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.
The Boston Red Sox have hit 151 home runs this season, second of any team in baseball to the New York Yankees (165). David Ortiz is leading the Red Sox with 24 round trippers, but the man who is trailing him in that category may surprise you. It’s not Adrian Gonzalez. Kevin Youkilis is not the answer, either. Nor is Dustin Pedroia or Carl Crawford. It is center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who has 127 more stolen bases in his career than home runs, who has knocked 22 pitches out of the park this season.
Entering this season, Ellsbury had hit a total of 18 triples and 20 home runs in his four-year career. He had never hit more than nine homers in a single campaign. His only two full big league seasons, a .280/.336/.394, 22-double, seven-triple, nine-homer, 47-RBI, 50-steal, 98-run rookie year in 2008, and a 2009 in which he batted .301/.355/.415 with 27 doubles, 10 triples, eight home runs, 60 RBIs, 70 stolen bases and 94 runs scored indicated that Ellsbury could thrive with the Red Sox by getting on-base at a good clip and then use his speed to get around the bases in front of Boston’s beefy middle of the order. While most players develop more power as they age into their late-20s, the Red Sox never imagined Ellsbury would hit more than 15-to-20 homers in a season at best.
At age 27 and coming back from multiple rib injuries that caused him to miss all but 18 games of the 2010 season, Ellsbury’s 2011 expedition has been a revelation. With a .313/.370/.517 batting line, he has gotten on-base in front of Boston’s RBI-guys in Gonzalez, Youkilis and Ortiz consistently at the top of the lineup. While he led the league in stolen bases in both 2008 and 2009, Ellsbury has still been able to use his speed to swipe 33 bases this season, all while zooming around the diamond to score 89 runs, good enough for third in the majors. Ellsbury, though, has always been able to get on-base and score runs successfully in the majors. The difference of Ellsbury at the plate this season is evidenced by the increased amount of pop in his swing. He has set career-highs in doubles (31), home runs and RBIs (79).
With over 30 stolen bases already this year, Ellsbury is only eight home runs shy of putting himself in exclusive company. Of all the great hitters who have ever played for the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jimmie Foxx, Carlton Fisk, Bobby Doerr, Jim Rice and Wade Boggs to name a few, none have ever hit 30 home runs and swiped 30 bases in a single season. Ellsbury’s power streak has been a recent phenomenon, as 13 of his 22 round trippers have come in the 39 games he has played in since July 6. During that span, he is averaging a home run every 12.69 at-bats, just above the 11.22 at-bats major league home run leader Jose Bautista is averaging to hit a homer, and well below the 22.95 at-bats Ellsbury is averaging to launch a four-bagger this whole season. However, as long as he stays healthy and stays on his current season home run pace, Ellsbury will likely become the first Red Sox to join the 30-30 club.
In his only two full major league seasons before 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury proved he could be a good top of the order hitter by getting on-base and into scoring position often for the middle of the Red Sox’s order. After two good seasons in 2008 and 2009, he missed nearly all of the 2010 season, but returned with more pop in his bat than ever. Ellsbury has hit 22 of his 42 career home runs this year. He has not lost any of his speed, either, as he has swiped 33 bags so far in 2011. Ellsbury has had such a good all-around season that he may make history by becoming the first player in Red Sox history to hit 30 round trippers and steal 30 bases in one season. The Red Sox expected Ellsbury to be a staple at the top of the order scoring runs for a dynamic offense. They never imagined him to grow into this kind of power but he has suddenly become one of the most dangerous players in Boston’s lineup by becoming the Red Sox’s newest power threat.
It is one o’clock in the morning. The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays have entered the 15th inning of a scoreless game at Tropicana Field. In my tired state, for some reason I decide to make a diary of my thoughts until the end of the game. Here it is:
1:14 a.m.- Dustin Pedroia pummels a pitch from Rays pitcher Brandon Gomes. Rays centerfield B.J. Upton runs it down. How many hard-hit balls that look like they will land 10 rows into the bleachers will be caught tonight?
1:16 a.m.- Kevin Youkilis gets hit for the 4,982nd time this season. Actually, ESPN play-by-play guy Dan Schulman informs me it is the 12th time this season Youkilis has been hit. I was just a little off in my estimation.
1:17 a.m.- Drew Sutton steps up the plate. It really seemed like a good idea to have Sutton pinch-run for David Ortiz with the bases loaded and no one out in the top of the 11th. Not so much right now.
1:18 a.m.- Sutton pops up with runners on first and second with one out. If only Big Papi was up…
1:20 a.m.- ESPN flashes to the Red Sox dugout with Big Papi leading a clan of players wearing rally caps. I have to say I love the look. Maybe this will be the Red Sox’s new thing, like the bullpen band, which started in 2007.
1:21 a.m.- Darnell McDonald pops up to end the top of the 15th. Still 0-0. I go grab a box of “Quattro Formaggio” Triscuits. Always a great snack.
1:23 a.m.- Alfredo Aceves begins his third inning of work tonight for Boston. Have to say he’s been a great pickup this offseason by Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. The versatile pitcher has started, filled the long-relief role and helped set-up for closer Jonathan Papelbon.
1:24 a.m.- The Red Sox have left 15 men on-base. Ugh.
1:28 a.m.- Aceves hits Evan Longoria and Casey Kotchman in consecutive at-bats. One out. B.J. Upton coming up. I am a little nervous.
1:29 a.m.- Schulman informs the audience that this is the longest game in Rays history. All 14 years of it.
1:31 a.m.- Aceves gets Upton to pop up and Justin Ruggiano to ground out to end the 15th inning. What a great job by Jason Varitek. The 39-year old catcher has caught all 15 innings tonight. Unbelievable.
1:34 a.m.- No errors in this game so far. Only two major league games ended with completely clean and errorless baseball today.
1:35 a.m.- The Rays bring in their final pitcher in the bullpen, Adam Russell. They have just one more player available on their bench, Elliot Johnson, who is a second baseman with a total of 19 at-bats this year. I’m really hoping we see him pitch. That would make this game even more enjoyable.
1:37 a.m.- Josh Reddick draws a leadoff walk. The Red Sox still haven’t had a hit since Dustin Pedroia’s double in the ninth. The Rays’ bullpen has walked 10(!) Red Sox hitters. The bats need to come through at some point.
1:38 a.m.- Varitek lays down a perfect bunt to put Reddick in scoring position. I’m not normally a big fan of the bunt, but in this situation, I like the call.
1:39 a.m.- Marco Scutaro walks up to the plate. I have noticed that he has switched bats from earlier in the game. He is now using a black bat instead of the basic, no-paint bat. Maybe this is the lucky bat that will deliver the elusive hit!
1:39 a.m.- The bat does have some luck in it! Scutaro hits a weak groundball up the middle, but Rays shortstop Reid Brignac botches it. Runners on the corners, one out! Jacoby Ellsbury coming up. Why did Scutaro wait until the 16th inning to use his lucky bat?
1:40 a.m- Ellsbury is 0-for-7 tonight. Wow, talk about a tough night. All he needs to do now is hit a flyball to make up for it…
1:41 a.m.- What does he do? Ellsbury hits a shallow flyball that is not deep enough to score Reddick from third. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? COME ON!
1:41 a.m.- Starting to think that this game might actually never end. Dustin Pedroia steps up to the plate.
1:43 a.m.- Pedroia is one of my all-time favorite players. I absolutely love the guy. The smallest player on the field always seems to deliver in the game’s biggest moments. He has three of the Red Sox’s five hits tonight, going 3-for-7. The rest of the team is 2-for-45.
1:44 a.m.- Adrian Gonzalez swats a flyball to deep right field… Could it be? Not today, it falls just short. Make that 2-for-46. Nice leaping catch by Ben Zobrist to keep this game within reach for Tampa Bay. Jonathan Papelbon time!
1:45 a.m.- Commercial break. I run the Triscuits back to the cabinet in the kitchen. They were delicious.
1:46 a.m.- Surprised to see Papelbon’s ERA in the 4’s. The more I think about it, with the way Daniel Bard is pitching, the more I think this is Papelbon’s last year in Boston.
1:50 a.m.- Papelbon strike out Sean Rodriguez and gets Kelly Shoppach to ground out to Youkilis at third. The crowd screams, “YOOOOOOOUUUUUUUKKKKKK.” Gotta love the great home-field advantage for the Rays at Tropicana Field.
1:51 a.m.- One more out!
1:52 a.m.- Two strikes on Brignac! Put him away, Papelbon!
1:53 a.m.- Nine pitches for Papelbon. Nine strikes. He looks like a man on a mission to get out of Tampa Bay as soon as possible tonight.
1:54 a.m.- Brignac rips a pitch headed towards right field. Adrian Gonzalez makes a nice snag before throwing it over to Papelbon covering first base and the ballgame is over! Papelbon delivers his signature fist-pump. One of my favorite fist-pumps in sports. It’s the same exact one every time but it’s filled with so much emotion.
1:55 a.m.- It took five hours and 55 minutes, but what a game!
1:55 a.m.- It’s games like this that reinforce why this is the best sport on the planet. The two teams averaged one hit every 53 minutes. The Red Sox left 17 runners on base. The Rays used each of their eight relievers and had two coaches ejected. It was the third-longest scoreless game in Major League Baseball history.
2:00 a.m.- Every time you watch a baseball game, you see something you have never seen before. This one had a lot of new twists in it and became one of the most entertaining games I have ever watched. I love baseball.
2:25 a.m.- I am finished editing my article so that it (hopefully) makes sense. I am going to sleep but I cannot get over how great of game that was! Goodnight!