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Who’s up first? Who should be up second?

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PNC PARK – You might be aware of Starling Marte‘s early-season, swing-and-miss struggles. Marte entered Thursday tied for the NL lead in strikeouts (33) and struck out to lead off things against Tony Cingrani to take sole possession. While Marte’s walk rate and out-of-zone swings are down, he’s simply producing too many empty at bats,  especially atop the lineup, which is one reason the Pirates would like to see him bunt more often.

Clint Hurdle maintains Marte will be the team’s No. 1 batter until a better candidate arises. The problem with the Pirates over the last couple of years has been there are no ideal table-setters. Heck, we’ve even championed Travis Snider to lead off in this space. I think Neil Walker makes sense as a lead-off hitter against right-handed pitching. It’s not just the Pirates, there’s not a lot of speedy, OBP guys in the game.

Of course perhaps the club’s best lead-off candidate is perhaps lurking in Indianapolis.

You might be familiar with the name Gregory Polanco, the club’s No. 1 prospect, a six-tool player (if you include plate discipline). Polanco is hitting .410. He has three steals, three walks and he struck out as often as he walked last season. Of Polanco’s first 170 swings this season only six were swings and misses. That’s absurd.

I don’t know if Hurdle would place a rookie as a lead-off man, I kind of doubt it, but it’s an important question because Andrew McCutchen needs more runners to bat in.

If you haven’t, I recommend reading David Manel’s piece on how to maximize Andrew McCutchen in a lineup. The short of it is McCutchen is coming up to bat in too many, two-out-and-bases-empty situations. This is a pitfall of the No. 3 spot in any lineup but particularly when a team lacks an ideal lead-off man. McCutchen should have been a 100-RBI player last year given his power and modest strikeout number.

Sabermetric studies have found that the No. 2 spot is where teams should its best hitter to best leverage his at bats and to maximize the number of times he comes to bat in a game. This is a slight variation from conventional wisdom which advises the best hitter bat third.

This is Hurdle’s rationale when asked by Manel:

“Yes, I’ve thought about. If you go (with him at) two, then the percentage of the guys hitting in front of him are eight-nine-one. I don’t know if that is an advantage. We’ve moved him theoretically, we’ve talked about it. We’ve done it on paper. We’ve worked all through these lineups. And, if certain things work, yeah there could be an advantage (to moving him). But, again, it’s hypothetical. So what we’re trying to do is deal with a human being, put some guys in front of him that have shown a history of getting on-base. To maximize his at bats in a leverage situation with some people on base.”

Batting your best hitter third instead of second will never be a manager’s greatest strategical blunder but McCutchen does need more runners to bat in.

Moving Walker to the No. 2 hole this week was a positive step in that direction over the OBP-challenged Russell Martin, who missed a second straight game Thursday, and who might have suffered a lower-leg injury on a slide home Monday.

Adding Polanco to the No. 1 or No. 2 spot could be a further boost the lineup. It could make McCutchen the 100-RBI player the Pirates need him to be.

– TS

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