Coming into Thursday's series finale against the New York Mets, the Phillies offense has been downright brutal. In the preseason, we all asked where the runs were going to come from and, so far, the answer has been as expected.
The Phillies have scored just 37 times in 15 games this year (2.47 per game), tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the fewest runs scored in baseball. Their .211 batting average is second-worst, their .269 on-base percentage is tied for worst, and their OPS of .614 is 26th.
The problem has been up and down the lineup, with the very top of the order the biggest problem. Players slotted in the lead-off spot have an on-base percentage of .145 and an OPS of .342 this season, both dead last in baseball. And don't get us started on the corner outfielders.
Only 11 players since '47 have had 100+ PA with an OPS at that (.363) or below and, fittingly, the Phillies have had 2 of those— Paul Boyé (@paul_boye) April 20, 2016
The offense has been bad, a few homers here and there aside, and it has caused quite a few uncomfortable conversations inside the homes of millions of Americans, like these.
It's not a surprise the offense has struggled, but it has been tough to watch, especially for manager Pete Mackanin, which is why he shook up his lineup in a big way for Thursday.
Mackanin making few notable changes with lineup. Herrera leads off for 1st time this year & the pitcher batting 8th. pic.twitter.com/kRromNTYqV— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) April 20, 2016
Odubel Herrera, he of the .426 OBP, the 23.0% walk rate (third-best in baseball), and league-leading 14 walks (tied with Toronto's Jose Bautista) will bat leadoff. Finally, no more Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez and their two-pitch at-bats.
The other wrinkle was who is batting in the eight-hole tonight, starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.
Mackanin has gone full Joe Maddon on us, guys.
Batting the pitcher eighth has been commonly used by the Chicago Cubs over the last two seasons, and former Cardinald manager Tony LaRussa used to do it a fair amount as well. But generally, hitting the pitcher anywhere other than last in the lineup has been done sparingly in baseball history. It's also been a long time since the Phils have done it.
The last time a Phillies pitcher batted eighth before tonight? Steve Carlton on June 1, 1979.— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) April 20, 2016
But why do this? What's to be gained?
Putting aside the obvious, "Well, they're clearly desperate," there is a baseball reason for doing so. By batting the pitcher eighth, you essentially get a second lead-off hitter to bat ninth, in this case Peter Bourjos, thereby giving the middle of the lineup, Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco and Ryan Howard, the possibility of another runner on base when they come up to bat.
And even though Borjous isn't a terribly good offensive player, his career OBP of .299 is still better than that of the average MLB pitcher, which was .158 last season.
This sounds good in theory. But people who have run simulations on this type of thing have come to the conclusion batting the pitcher eighth doesn't do much to improve the offense.
Last year, sabermatrician Mitchel Lichtman ran some numbers on the Cubs and Cardinals batting the pitcher eighth. Here's what he found.
I ran some sims with pitcher batting 8 and 9. For a Cubs lineup with Hammel pitching, batting 8 generated .016 more rpg, or 2.6 per 162.— Mitchel Lichtman (@mitchellichtman) July 12, 2015
With the STL lineup, I meant that Martinez batting 8 yielded .001 more rpg and not when batting 9. But that is the same obviously.— Mitchel Lichtman (@mitchellichtman) July 12, 2015
And those numbers were with lineups far more potent than the one the Phillies have been running out there this season.
All that being said, there's no harm in trying something new. Maybe it helps to shake things up a bit, and if it just so happens that we find Bourjos on base, sitting there when Hernandez, Franco and Howard come to the plate tonight, it's likely you'll see it again on Friday in Milwaukee.