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.
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.
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)