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March 19, 2010

One-Hoppers

What Makes a Good Leadoff Man?

by Steven Goldman

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Leadoff men are frequently misunderstood. In their ideal form, they are supposed to resemble Rickey Henderson at his peak: fast, selective, and powerful enough to open the game up with a quick-strike home run. Typically, if managers can’t get selective and powerful, they’ll settle for fast, which led to the leadoff careers of such luminaries as Omar Moreno (career .306 OBP, scored 100 runs just once) and Tony Womack (career .317 OBP, also scored 100 runs just once). Meanwhile, Wade Boggs, who stole all of 24 bases in his career and crossed the 100-run threshold seven times, is rarely listed among the great leadoff men even though he was.

Boggs’ .415 career on-base percentage and nearly 600 doubles counted for far more than any bases he might have stolen because he was a great hitter first and a leadoff hitter second. This happy state of affairs exploited the true nature of the batting order, which is not to arrange the batters based on out-dated conventional wisdom -- a speedy guy goes first, a good hit and run man bats second, your best all-around hitter goes third, your burliest power guy goes fourth, and so on. The real function of the batting order is to serve as a vehicle for distributing plate appearances. Over the course of the season, the leadoff spot will bat more often than the second spot, the second spot will bat more often than the third spot, and so on. Each spot comes to the plate roughly 20 more times than the one behind it.

Thus, when a Fredi Gonzalez writes the name “Emilio Bonifacio” at the top of the Marlins' batting order, he may think that he’s saying, “I want this guy up first because he’s fast and can make things happen on the bases,” but what he’s really saying is, “I think Emilio is such a valuable hitter that I want him to hit more often than anyone on my team -- more often than Dan Uggla or Hanley Ramirez or anybody else.” This is a strange way to set priorities given that Bonifacio (.303 OBP last year) is one of the worst hitters in baseball. It is not a coincidence that the Marlins had a losing record with Bonifacio in the leadoff spot and a winning record once Chris Coghlan (.390 OBP) played his way to the majors and took over at the top of the order. You can't steal first base, which is why you should get a good hitter up first and worry about other lineup considerations later.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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CRP13

You're right, which is why I'm glad of the reports I'm reading that Hinch might be using Conor Jackson at leadoff. Good OBP, good discipline - in that free-swinging lineup, that's the guy you want leading off, not Chris Young.

Mar 19, 2010 11:10 AM
rating: 1
 
Andrew
(38)

FWIW, I've read that Hinch is planning the lineup as follows: 1. Stephen Drew, 2. Conor Jackson, 3. Justin Upton 4. Adam LaRoche 5. Mark Reynolds 6. Miguel Montero 7/8 Kelly Johnson/Chris Young.

Mar 19, 2010 12:01 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

I've read both. Drew definitely performed better when he hit leadoff, though I couldn't say why.

Mar 19, 2010 12:33 PM
rating: 0
 
tommybones

I'd be curious as to what effect the won/loss projections would look like if BP used alternative lineups, based on this type of analysis. Would we see any teams win divisions, simply due to a smarter lineup order?

Mar 19, 2010 11:19 AM
rating: 1
 
gluckschmerz

Well..., what makes a good leadoff man?

I've been throwing batting practice to my 11 yr old the past few sunny days and I keep reminding him to layoff the balls and crush the strikes. I tell him that getting on base is the best thing he can do to help his team.

This will all go out the window come gametime. He'll go up there and hack at the first or second pitch no matter where its thrown. So I guess he's much like many big league leadoff men.

Mar 19, 2010 11:36 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt

I hope this shows up on ESPN.

Mar 19, 2010 11:47 AM
rating: 1
 
dwinning
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Yeah, this is not exactly cutting edge analysis.

Mar 19, 2010 12:29 PM
rating: -4
 
Matt

No, I just mean it concisely makes the point with real examples in a way I hope would get through to many readers.

Mar 19, 2010 12:36 PM
rating: 6
 
millerho

I second that, Matt. Anyone can read and understand this post. And while the average BP reader doesn't need this, the average ESPN reader may.

Plus, the writing is good and tight. Even though I don't think I learned from it, it was certainly worthy of my time.

Mar 19, 2010 13:50 PM
rating: 3
 
dianagram

But if it ended up on FOX Sports' website, some moron would comment, "I DoN'T unDErSTAnD WAT dIs' IS S'POSE 2B AbOut"

Mar 19, 2010 13:50 PM
rating: 3
 
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