.
Weaknesses: Range, hitting for average.
And here was James’ classic encapsulation of Madlock that year:
Strengths: Hitting for average, line-drive power.
Weaknesses: Sour cream, fudge, desserts of all kinds.
In this context, Chuck Tanner’s turning to Johnny Ray in the No. 3 spot doesn’t seem so strange, does it?
The second-worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 120 503 56 28 47 26 1 25 2 2 3 16 8 3 .236 .277 .336 .613 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 84 364 39 20 37 18 1 17 2 1 3 12 5 2 .244 .284 .329 .613
Okay, the Tigers in 1975 were something along the lines of France in the 1920s: plenty of stooped graybeards and plenty of pimply-faced youths, but a largely missing generation in between. But still: Danny Meyer hitting third? What the hell?
Giving the 22-year-old rookie Meyer a significant role in the mix of this team made sense. But not this kind of role. It wasn’t as though his minor league performance had been overwhelming; he’d done well in the minors, but not so well as to project imminent stardom.
It was altogether strange. Meyer was initially placed in the No. 3 spot in the order by manager Ralph Houk on May 17, when the rookie was presenting a line of .253/.298/.405. When Houk finally removed Meyer from the third spot in mid-September, his numbers were .244/.285/.345. That is, he was performing poorly going into the assignment, and he peformed poorly throughout. Overall, Meyer’s OPS+ was the very worst among all Detroit regulars, worse even than that of light-hitting shortstop Tom Veryzer.
In subsequent years, Meyer would develop into a useful journeyman, but no one would ever confuse him with a star.
What the hell?
The worst No. 3 hitter since 1957:
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 137 593 54 23 47 56 9 81 0 2 7 21 14 9 .233 .303 .280 .583 When batting third: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 87 370 34 14 35 31 5 50 0 1 7 13 7 5 .221 .282 .269 .551
Dave Concepcion was a terrific shortstop. He didn’t quite compile a Hall of Fame career—he has a plaque neither in Cooperstown nor in the Hall of Merit—but it was darn close to that quality. Essentially, Concepcion was the same player as Pee Wee Reese (who is in both halls), but with just a shade less hitting proficiency.
But as wonderful a ballplayer as Reese was, nobody ever confused him with a No. 3 hitter. And Concepcion was a shade less the hitter Reese was. Concepcion was a fine hitter for a shortstop, but he was distinctly inferior with the bat to your average corner outfielder or first baseman. Yet over his long career Concepcion was in the starting lineup batting third in 543 games. He was in the third slot more often than any other single batting order position.
Beginning in 1973, and every season through the mid-1970s—the absolute peak of The Big Red Machine, one of the greatest-hitting powerhouses in history—Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson would give Concepcion a half-dozen or so starts in the No. 3 slot. Then in 1978, as the Reds’ customary No. 3 man, Joe Morgan, began to be bothered by injuries, Anderson wrote Concepcion’s name in the third spot 19 times. In both 1979 and 1980, with John McNamara now managing the team, Concepcion batted third more often than any other Reds hitter, and beginning in 1981 he was their full-time No. 3 guy. When Russ Nixon took over the managerial reins in mid-1982, he kept Concepcion batting third.
Concepcion wasn’t a bad hitter in those years, but he was hardly the sort of run-producer you look for in the third slot: both his OBP and his SLG were consistently right around league-average. Among the eight Reds regulars, Concepcion posted the fifth-best OPS+ in 1979, worst in 1980, fourth-best in ’81, and fifth-best in ’82. Whatever advantage seemed to be gained by batting Concepcion third is, well, difficult to ascertain.
Nonetheless, through 1981 the team continued to do well, consistently remaining a contender; indeed in the strike-interrupted ’81 the Reds posted the best record in the league. But they utterly collapsed in 1982, crashing to a league-worst 61-101. Yet there was good old Davey, still hitting third every day.
One would think that the terrible 1982 season would have prompted a full-scale rebuilding, or at least a reorganization of roles. But, no, as we see, through most of 1983 Nixon continued to deploy the now-35-year-old Concepcion in the No. 3 slot, and in this season the veteran’s bat speed went bye-bye.
Concepcion was an utterly dreadful hitter in 1983, far and away the worst hitter in the Cincinnati regular lineup. Yet there he was, still batting third most of the time. And it isn’t as though Nixon finally figured it out at midseason and dropped Concepcion to the No. 8 spot where he belonged. No, among the 50 starts in which Concepcion wasn’t hitting third, he batted second 35 times and leadoff six times. Not once did he start a game in the eighth slot. And through that season’s final month-and-a-half, when there was now no doubt whatsoever that Concepcion was no longer remotely up to the task, Nixon had him batting third nearly every day.
One is left reeling. This defies comprehension, let alone explanation.
The great majority of the time, when that drunk idiot three rows in front of you is bellowing that he could run this team better than his manager, he’s of course drunkenly, foolishly wrong. The great majority of the time.
But not always.
The rottenest of cleanup hitters.
References & Resources
Roger Angell, The Summer Game, New York: Popular Library, 1972, p. 49.
Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1985, New York: Ballantine, 1985, pp. 244-245.