The third and fourth hitters in a lineup, respectively, are traditionally the most feared batters on a team. There are obviously quite a few exceptions. The Yankees bat Curtis Granderson second when everyone is healthy, and he has 36 home runs and leads the majors with 103 runs batted in this year. Ichiro Suzuki (who, despite a down year, is still the most feared hitter in Seattle’s lineup) and Jose Reyes almost always bat leadoff for the Mariners and Mets, respectively. But for a pitcher, there is nothing worse than seeing a dangerous No. 3 batter step into the box and looking over to the opposing dugout to see another dangerous weapon lurking in the on-deck circle.
Perhaps there is no 3-4 punch in baseball history quite as feared as the Yankees’ Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig duo was from 1926 through 1934 (Gehrig was the No. 5 batter on the 1925 Yankees). On the 1927 Murderers Row team, Ruth hit .356/.486/.772, Gehrig batted .373/.474/.765 and the pair combined to swat 107 home runs and drive in 339 runs. In 1930 Ruth had a .359/.493/.732 batting line, Gehrig hit .379/.473/.721 and the duo combined for 90 homers and 327 RBIs. The very next year, Ruth batted .373/.495/.700 at age 37, his final truly great season, and Gehrig hit .341/.446/.662. They smashed 46 homers apiece and drove in a combined 347 runs with Gehrig driving in 184 of them by himself, the most ever by an American League player in a season. In the nine seasons they batted third and fourth respectively, Ruth and Gehrig combined to drill 771 home runs with 2,748 RBIs. There has been no 3-4 combo that has been feared more or put up better numbers in all of baseball history.
A more modern example of the production Ruth and Gehrig put up from the three and four holes in the lineup, respectively, comes from the 2004 through 2008 Boston Red Sox. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez did not have the same longevity of Ruth and Gehrig, but there were equally as feared by major league pitchers. In 2004, their first season as a 3-4 combo and the year the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, Ortiz hit .301/.380/.603, Ramirez batted .308/.397/.613 and the duo combined for 84 homers and 269 RBIs. The next year, Ortiz had a .300/.397/.604 batting line, Ramirez hit .292/.388/.594 and they combined to whack 92 home runs and drive in 292 runs. In their four and a half years as a 3-4 combo (Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008), the duo produced 354 homers and 1,120 RBIs and helped win Boston’s only two modern World Series championships.
No 3-4 combo today comes close to the Ruth/Gehrig standard of excellence. Nonetheless, there are still some very good ones that are very tough to pitch to, despite injuries limiting many of baseball’s most dangerous 3-4 duos this year. Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse don’t match up statistically (combined for 30 home runs and 106 RBIs) with the rest of baseball due to a Zimmerman injury that caused him to miss 58 games, but give the Nationals something to build around with their young and talented farm system. The Phillies have seen a similar problem with Chase Utley missing 51 games with an injury, and as a result, have seen their 3-4 duo combine of Utley and Ryan Howard combine for 36 home runs and 138 RBIs, well below what they normally produce together. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has missed 46 games this year, but he and Mark Teixeira have still hit 49 homers and driven in 152 runs combined. Kevin Youkilis has missed 21 games for the Red Sox, but has combined with Adrian Gonzalez to blast 40 home runs and bring home 181 runs. The Rangers have lost Josh Hamilton for 40 games, but he and Michael Young have hit 27 homers and driven in 157 runs. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have missed a combined 42 games to injury, but have hit 50 home runs with 145 RBIs. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have stayed healthy, each knocking in 84 runs and combining for 51 long bombs, but have been plagued by Bruce’s inconsistency all year long. However, healthy or not, none of these duos match the Milwaukee’s Brewers 3-4 punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
Braun and Fielder have terrorized opposing pitchers together since Braun reached the big leagues in 2007. Their first year together, Braun hit .324/.370/.634, Fielder batted .288/.395/.618 and the pair combined for 84 home runs and 216 RBIs. The 2009 season was another remarkable campaign for the anchors of Milwaukee’s order, combining for 78 homers and 255 RBIs while Braun owned a .320/.386/.551 batting line and Fielder hit .299/.412/.602. In what is likely their last year mashing together in the lineup because Fielder is a free agent at the end of the season, the duo have smashed 53 home runs and driven in 187 runs together, the most production of any 3-4 duo in baseball. Braun is posting career-highs in batting average (.333) and on-base percentage (.404), and is also leading the National League in slugging percentage (.592). Fielder meanwhile, leads the NL in RBIs with 101, is fifth in slugging percentage (.547), and is close to matching career-highs in average (.298) and OBP (.413).
The pair also has the longevity factor, as they will have been placed as 3-4 batters, respectively, in the Brewers’ lineup for five seasons by the end of this year. They have combined to pound 343 home runs and drive in 1,052 runs in their time as a 3-4 punch. Their production together is the closest baseball has had in a 3-4 duo since Boston’s Ortiz/Ramirez combination, and they are dangerously close to the numbers that Ortiz and Ramirez put up together in the four and a half years they spent destroying opposing pitching in the middle of the Red Sox order. The one thing the Ortiz and Ramirez were able to do together that Braun and Fielder have not is consistently win. The Brewers hold a 9.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and if they hold on, it would be the first time Milwaukee’s 3-4 punch has won a division and only the second time they visited the postseason. In comparison, the Ortiz/Ramirez 3-4 duo won one division but also two World Series titles together, going to the playoffs a total of three times. While it may end this offseason because Fielder is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, the Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder 3-4 punch is the most feared in the majors today – and the best in baseball since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez bludgeoned opposing pitching in Boston’s order from 2004 through the middle of the 2008 season.
With a 6-5 loss last night to the Tampa Bay Rays, the New York Yankees losing streak has now reached six. More importantly, four of those six losses are against the two most likely challengers to New York in the American League East – Boston and the Rays. Despite a very veteran-laden and talented ballclub, this Yankees team looks like it could be trouble.
The last time a Yankees losing streak reached six games was 2007. Despite leading baseball in home runs (61) and scoring the second-most runs in the AL, the Yankees offense has really struggled recently. New York has scored more than 5 runs just once in the last 13 games and is averaging just 3.9 runs per game during that stretch.
With the exception of Curtis Granderson, each regular in the Yankees lineup has a lower batting average and on-base percentage than their career averages. Brett Gardner and Granderson are the only Yankees regulars with higher slugging percentages than their career averages. However, there has been some degree of bad luck for the Yankee lineup. Brett Gardner’s BABIP is right about at league-average with a .301 clip. Every other Yankee regular has a BABIP lower than .300, indicating that they have been unlucky up to this point of the season.
Even with the luck factor, it appears age may finally be catching up with some of the great players of this era in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Jeter’s numbers are in the process of severely dipping for the third straight season. He is hitting .255 with a .312 on-base percentage. Jeter’s problems at the plate are more than getting on base, though. He has just five extra-base hits in 37 games. Jeter’s only two home runs came in the same game. He is slugging just .314 on the season. He is simply not hitting the ball hard, and at age 37, may not have much left in the tank.
Rodriguez’s numbers are in the process of dipping for the fourth straight season. He is in the midst of a major slump right now, posting a .176/.255/.275 batting line in his last 24 games. He should break out soon, but at age 35, he is certainly not the same player he was during his prime, when he won three MVP awards.
Rodriguez’s lack of production has likely had an effect on the players he is surrounded by in the lineup, Mark Texeira and Robinson Cano. As great of a hitter as Cano is, he has struggled with plate discipline this year. Cano posted a career-high .381 OBP last season compared to a .323 mark this year. The Yankees are still waiting for Mark Texeira to heat up after a typically slow April for him. However, at 31 years old, coming off his worst season since his rookie year, Texeira may already be showing signs of declining. He may never post the .292/.383/.565 line he did in his first season in New York two years ago. Rodriguez’s lack of protection may have a hand in Texeira’s continued decline from his first two seasons in New York.
The supporting cast has not been much of a help to these aging stars. Despite a strong start, Russell Martin is hitting just .200 with a .383 slugging percentage in his last 19 games. In his last 22 games, Nick Swisher is hitting .179/.297/.308. After a career year last year (.288/.359/.511 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs), Swisher is hitting .218/.331/.308 with just 6 doubles, 2 homers and 14 RBIs for the season. Jorge Posada is posting a .165/.278/349 batting line and is 0-for-24 against left-handed pitchers this year.
While this may be troublesome, the Yankees may be able to find help on the way. With an almost limitless budget, the Yankees are always in the market to take on a player with a big contract. They also have help right in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, their AAA-affiliate. Jesus Montero, rated the #3 minor league prospect by Baseball America, is currently raking with 2 home runs, 12 RBIs and a .336/.369/.443 line in 30 games. Should Posada and Martin continue to struggle, the Yankees could turn to their 21-year old super prospect as their designated hitter and/or catcher. There is also the chance the Yankees trade Montero in a huge trade to land a possible star. Either way, Montero could play a large role in how the Yankees season turns out.
Currently sitting at 20-19 and 3 games back of Tampa Bay for first place in the AL East, the Yankees offense is surprisingly giving them cause for concern to compete with the streaking Red Sox and Rays for the rest of the season. Barring a big trade, it could be the Yankees lineup, not their pitching staff, that may prevent them from participating in the postseason this year.