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Batting order important to baseball success

Things couldn’t look much better for my beloved Chicago Cubs. A second straight sweep in the first round of the Divisional Playoffs notwithstanding, the Cubs are coming off a 97-win season. A needed left-handed bat has been added in the form of right fielder Milton Bradley, and an opening day win featured a strong start by ace Carlos Zambrano.

It’s nice to be a Cubs fan right about now, but something still bothers me. During the winter, manager Lou Piniella hinted at the possibility of moving left fielder Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot, and I couldn’t stop grinning. As someone who will always think a true leadoff hitter—a scrappy guy with a keen eye and an ability to always find a way to get on base—is the catalyst of any good offense, Soriano’s free-swinging approach has always bothered me at the No. 1 spot in the lineup.

Of course, Soriano was the first batter to step to the plate on Monday against the Astros (and to really damage my argument, Soriano hit a home run).

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Soriano did hit 29 home runs last year and can carry a team when he’s hot. But that raises the question of why he’s not batting fourth or fifth, where his RBI total would likely exceed the 75 from last year.

Soriano says he’s just more comfortable batting leadoff, and that must be OK with Piniella. Never mind that Soriano has never hit anywhere else for more than a week or two at a time or that a real leadoff hitter would be what’s best for the team.

I’ve complained about this issue for so long that friends now roll their eyes whenever I bring it up. So, to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy, I called up a local baseball coach, Maplesville’s Steven Hunter, and I loved what I heard.

Hunter keeps detailed statistics he consults when making almost weekly lineup adjustments. Hunter’s leadoff hitter is held to the same criteria as my ideal, and hitters that strike out frequently are moved down in the lineup or taken out of the lineup.

“I put a lot of stock in stats,” Hunter said. “We keep a PPI, or positive production index, and a hitter that has more strikeouts than hits, we would talk to him about cutting down on his swing—even when he got one strike on him.”

Soriano had 127 hits last year compared to 103 K’s, and I can promise you he wouldn’t know what cutting down on a swing means even if he was asked to do it.

Of course, high school and the major leagues are very different levels of competition, and Hunter wasn’t talking about Soriano specifically (Hunter said he doesn’t watch much major league baseball). But good baseball is good baseball, and good baseball wins baseball games. The Japanese national team has proven that by winning both World Baseball Classics with a small-ball approach while the U.S. teams, with many more major leaguers on the roster, have yet to reach the finals.

My Cubbies look destined for another successful regular season, but I’m afraid they, like any baseball team at any level, won’t achieve greatness with a flawed lineup.