In our first installment of this series, we identified the worst regular leadoff hitters (defined as starting at least half their team’s games in that lineup slot) of the past half-century. This time we’ll turn our attention to the No. 2 men.
The stat we’re using to rank these stinkers is OPS+. Certainly, OPS+ isn’t the be-all and end-all of offensive measurement, as among other things it’s blind to baserunning performance. 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 no doubt identified them all as seriously bad hitters.
The No. 2 slot
The second spot in the batting order is almost certainly the one most frequently mishandled by managers, and they’ve been repeating the same fundamental error over and over since 1920.
In the extremely low-scoring era of 1900-1919, when the dead ball and spitball rendered home runs exceptionally rare, one-run offensive tactics made sense. The stolen base, the sacrifice bunt, and in general the “productive out” provided significant value in a game in which base-clearing extra-base hits were very hard to come by, and every individual run loomed massively.
It was in this period that the classic image of the second-place hitter was forged: Whatever his other merits, this batter played a dynamic role in moving any baserunner(s) along, often with the bunt, or the hit-and-run, or simply with the grounder to the right side, to make it easier for the heart of the order to pick up that crucial RBI. A really bad attribute for a second-slot guy in that environment would be to strike out a lot, so the best No. 2 men were prized for bat control, for being able to reliably put the ball in play.
The introduction of lively-hitting, high-scoring conditions in 1920 suddenly and completely changed this, of course. Since 1920 (with the possible exception of the balata-ball World War II seasons), it has made no sense to place so much value on bat control from the second slot. Since 1920, by far the top priority for a second-place hitter (just like the leadoff man) should simply be to avoid outs (which is another way of saying “get on base”); the only complication for the No. 2 guy is that avoiding the double-play grounder is also pretty important.
But the notion that avoiding strikeouts per se and being particularly skilled at bunting and hitting-and-running is all-important in the second slot has been obsolete for almost 90 years.
The problem is that no one has ever seemed to tell this to managers, or at least a huge proportion of them.
It’s not quite as prevalent today as it was 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s still the case that many lineups feature a slappy little middle infielder in the No. 2 slot, putting the ball in play, toting up productive outs, and being excused for not doing a particularly good job of getting himself on base. For the great majority of the time since 1920, this has been the revered model of the second-place hitter, a vestige of the dead ball era that’s persisted vastly longer and more pervasively than it’s had any right to. But there it is.
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+ 25T 71 Larry Bowa SS 1979 PHI NL 104 25T 71 Ozzie Smith SS 1980 SDP NL 99 25T 71 U.L. Washington SS 1983 KCR AL 97 20T 70 Ken Hubbs 2B 1962 CHC NL 90 20T 70 Gary Sutherland 2B 1974 DET AL 91 20T 70 Rodney Scott 2B 1979 MON NL 105 20T 70 Omar Vizquel SS 1994 CLE AL 114 20T 70 Tom Goodwin CF-LF 1996 KCR AL 85 18T 69 Rodney Scott 2B 1980 MON NL 106 18T 69 Manny Castillo 3B 1982 SEA AL 87 16T 68 Nellie Fox 2B 1961 CHW AL 101 16T 68 Hubie Brooks 3B 1983 NYM NL 85 15 67 Jose Lind 2B 1989 PIT NL 101 12T 66 Sonny Jackson SS 1967 HOU NL 106 12T 66 Larry Brown SS 1969 CLE AL 85 12T 66 Manny Trillo 2B 1985 SFG NL 89 11 65 Rafael Ramirez SS 1985 ATL NL 92
Obviously, the list we see above presents seasons much worse than those of most No. 2 hitters, but this crew shiningly exemplifies the type: Almost all are middle infielders, little guys, devoid of power, and adept at avoiding the strikeout (well, except for Ken Hubbs). Some feature excellent speed, but many don’t; this model dictates baserunning skill as nice to have, but not essential in the second spot. The model values, above all else, the ability to slap that right-side ground ball.
The interesting exception here is Hubie Brooks—a third baseman (without particular defensive merit), he didn’t have any speed, and at that point in his career didn’t have any power either. Unlike most of these guys, he wasn’t particularly good at avoiding strikeouts, but he was quite good at avoiding walks. Given that he wasn’t hitting for average either, it’s remarkable that the Mets kept Brooks in the lineup at all, let alone near the top of the order.
All right, here we go …
Tied for eighth-worst No. 2 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 152 574 44 22 42 24 1 60 4 16 10 7 1 0 .242 .280 .292 .572 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 103 405 29 15 27 17 0 38 4 14 9 3 0 0 .220 .261 .271 .532
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 143 635 56 27 49 45 2 37 2 21 15 10 1 5 .240 .296 .301 .597 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 92 412 40 19 31 31 0 29 2 14 9 6 1 3 .244 .304 .316 .620
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 155 672 71 24 49 32 3 31 0 11 10 11 30 8 .248 .283 .301 .584 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 120 537 56 17 37 26 0 27 0 11 6 10 26 6 .242 .278 .288 .566
Sizemore and Bowa were classic exemplars of the second-place hitter model: “scrappy” contact hitters with zero power. They were worthy regulars (particularly Bowa because he was excellent defensively, and a fine baserunner), but since neither was able to consistently hit for a high average nor draw a lot of walks, the proper spot in the order for them was down at the bottom. But, no: Both usually batted second, scrappily plopping down their sac bunts and slapping their bouncers to the right side.
The outstanding defensive shorstop McMillan, on the other hand, while he wasn’t a significantly worse hitter than Sizemore or Bowa, was appropriately placed at the bottom of the order for the great majority of his career. But occasionally a manager would get the idea that McMillan should be making his outs in the first or second slot in the order, and it was no less a manager than Casey Stengel who was stricken with this foolish notion in 1965.
Brilliant and innovative through most of his Yankees tenure, one need look no further than this to find compelling evidence that Ol’ Case was far over the hill in his managerial stint with the Mets. To be sure, GM George Weiss (who had once been brilliant as well) provided Stengel with an extraordinarily meager roster to work with, but Stengel, shall we say, got the very worst out of it.
The seventh-worst N. 2 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 78 351 32 14 20 17 0 10 1 14 5 2 7 7 .247 .285 .297 .592 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 76 334 31 13 19 15 0 10 1 12 5 2 6 7 .244 .280 .294 .594
As for Foli, it isn’t even clear that he was a worthy regular. He was a fine-fielding shortstop, but the OPS+ figure of 63 we see him posting here was almost identical to his career mark of 64. This wasn’t Foli in a down year; this was the genuine Foli article.
He had precious little power and drew precious few walks, he didn’t steal bases, and, despite his remarkable ability to put the ball in play, Foli didn’t hit for a good average either. In short Foli was bad offensively in just about every regard. But, since he did reliably get wood on the ball—the outs he tirelessly piled up were pleasant soft grounders, not dirty wicked strikeouts—Foli not only forged a long career as a regular, but was written into the starting lineup in the No. 2 position the majority of the time, by several different managers for several different teams.
The sixth-worst number-two hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 90 418 30 18 26 24 1 44 0 7 6 2 0 3 .231 .275 .291 .566 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 84 369 28 17 25 22 1 37 0 7 6 2 0 3 .243 .287 .308 .595
In his peak years, the left-handed-batting Lumpe had been a good top-of-the-lineup man, a contact hitter who delivered line drives and a strong batting average. The Tigers invested Rocky Colavito to acquire Lumpe in trade, but alas they did so as the second baseman was entering his early 30s, and beginning to decline. By 1966 Lumpe was 33, and the Tigers were no longer starting him much against left-handers, but that wasn’t enough to prevent rapidly collapsing rate stats.
The fifth-worst No. 2 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 92 402 43 12 26 50 0 35 1 13 8 7 30 7 .205 .308 .250 .558 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 85 371 40 12 25 46 0 32 1 13 7 6 28 7 .210 .313 .259 .572
Dick Williams was a brilliant manager, but sometimes geniuses have a quirky blind spot, or perhaps just a different view of things than the rest of us. Rather like Alfred Hitchcock with Tippi Hedren, Williams saw something in Rodney Scott that eluded widespread comprehension.
Williams took over as manager in Montreal just as the team was signing veteran star second baseman Dave Cash as a free agent. The 29-year-old Cash delivered a strong season for Williams in 1977, but in ’78 his performance slipped, both at the plate and in the field. Williams, always known for strong decisiveness, then committed one of his boldest decisions: For the 1979 season Williams benched the high-salaried Cash. And by “benched,” I don’t mean he demoted Cash to a part-time utility role. I mean he benched him: through July of that season, Cash didn’t start a single game (despite going 15-for-32 in his preposterously rare late-inning at-bats), and he didn’t start two games back-to-back until Aug. 27-28.
And who was it Williams used in his place? The obscure, bony-kneed-skinny journeyman Scott, who’d never before been a major league regular, and at the age of 25 had already bounced between five different organizations. Scott displayed tremendous speed, and fine strike zone judgment, but he was completely lacking any hint of pop in his bat. Forget home runs: Scott wasn’t even capable of producing doubles.
Yet Williams was resolute that despite Scott’s noodle bat, his quickness on the bases and range in the field represented an upgrade over Cash’s declining skillset. When Cash was traded away following the 1979 season, Williams stuck with Scott as his everyday regular second baseman through 1980 as well, almost always batting second. We see both of those seasons registering in the honorable mentions list above as among the lowest OPS+ figures ever produced by a second-place hitter, and then in 1981 Scott outdid himself, with his “slugging” barely registering a pulse at .250. Nevertheless, through all three of those years the Expos were a strongly contending team, performing far better than they ever had before Williams installed Scott in the lineup and in the No. 2 slot.
But in 1982 Williams was gone, and his replacement, Jim Fanning, wasn’t so enamored with Scott. Fanning deployed him in a utility role though the early weeks of 1982, and then in May Scott was released. He would play his final major league game later that summer, at the age of 28.
Tied for third-worst No. 2 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 73 305 30 14 11 12 0 36 2 5 2 3 16 4 .230 .263 .290 .553 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 57 235 20 9 11 11 0 28 1 4 2 1 13 4 .227 .264 .278 .542
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 107 465 50 17 38 36 2 27 6 4 8 6 14 8 .229 .297 .287 .584 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 84 380 42 17 31 32 2 21 5 3 6 4 11 6 .234 .308 .302 .610
So who was it, you ask, the Mets had traded to the Pirates in exchange for Taveras? Why, none other than Tim Foli, of course. And a reasonably fair swap it would seem to have been.
Taveras wasn’t quite as ineffectual at the plate as Foli, but he was close. In the field, Taveras displayed great range but was exceedingly error-prone. Taveras’s best asset was base-stealing skill, though in the fashion of the day he generally ran far more frequently than he should have. In 1981, at the age of 31, his batting average plummeted and he became a truly weak offensive player; this would be Taveras’s final season as a regular, and a year later he’d be finished altogether.
Bad as he was, at least Taveras was handling the key middle-infield defensive role that’s customary among these slappy second hitters. So get this: Bailor was the Blue Jays’ right fielder. So help me, he was their right fielder.
Yes, this was just Toronto’s third season. And the organization was in the process of building a farm system that would yield a powerhouse contender in the mid-1980s. But, ye gads, did GMs Peter Bavasi and Pat Gillick ever put some, well, special ballclubs on the field in those initial several years. I mean, in all the history of expansion teams, nobody else ever put somebody remotely like Bob Bailor in right field.
Bailor wasn’t a terrible player. He was highly versatile defensively, could handle anywhere in the infield or outfield without embarassing himself, and was a contact hitter who could slap a single. This is the sort of talent who can be of use off a team’s bench.
But as a regular? No way. And as a regular right freaking fielder? Are you kidding me?
The second-worst No. 2 hitter since 1957
Tim Foli, shortstop, 1975 Montreal Expos (team OPS+: 86)
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 140 630 64 28 29 36 5 49 2 17 9 11 13 3 .238 .284 .294 .578 When batting second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 93 427 48 19 19 25 0 33 2 17 6 8 11 3 .236 .285 .296 .581
Let’s hear it for our friend Mr. Foli, making an encore appearance!
Gene Mauch was the manager in Montreal who made a regular of Foli as a very young player, and Mauch batted Foli primarily in the second slot from the get-go. Mauch was generally a good manager, I think, but a particular flaw of Mauch’s was that he just loved the sacrifice bunt. One thing Foli could do quite well was get the bunt down, and we see here Foli executing 17 sac bunts (tied for third-most in the league) in just 93 games in the No. 2 spot.
The worst No. 2 hitter since 1957
Overall: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 153 649 77 24 27 37 5 37 2 22 17 11 28 7 .211 .260 .262 .522 When Batting Second: GS PA R XBH RBI BB IBB SO HBP SH ROE GDP SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS 97 441 58 16 17 25 1 29 2 20 11 9 21 4 .203 .254 .254 .508
Speaking of great bunters: there have likely been few better in the history of the game than The Wizard of Oz. Over his long major league career, in which he batted second the great majority of the time, Smith laid down 214 successful sacrifices, and no fewer than 73 of them were produced in his first three seasons, 22 here in his sophomore year.
That’s wonderful, except of course for the fact that sacrifice bunting in the second position in the batting order is usually a dumb tactic. Almost as dumb, indeed, as giving 649 plate appearances, 441 of them in the No. 2 slot, to a player who’s producing an OPS+ of 48. But then Padres’ manager Roger Craig, like Mauch an effective manager in many other ways, just adored the bunt (and in Craig’s case especially the suicide squeeze bunt).
In Craig’s defense with regard to Smith, Ozzie had delivered reasonably good offense as a 23-year-old rookie in 1978, mostly batting second. Smith hadn’t yet learned to draw many walks at this point, but he had excellent speed and wonderful bat control. In every aspect Smith was fulfilling the classic ideal of the second-place hitter.
But in 1979, as we see, Smith wasn’t slapping his grounders sharply enough for them to find holes, and in combination with his low walk rate it added up to a dreadful on-base percentage. Factor in the complete lack of power, and this was one truly horrible offensive player, despite all the sac bunts, reached-on-errors and stolen bases.
I recall reading a quote from Smith in The Sporting News, sometime around 1980 or ’81, in which he said something to the effect of, “I know what I need to start doing. I need to start putting some numbers up on the scoreboard.” And I recall thinking, well, that’s great, Ozzie, but it’s pretty clear by now that you just don’t possess the ability to do that. The glove is phenomenal, but you just aren’t destined to ever put any numbers up on the scoreboard.
Smith would then begin to prove me wrong. Slowly but surely, he methodically built an offensive game. First came the increase in walks, which Smith achieved without increasing his always-low strikeout rate. Then, gradually but steadily, came the rise in batting average, from abysmal to tolerable, then to pretty good, and then to just fine, and among the accumulating hits was a nice proportion of doubles. The little guy whose tappers and bleeders once couldn’t make it between the infielders was, by the mid-1980s, smacking the ball with genuine authority.
And all the while he remained an exceptional baserunner, and when called upon, a magician with the bunt. The fully developed package was a very effective offensive player, an authentically outstanding second-place hitter, the kind of guy the traditional model was meant to specify: extremely adept at moving baserunners over, but also doing an outstanding job of becoming a baserunner himself.
And, of course, Smith was an astonishingly brilliant defensive shortstop, the best I’ve ever witnessed in more than four decades of observation. Andre Dawson’s election as the National League MVP in 1987 was, most everyone agrees, laughable given the field of worthy contenders. Dawson simply had no credible case, but persuasive arguments could be presented in support of Tony Gwynn, or Eric Davis, or Darryl Strawberry, or Jack Clark, or Tim Raines.
And, most certainly, this guy. At the time, Smith is who I would have voted for; he was, in that peak season, a scintillating, game-changing force.
For what it’s worth, here’s how these 1987 candidates compare in terms of Win Shares:
MVP Player Vote Share Win Shares Dawson 0.80 20 Smith 0.57 33 Clark 0.55 33 Strawberry 0.28 30 Raines 0.24 34 Gwynn 0.22 29 Davis 0.22 30
That would be a virtual dead heat between Smith, Raines and Clark. My vote would still be for Smith.
Ah, but in any case, that was long in the future ahead of 1979. In ’79, the Wizard of Oz was the Walrus of Ooze in the second slot of the Padres’ order.
We’ll explore the world of the very worst No. 3 hitters.