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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

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