Our tour of the most pitiful performances in the various spots in the batting order has so far visited leadoff, the second slot, No. 3, and cleanup. This time we’ll look in on the fitful flailers of the fifth position, as defined by starting at least one-half of their team’s games in that lineup slot.
As has been the case from the get-go, the stat we’re using to rank these stinkers is OPS+. (For more on the methodology employed here, please see the References and Resources section below.)
The No. 5 job description
The fourth-place hitter is of course called the “cleanup” man, in reference to his directive to tidy up that table setting, converting baserunners into runs. Given that, the guy following the cleanup hitter has a job that’s typically defined in relation to the No. 4 man: At minimum, the No. 5 hitter needs to be threatening enough to force the opponent to face the cleanup man, and more generally the No. 5 hitter is expected to clean up whatever hasn’t gotten cleaned up ahead of him.
Obviously No. 5 isn’t generally as good as the cleanup hitter, or he wouldn’t be batting fifth, but he ought to be reasonably close to that good in his capacity to drive in runs. While it goes without saying that you want every hitter to get on base as frequently as possible, in practical terms at No. 5 we’ve gotten to the part of the order in which the hitters to follow are less and less dangerous, so getting on base with singles and walks is nice but not the first priority of the fifth-slot guy. This fellow is an RBI man, big time; his primary job is to deliver power.
Here are this week’s guys who were bad, but not quite bad enough:
Team Rank OPS+ Player Pos Year Team Lg OPS+ 22T 94 Ernie Banks 1B 1963 CHC NL 94 22T 94 Dick Allen 1B 1975 PHI NL 110 22T 94 Willie McGee CF 1987 STL NL 94 22T 94 Tim Wallach 3B 1988 MON NL 100 22T 94 Matt Williams 3B 1992 SFG NL 98 22T 94 Rico Brogna 1B 1999 PHI NL 99 19T 93 Tim McCarver C 1969 STL NL 95 19T 93 Benito Santiago C 1991 SDP NL 94 19T 93 Ken Caminiti 3B 1993 HOU NL 107 16T 92 Ernie Banks 1B 1969 CHC NL 96 16T 92 Brooks Robinson 3B 1969 BAL AL 119 16T 92 Todd Zeile 3B 2002 COL NL 89 15 91 Delmon Young RF 2007 TBD AL 103 14 90 Charlie Hayes 3B 1994 COL NL 95 13 88 Danny Cater 1B 1969 OAK AL 107
As it was with the No. 3 hitter and No. 4 hitter honorable mentions, here we see some erstwhile stars in an off-year, and some former sluggers in decline. It’s perhaps a bit embarrassing for Mr. Cub to find himself listed twice, but as we’ve discussed many times, the Cubs in the 1960s gave Banks star-quality playing time long, long after he’d stopped delivering star-quality performance.
Then there are those teams, like the 1987 Cardinals, 1969 Cardinals, 1991 Padres, 1993 Astros, 2002 Rockies, and 1994 Rockies that just didn’t have a big supply of power bats to populate the middle of the order.
The curious cases are those of Rico Brogna and Danny Cater, nifty-gloved first basemen whose managers apparently thought they were better hitters than they were. And most odd is the Delmon Young situation, in which a very young player was given a very prominent role, all season long, despite, oh, let’s call it modest production.
Tied for ninth-worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 136 508 50 48 63 43 14 96 5 2 3 9 1 1 .240 .304 .402 .706 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 86 351 32 31 40 27 8 62 1 1 0 5 0 1 .252 .311 .422 .734
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 108 467 57 39 76 31 6 53 0 0 3 8 8 4 .254 .302 .425 .727 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 101 437 55 39 74 29 6 51 0 0 3 8 8 4 .262 .309 .444 .753
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 123 541 77 47 88 32 1 96 8 0 5 15 8 3 .258 .311 .433 .744 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 82 357 56 35 63 22 1 63 6 0 5 9 3 2 .262 .317 .463 .779
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 149 646 76 45 89 51 6 98 2 0 2 15 1 0 .266 .325 .401 .726 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 102 441 52 34 67 33 2 70 1 0 0 10 0 0 .290 .345 .445 .789
While every one in this quartet delivered a truly lousy year, the decisions of each of their managers to go with them as No. 5 man can’t be strongly faulted.
Anderson and Blalock were both promising young power hitters, who seemed to be up-and-comers. When such an impressive young talent encounters a struggle, a good manager doesn’t panic, but instead gives the player the opportunity to play through it, and that’s what the Phillies’ Eddie Sawyer and the Rangers’ Buck Showalter did here. Sometimes that leads to a season’s performance along the lines of one of these, and often it turns out to be little more than a bump in the road to a successful career.
In Anderson’s case, it would turn out to be a whole lot more than that. This was no bump for him; he would quickly careen into a ditch, his career among the more disastrous flops of all time. With Blalock it’s obviously too soon to tell: Since the disappointing 2006 season, his offensive rate stats have rebounded, but he’s been hurt an awful lot, not a good sign for a 27-year-old.
Murray was one of the best hitters of his generation, of course. Though at this point he was clearly past his peak, entering his age-38-season he’d never had an off-year. Well, there’s a first time for everything. Those 1994 Indians were a great-hitting young team, leading the league in runs scored in that strike-shortened season, despite the fact that their Hall-of-Fame-bound DH was stinking it up. As though to validate manager Mike Hargrove’s faith in him, Murray would bounce back for one last big year in 1995.
As for Young, he was neither young (despite his name) nor an established star, but he’d been a very solid producer for the previous few years. It wasn’t unreasonable for manager Gene Lamont to give him lots of playing time in the middle of the order, even batting cleanup, which Young mostly did when not batting fifth. This is especially true given that the Pirates weren’t exactly drowning in hitting depth.
Tied for sixth-worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 144 623 65 46 61 44 6 67 0 6 8 18 1 8 .258 .308 .372 .680 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 90 381 39 30 36 28 5 27 0 6 6 12 1 5 .279 .328 .396 .724
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 151 628 53 22 52 38 5 54 3 5 4 14 2 2 .263 .310 .322 .632 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 120 499 42 20 42 33 4 43 1 4 3 10 2 2 .260 .309 .330 .639
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 151 624 67 51 78 51 5 86 2 4 4 16 1 3 .245 .308 .400 .708 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 91 368 37 28 49 34 2 53 1 2 4 14 0 1 .229 .301 .373 .674
Poorly though the tied-for-ninth guys performed, theoretically they were all what you’re looking for in a No. 5 man: a power bat. But none among this trio fit the bill even in theory.
Indeed, each of these three was a defensive specialist, in the lineup for his glove. Keeping a light-hitting player in the lineup for his outstanding defensive contribution is all well and good, until you do something like bat the guy fifth.
To be fair, by this late stage in his career, White had developed decent power. But it was a level of power that’s real good for a second baseman; it wasn’t serious middle-of-the-order power. And while the ’87 Royals didn’t have a whole lot of clearly better alternatives to hit fifth, the 36-year-old White was all too obviously not getting it done.
Neither Rodgers (who was always “Bob” as a player; the “Buck” nickname didn’t come along until he was managing) nor Aspromonte ever even threatened to hit for power. But each found himself on a newly minted expansion franchise that was short on productive bats. So both Angels manager Bill Rigney and Astros skipper Lum Harris can be excused, as the range of choices available to them at No. 5 ranged from bad to worse.
The fifth-worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 160 679 62 37 77 30 7 55 0 5 5 18 1 2 .261 .292 .352 .644 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 95 401 35 19 50 17 2 26 0 3 3 9 1 2 .257 .286 .336 .622
Well … speaking of defensive specialists.
When researching this article, when I came across Mazeroski’s name in this context, my first reaction was, “What? They batted Mazeroski fifth?!?” I double-checked it, and indeed the ’67 Pirates did bat Mazeroski fifth nearly 60 percent of the time.
So then I derived a theory: Let’s see, 1967 was the season in which Donn Clendenon, the Pirates’ first baseman and regular No. 5 hitter, suffered through an off-year. So, I deduced, what must have happened was that they stuck with Clendenon in the role until almost mid-eason, and then reluctantly switched to Maz in an attempt to shake things up. Even though Clendenon in an off-year was still a better hitter than Maz, it’s a reasonable theory.
Nevertheless, as it turns out that wasn’t what happened. In truth, manager Harry Walker elevated Mazeroski to the fifth slot in late April, and the Pirates largely stayed with him there (even through a managerial change, to Danny Murtaugh) until the end of August.
Mazeroski is among the more controversial selections to the Hall of Fame; He wasn’t elected to the Hall of Merit. No one doubts his defensive brilliance (in four decades since, I’m still waiting to see another second baseman remotely comparable on the double play pivot), but Maz’s hitting was, well, not real good. He wasn’t a bad hitter for a second baseman, but that qualifier is critical: While Mazeroski was a consistent hitter, not prone to long slumps or off-years, he was consistently well below league-average. The performance we see here was exactly what he reliably turned in, over and over again: a .260-ish average with a little bit of power and precious few walks. His career OPS+ was 84, precisely as it was in this season.
Mazeroski’s defenders will invariably make the point that Forbes Field was just about the worst place for him, because he was a right-handed flyball hitter who lost a lot of home runs to that ballpark’s left-center field Death Valley. While there’s more than a little truth to this—in his career Mazeroski hit 45 homers at home, and 93 on the road—what this argument fails to contend with is the larger fact that while Forbes was a terrible home run park for right-handers, it wasn’t a bad hitters’ park overall. While it greatly suppressed home runs for RHBs, it also greatly inflated triples, and enhanced batting average. In his career, Mazeroski hit 43 triples at home, and 19 on the road, and his rate stats (.269/.307/.366 at home versus .252/.292/.369 on the road) yield a slightly superior OPS at home (.673 to .661).
The fact is that while Forbes Field unquestionably shaped Mazeroski’s stats, it didn’t distort his overall offensive value. He just wasn’t going to be much of a hitter, no matter which ballpark he played in.
And most definitely, Maz wasn’t going to be anything close to a good choice to bat in the fifth slot.
The fourth-worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 155 674 83 58 102 53 7 75 1 0 5 15 2 3 .275 .331 .478 .809 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 125 540 64 43 78 44 6 58 1 0 5 9 1 3 .280 .337 .461 .798
You want to talk about ballparks that distort the perception of value, well then, now we’re cookin’ with gas.
This was the pre-humidor era, when Coors Field was playing as the most extreme hitters’ park in major league history (as opposed to now, when it’s merely one of the most extreme hitters’ parks in major league history).
This was the era in which the Rockies were known as “The Blake Street Bombers,” and despite a general understanding that the mile-high conditions were inflating scoring to some degree, the Rockies were still almost universally perceieved—not just by casual fans, but apparently by their own management, too—as a lusty power-hitting ball club, whose chronic mediocrity in the standings was strictly a function of pitching deficiencies. The notion that the Rockies were in fact a rather poor-hitting ball club with pretty decent pitching had little-to-no chance of penetrating the consciousness of nearly all observers, dazzled by the raw numbers.
That’s what a Park Factor of 127 will do.
Granted, in such an extreme outlier case as Colorado baseball, the reliability of the Park Factor stat is itself stretched to its very limit. Perhaps, for one reason or another, that figure of 127 shouldn’t be interpreted with the same degree of confidence that we apply to Park Factors falling within range of normal observation.
But, still. Let’s take the 127 figure with a grain of salt, and consequently take the related Rockies’ team OPS+ of 91 with a grain of salt, and thus Castilla’s individual OPS+ of 83 with a grain of salt. Let’s assume that our quantitative capacities in this exceptional situation are somewhat overwhelmed, and that the “true” measure of Castilla’s offensive performance in 1999 relative to the league norm was somewhat better than 83.
We can do all that, and we’re still left with the fact that 83 is such a damn low OPS+ for a No. 5 hitter that it would need one whale of a fudge-factor to bail it out. We can apply a triple-helping of Grandma’s extra-special super-rich only-at-Christmastime fudge, but when we come down from our sugar buzz, licking our chocolate-smudged fingers, we can’t avoid the melancholy conclusion that Castilla just didn’t hit very well in 1999.
Fudging it or not, it’s clear that Castilla had hit well in the several seasons prior to ’99; not as well as his gaudy raw stats suggested, of course, but he’d hit well. Hitting at that level, when considered along with his outstanding third base defense and first-rate durability, Castilla was an excellent ballplayer. But when he hit the way he did in 1999, he was something along the lines of a Pedro Feliz.
And if Pedro Feliz is your No. 5 hitter, your offense has, well, issues.
The third-worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 133 563 68 47 70 44 2 76 2 0 4 12 0 2 .261 .320 .411 .731 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 94 397 51 34 49 34 2 54 1 0 3 10 0 2 .253 .317 .409 .727
It isn’t to Colorado’s degree, of course, but the situation with Fenway Park has long been of the same kind. While the magnitude has ebbed and flowed, decade after decade since it was remodeled in 1934 Fenway has played as either the best hitters’ park in the American League or close to it. And decade after decade, Red Sox teams have been almost universally perceived as presenting better-hitting lineups, and less-capable pitching staffs, than they actually possess.
This has served, of course, to overrate genuine Red Sox hitting stars (I’m looking at you, Jim Rice). And it’s also served to overrate quite a few journeyman Red Sox regulars, who whatever their defensive contribution, have tended to be seen as good hitters for Boston, minor stars, when in fact they’re essentially league-average with the bat: examples would be Bill Buckner or Butch Hobson, or reaching back a ways, guys like Frank Malzone, Jimmy Piersall, and Sammy White.
And most definitely that would describe Troy O’Leary. He wasn’t a bad player, but a corner outfielder who swings a league-average bat really has no business being more than a platoon player or utility man, at least not for an extended period. Yet O’Leary was given a half-decade or so of regular play with the Red Sox, pretty much just because his raw stats made him appear to be a better hitter than he was. For his career, the vast majority of which was for Boston, O’Leary hit .303/.358/.497 at home, and .247/.306/.399 on the road.
And when such a player has an off-year, as O’Leary did in 2000, his being in the regular lineup is bad enough, but he really doesn’t belong in the middle of the order.
The second-worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 141 570 54 31 57 33 8 99 2 0 5 16 1 2 .240 .284 .353 .637 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 112 447 42 25 47 31 8 75 2 0 5 15 1 1 .232 .286 .340 .626
One can’t fault Padres manager Dick Williams for starting out the season with Kennedy as his No. 5 hitter. The 28-year-old Kennedy was coming off of three straight years as one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball, a big, strong line-drive hitter with good power.
And so when Kennedy started slowly, hitting just .225/.276/.300 in April, it was reasonable to Williams to stick with him in the fifth slot. But when Kennedy finished May still mired at .235/.280/.346, maybe it was time for Williams to try something else for a little while. After all, those Padres were a good ball club, giving Williams a range of options. Most obviously, the guy regularly hitting sixth, power-hitting center fielder Kevin McReynolds, finished May hitting .299/.316/.518.
But Williams stayed with Kennedy at No. 5 through the month of June. And Kennedy rewarded his patience with a strong performance in June; by the end of the month his stats (.258/.309/.386, seven home runs, 36 RBI) weren’t as good as those of McReynolds (.277/.303/.482, 11 homers, 39 RBI), but he was closing the gap. So Williams stuck with Kennedy in the fifth spot through July.
But Kennedy had a terrible July. By month’s end he was hitting .242/.296/.361 with nine homers and 42 RBI, while McReynolds was at .275/.317/.481 with 14 homers and 52 RBI.
Yet still, with more than half a season’s worth of evidence accrued, and with McReynolds clearly having a significantly better year, Williams wasn’t ready to drop Kennedy from No. 5. He left him there, and Kennedy slumped even more miserably. Finally, on August 16, with Kennedy down to .230 and still stuck on nine home runs, Williams decided to switch his spot in the order with McReynolds, who was cruising at .282 with 18 dingers.
To be fair to Williams, the Padres that season were running away with the division; They’d taken over first place in mid-June and quickly opened up a fat lead. Through the months of July and August it was becoming more and more obvious that they were going to win it going away, so there was no urgent need to make a change.
Nevertheless, the batting order exists for a reason. Not only McReynolds, but also left fielder Carmelo Martinez was hitting distinctly better than Kennedy, yet Williams didn’t make a change until the regular season had just six weeks remaining.
And in the 1984 postseason, Williams put Kennedy back at No.5. He batted in that position in four of the five games in the NLCS, and all five games of the World Series, and hit a combined .216/.250/.324.
Williams was one of the most brilliant managers of all time; he’s deservedly in the Hall of Fame. But this was one instance in which he was just wrong-headed.
The worst No. 5 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 151 625 61 48 85 36 1 101 3 1 8 22 6 1 .229 .274 .376 .650 When batting fifth: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH SF GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 82 338 32 28 47 19 1 55 2 1 7 15 3 0 .233 .276 .395 .671
Here’s a factoid for ya that vividly illustrates the impact of park and league-context effects: Gaetti hit .255/.308/.434 for his career, as compared to .276/.321/.476 for Vinny Castilla. Yet since Castilla played in Colorado in his peak years, and in the post-1993 scoring boom years nearly all his career, his career OPS+ was 95, while Gaetti’s was 97. (And Gaetti played most of his career in pretty decent hitters’ parks.)
The fact is that in just about every important aspect, Gaetti and Castilla were exactly the same player. Each was a top-notch defensive third baseman, durable, with good-but-not-great power, lousy strike zone discipline, and frustratingly inconsistent at the plate. Each was capable of putting together a season in which he hits darn well, but quite incapable of reliably repeating it, and in his down years (more numerous than his ups) a distinctly below-average offensive producer.
Inconsistent hitters are the most perplexing for managers, of course. If you have a guy with an established track record of producing numbers within a fairly tight range, year after year, then you can confidently ride out a slump, knowing it’s not going to last too long, just as you can confidently not get too excited over a hot streak, knowing it too shall soon pass. Basically you can stick with him in his given role, and very likely by the end of the season he’ll have produced pretty much the result you were counting on.
But then you have a Gaetti. Coming into 1990, Gaetti had played eight full seasons, and in those seasons his batting averages had ranged from .230 to .301, his home run output from five to 34, and his OPS+ from 82 to 147. Just exactly what was Twins manager Tom Kelly supposed to be ready to expect?
The point is he couldn’t have confidently expected anything in particular, since just about everything had been demonstrated as plausible. In short, Gaetti was not somebody to be counted on to fulfill a given role, not the kind of player you patiently stick with if his bat goes south.
So Kelly’s failing in 1990 wasn’t in giving Gaetti a crack at the No. 5 slot; heck, in his up years Gaetti was a fine fifth-place hitter, even a fine cleanup hitter. No, Kelly’s failing in 1990 was in sticking with Gaetti in the No. 5 slot as his performance systematically unraveled: from .258/.311/.453 at the end of May, to .246/.292/.422 a month later, to .228/.278/.387 by the end of August. Kelly’s further failing in 1990 was in moving Gaetti, on the occasions when he did bat him someplace other than fifth, not further down in the order, but up into the cleanup spot, for no fewer than 59 starts.
It wasn’t as though Kelly couldn’t possibly have foreseen a stinker of a season coming from Gaetti. He’d done it before, and indeed he was coming off a 1989 campaign in which he’d hit a dreary .251/.286/.404, for an OPS+ of 88. And it wasn’t as though Kelly had no better alternatives on hand—the guys typically batting behind Gaetti in 1990, in the sixth, seventh and eighth slots, were Brian Harper (.294/.328/.432, 106 OPS+), Gene Larkin (.269/.343/.392, 100 OPS+) and Shane Mack (.326/.392/.460, 132 OPS+).
Kelly was in his fourth full season as the Twins’ manager in 1990, and he would hold the job for a very long time yet. His 15-plus-season stint as Minnesota’s skipper would be among the longest in baseball history. Unquestionably, anybody managing a team for that long is doing an awful lot of things right. But no matter how skilled, nobody performing any challenging job for that long is going to do it mistake-free, and Kelly’s batting-order deployment of Gaetti in 1990 was your basic blunder.
The most sickening sixth-slot struggles.
References & Resources
Each of the previous excursions in this series has prompted a significant volume of feedback from readers, for which I’m delightedly grateful. The great majority of folks I’ve heard from understand the playfully informal tone and intent, but there has been a small (but spunky!) minority taking issue with the reliance upon the OPS+ stat in these rankings.
The point they make is that a more sophisticated analysis would make use of metrics in addition to (or instead of) OPS+, and indeed would probably use a different set of metrics for different batting-order slots. Such an analysis would very likely draw different, and more comprehensively defensible, conclusions than these regarding just who have been the worst performers at the various spots in the lineup.
That is, of course, true.
However, from the leadoff spot onward, this series has never pretended to be offering a sophisticated analysis. It is, unabashedly, just for fun. OPS+ is plenty good enough for that.