The image of an eight- or nine-hitter didn't change much over baseball's first 110 years.
Small. Scrappy. A tough at-bat. Quick. On the best rosters, they acted as a poor man's "second leadoff hitter." On mediocre ones, they wore out a path back to the dugout. Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit eighth for much of his career. Potential Hall of Fame shortstop Omar Vizquel made nearly 700 appearances batting ninth.
Over the last five years, however, the game has changed. Managers and front offices want lineups where threats abound and there's a potential to leave the park one through nine. The Twins, for instance, wouldn't have smashed a record 307 home runs in 2019 without the staggering 36 home runs they received out of the No. 8 spot in their order. That same year, the 306-homer Yankees got 34 bombs out of the No. 7 spot and 24 from the nine hole.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora knows all about what was once expected out of an eight- or nine-hitter. He spent the majority of his career there doing all of the little things -- advancing runners, working counts, sacrificing himself to create RBI situations for the top of the order.
But it's a new game and the Red Sox appear to have prioritized power in the lower third of their order. If the season started today, they could bat Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe, and Bobby Dalbec seven-eight-nine. The possibilities are prodigious.
"We might have two guys hitting eighth or ninth that might run into ... I'm not going to say a number ... but they might run into a lot of home runs," Cora said. "If that's the way we've got to cash in runs at the bottom of the lineup, so be it. One swing, one run, we'll take that."
Renfroe already owns a 33-homer season. Dalbec set a rookie record for quickest five-game homer streak to open his career while blasting eight long balls in just 92 plate appearances. Cordero once launched a 489-foot homer and might have the most potent power potential of the three, though he has yet to show it.
Add it all together and the bottom of the order may not manufacture many runs, but it could score them quickly.
"There is something to be said for having a lineup that doesn't give a pitcher any breaks where when you're getting to the bottom of that order, you take one pitch off and it could end up in the seats," said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. "There's a threatening aspect to that that I like, but it was not necessarily something deliberate. We were just trying to bring in the most impactful players that we could."
This is a relative departure from seasons past. From 2019 to 2020, the Red Sox ranked 10th, ninth, and 11th, respectively, in home runs from the bottom three spots in their order, putting them the middle of the pack in the American League. They benefited from some power surges from center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and catcher Christian Vazquez, lengthening their lineup in the process.
Perhaps there will be more of that in 2021.
"The game has changed a lot since I got in it and even before then where you now see all over the game, lineups where everybody can hit the ball over the fence and it changes how you have to approach a lineup as a pitcher, especially in a close game," Bloom said.
"Sometimes that power comes with tradeoffs, but when you can threaten to put up a crooked number at any point in the game and you don't have to just go station to station, you have the ability to clear the bases, that can help."
This is a sea change from Cora's playing days. He put up his best numbers out of the nine hole, where he hit .281 with a .352 on base percentage, making him that de facto second leadoff hitter before the lineup turned over.
"What they asked from us, the little guys, it was like, 'Put together a good at-bat,' " Cora said. "They were happy with eight-pitch at-bats, nine-pitch at-bats, even if you make an out. But where we're at with this team, it's going to be a lot different. ... I'm looking forward to those guys doing damage down there."