Jan
08

The best 3-4 combo in the game

By

The Yankees made two key changes from 2008 to 2009. First, they upgraded the pitching staff, adding two strikeout guys to the rotation. Second, they upgraded the middle of their order from merely good to world-beating powerhouse. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez ranked among the best 3-4 combinations in baseball last season, and with A-Rod back to full health they could be in for an even bigger season in 2010. Watching them come to the plate every two innings or so should be a joy.

Are A-Rod and Tex the best 3-4 combo in the game? The staff at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch try to answer the question. Their team has quite a combo itself in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Most of them, however, concede the title to A-Rod and Tex — though as expected they emphasize RBI and power numbers. So, before we determine the best 3-4 hitters in the game, we should establish what makes a good 3-4 combo.

Power plays a large part in the middle of any order. The 3-4 hitters are expected to drive in runs, and doubles and home runs perform that task efficiently. They also need to possess on-base skills. Since even the best power guys hit for extra bases in fewer than 1/6 of their plate appearances, and since they also hit near the top of the order, they need to get on base to give the lower guys a chance to drive them in. Plus, more men on base means turning over the lineup more frequently, which means more plate appearances for the 3-4 hitters.

A note on the expectation of 3-4 hitters to drive in runs. This does not mean that RBI accurately measures a No. 3 or No. 4 hitter. In fact, it’s a pretty crappy measure. RBI for this hitters depend almost exclusively on production from the top of the lineup. For example, Skip Schumaker and Colby Rasmus most frequently hit ahead of Albert Pujols last season. Schumaker posted a solid .364 OBP, but Rasmus was well below average at .307. That combo wasn’t nearly on base as much as Jeter and Damon, with their .406 and .365 OBPs. Teixeira and A-Rod simply had more opportunities than Pujols and, later, Holliday.

(Though give Pujols credit here. Despite having a far inferior top of the order, he still drove in more runs than Teixeira. Such is the greatness of El Hombre.)

When measuring the value of a 3-4 combo, we should look for sheer offensive production. I’m not sure I’d even adjust any of the numbers for park, position, or anything else, though I’m open to arguments to the contrary. Again, we’re looking for the most productive, most dominant 3-4 combo. Position doesn’t much matter in this case. It might have effects on the rest of the line up — i.e., players at power positions can hit further down in the order and elongate the lineup — but we’re just concentrating on the 3-4 hitters.

As I work through this, I realize that we’re facing two questions right now. First is of the best 3-4 combination in 2009. The other is of the best 3-4 combination in theory. In other words, if everyone involved has a good year, which combination will produce at the highest level? Let’s take the first, easier question first. We can accomplish that by looking at the players’ times on base and extra base hits. Why counting stats? Because when you’re measuring the most productive players, time in the lineup counts. And, again, I don’t want to use WAR here, because it counts defense and makes positional adjustments.

A-Rod obviously gets dinged here for making only 535 plate appearances. I think this helps illustrate the point I'm making here. Yes, his .286/.402/.532 line is quite excellent, but he missed all of April and the Yankees lineup suffered for it.

We'll skip Pujols and Holliday for now, since Holliday got in only 270 plate appearances in St. Louis.

On-Base XBH
Mark Teixeira 259 85
Alex Rodriguez 187 48
On-Base XBH
Chase Utley 249 63
Ryan Howard 247 86

While this duo did outperform Tex and A-Rod during the 2009 regular season, I’m sure a healthy season from A-Rod would even them, and perhaps put the Yankees ahead. Extrapolating A-Rod’s numbers by 25 percent jibes with this. But, make no mistake, in 2009 the Philly duo was more productive.

On-Base XBH
Ryan Braun 260 77
Prince Fielder 287 84

Without a doubt, Braun and Fielder were the most productive 2009 3-4 combination. While Teixeira reigns as the best No. 3 hitter in this group — though Pujols as a No. 3 hitter is clearly superior — Fielder destroys the competition for the cleanup spot. Placed back to back in a batting order, they were unmatched in 2009.

Projecting the best 3-4 combination presents a bit more difficult task. Not only do we have to project numbers, but we also have to project health. It’s no simple task, and I see no easy way to accomplish it. We could average production over the past three years, or we could average together the available projection systems. If anyone wants to take on that task, be my guest. I’ll post it as an addendum to this post.

Using completely unscientific methods, I have a hard time seeing any combination dethroning Braun an Fielder. Not only were they the most productive 3-4 combination in 2009, but they did it at age 25. True, we can expect some fluctuation in their numbers this season, but the same is true of all players. Since they’re both in their physical peaks, however, we shouldn’t count on any significant downward trend.

That’s not to dismiss A-Rod/Tex, Pujols/Holliday, or Utley/Howard. All four combinations produce at an elite level, and a career year out of any one player could tip the balance in 2010. Again, based on my completely unscientific weighing of past numbers, here’s how I’d rank them.

1. Braun – Fielder

Tremendous hitters, and only 26 years old in 2010. Could easily produce another monster year.

2. Pujols – Holliday

Pujols is the best hitter in baseball, and Holliday has posted some excellent seasons (and also killed the ball upon arrival in St. Louis). Even if he falls back to his 2008 numbers, Pujols should be enough to carry the group.

3. Teixeira – Rodriguez

A healthy season from A-Rod could put him in Pujols territory. Combine that with the beast that is Teixeira, and you have a powerhouse that rivals Ortiz-Ramirez of the mid-00s.

4. Utley – Howard

The lowest of this crew is still among the best in baseball. Teixeira has outproduced Utley, and a healthy A-Rod can go toe to toe with Howard.

Another group of not-too-shabby 3-4 combinations: Mauer/Morneau, Beltran/Wright, Kemp/Ramirez, Martinez/Youkilis.

Photo credits: Braun (AP Photo/Jeff Curry), Fielder (AP Photo/Michael Conroy), Pujols (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File), Holliday (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson), Teixeira (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams), Rodriguez (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi), Utley (AP Photo/Eric Gay), Howard (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Categories : Offense

74 Comments»

  1. Joe R says:

    Nice read. Thoughts on possible top 3/4 ever?

  2. The Yankees made two key changes from 2008 to 2009. First, they upgraded the pitching staff, adding two strikeout guys to the rotation. Second, they upgraded the middle of their order from merely good to world-beating powerhouse.

    We also settled all the family business. Barzini, Phillip Tattaglia, Moe Greene, Strachi, Cuneo… all dead. Even Carlo.

  3. Reggie C. says:

    The NL apparently houses the majority of the potent 3-4 combos in baseball. Its a good thing veteran power pitchers call the AL their home.

    Kinda sad to think that 2010 could be the last season we see Braun-Fielder in the same lineup. I doubt Fielder takes a team bargain contract along the lines Braun signed a couple years back.

  4. A.D. says:

    Hmm I wonder what would be the best 3-4 combo…Pujols & a healthy A-Rod?

  5. Jake K. says:

    One thing the other 3-4 combos have over the Yanks is youth. On the other hand, the Yanks are more likely to keep theirs intact.

  6. The best 3-4 combo in the game?

    David Harris and Bart Scott.

    http://www.hiyoooo.com

  7. JGS says:

    no Longoria/Pena?

  8. vin says:

    So that’s:

    1B (4)
    LF (2)
    2B (1)
    3B (1)

    Seems like there are a quite a few great 1B (especially when you throw in the two runner-ups – Youkilis and Morneau).

  9. Billy Butler + some bust/bad contract/terrible trade fodder

    Anyone? Anyone?

  10. Jamal G. says:

    Going by batting runs above average and hitting WAR, let’s see how these guys rank:

    Ryan Braun: 50.4 bRAA; 7.1 hWAR
    Prince Fielder: 54.5 bRAA; 7.6 hWAR

    Albert Pujols: 73 bRAA; 9.8 hWAR
    Matt Holliday (as a Cardinal): 24.5 bRAA; 3.2 hWAR
    Matt Holliday’s complete 2009 campaign: 38.1 bRAA; 5.7 hWAR

    Mark Teixeira: 39.7 bRAA; 6 hWAR
    Alex Rodriguez: 29.3 bRAA; 4.5 hWAR

    Chase Utley: 38.5 bRAA; 5.9 hWAR
    Ryan Howard: 35.4 bRAA; 5.6 hWAR

    I actually wonder if Albert Pujos would be able to produce at a level comparable to his 2009 campaign (and seeing as how his 2009 was actually worse than his 2008 season, offensively), if a full season of Matt Holiday would trump the combined production of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

    *Using the CAIRO projection model, let’s see who comes out ahead for the upcoming 2010 campaign:

    Albert Pujos: 77 XBH; .441 wOBA; 50 BRAR/650
    Matt Holiday: 61 XBH; .371; 28 BRAR/650

    Ryan Braun: 78 XBH; .389 wOBA; 43 BRAR/650
    Prince Fielder: 80 XBH; .408 wOBA; 43 BRAR/650

    So, based on CAIRO, the Cards’ duo comes up ahead in wOBA (.406 > .398), but falls short in extra-base hits and batting runs above replacement per 650 plate appearances, the counting stats, 158 to 138 and 86 to 78, respectively.

    Seeing as how I don’t think a clear-cut winner can be established, let’s just call it a wash, shall we?

    * – I did not want to average multiple projection models because each model has its own environment in which it projects.

  11. vin says:

    Too lazy to do too much research, but in terms of wOBA:

    ’09 Braun and Fielder = 0.825 combined
    ’09 Pujols and Holliday = 0.839
    ’09 Teixeira and ARod = 0.807
    ’09 Utley and Howard = 0.795

    for reference:

    ’06 Ortiz and Manny = 0.861 combined

    In their 5 full seasons together, their lowest wOBA was 0.821 – average was 0.831.

    Those dudes were good.

    • Sadly, the real killers have proven to be quite elusive. Fret not, though… my ambition to find them is unflagging. I’ll keep you posted.

      Sincerely,
      David Ortiz

    • jsbrendog says:

      Those dudes were good and juiced up

      • Jamal G. says:

        And for all we know, so was Alex Rodriguez. Let us not bring this into the discussion, and just appreciate the awesomeness that was David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez during the 2003-2007 period.

        • vin says:

          Exactly. The steroids era happened, the numbers aren’t going to be removed or asterisk’d… just take it for what it was.

          Is Barry Bonds the 2nd or 3rd greatest hitter of all time without ‘roids? Probably not. But he took them, and he is.

          It’s a part of life as we move forward. Which is why Palmeiro will eventually get into the hall. McGwire too, eventually.

        • Steve H says:

          And so were a lot of the pitchers they faced. Still, steroids clearly (overall) help offense a lot more than pitching, but they still help pitchers.

        • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

          To be fair, we can appreciate what they did and acknowledge the numbers without ‘appreciating the awesomeness’ of it. Those numbers happened and shouldn’t be taken out of the books or anything, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people thinking they’re less awesome because they were put up by players who cheated.

    • JGS says:

      how do they stack up with mid-90s Griffey and Edgar?

    • A.D. says:

      1927

      Gherig + Ruth: 1076 wOBA

      Redic

      • vin says:

        A player has topped the 220 OPS+ mark 15 times since 1901.

        Ruth and Gehrig both did it in ’27. That’s friggin deadly.

        No other teammates had done it in the same year. In fact only 6 players total have done it (Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Williams, Bonds, Hornsby).

        • vin says:

          Another interesting fact about Murderer’s Row…

          They had the equivalent of the 2009 versions of:

          Alex Rios, Clint Barmes, and the Pitcher’s Spot in the lineup. Yet they still scored 976 runs in 155 games.

          They got nothing from SS and 3B (Koenig, and Dugan).

        • A.D. says:

          Hornsby and Bottomley put up a 989 combo in 1925…not too shabby, but still off from Ruth & Gherig

  12. mryankee says:

    Someday might be Montero and Tex as your best three four combos and Alex might be batting fifth.

  13. mryankee says:

    Watch out this year for Hamilton/Cruz from Texas

  14. Jarvis Potter III says:

    I HAS THE BEST COMBO IN MY GAME!!!

    1) Hanley Ramirez (ss)
    2) Chase Utley (2b)
    3) Pujols (1b)
    4) Prince Fielder (DH)
    5) A Rod (3b)
    6) Joe Mauer (C)
    7) Ryan Braun (LF)
    8) Jason Werth (RF)
    9) Matt Kemp (CF)

    IS WERTH THE BEST OR WOULD U PREFER ICIRO OR MARKAKIS!>!??

  15. Peter says:

    To change the subject briefly, who has the best 1-2 pitching punch? Beckett-Lester, Wainwright-Carps, Lee-Felix, CC-AJ, Lincecum-Cain?

    Personally, I’m taking the guys from St. Louis

  16. [...] of River Ave Blues has an excellent post out outlining some of the best 3-4 combos in the [...]

  17. Dave says:

    The loss of A-Rod for a month hurt his numbers, and, as you said, a healthy season from him will put him up there with Pujols as the two best players in baseball (Pujols may have a small edge offensively, but Alex also can steal bases and has a cannon at third base). So, I just have to think, who is better? Holliday, or Teixeira? I’ll take Tex. Braun and Fielder I can’t argue with as being the top, but I think the Yankees 3-4 tops the Cards.

    1. Braun-Fielder
    2. Teixeira-Rodriguez
    3. Pujols-Holliday

    Thats the order I’d put it in. I love watching these great power hitters play. It’s a lot of fun.

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