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June 28, 2010

You Could Look It Up

The Dusty Discontents (or You Must be a Cubs Fan)

by Steven Goldman

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Sometimes you get an email that is worth responding to not because the reader raises good points, but because he doesn’t. Such is the case with reader Greg (not a subscriber, so one of you did a copy ‘n’ paste job—c’mon, ‘fess up) and last week’s discussion of Dusty Baker’s leadoff men.

Below, I reply to Greg’s questions/comments/accusations. He’s the one in bold, while I, ever humble, am in the understated normal font. I’ve corrected some punctuation and grammar for ease of reading, but that’s all.

So Steve, tell me why its Dusty Baker’s problem that the front office can't get Dusty Baker a qualified leadoff man?

Because it’s his job to get the most out of the team whatever the makeup of the roster. What’s more, “qualified” is an entirely arbitrary term. Dusty has a roster full of leadoff men. They may not be obvious leadoff men like Rickey Henderson, but they’re there, just waiting to be batted first. Leadoff men aren’t born, they’re made. Any good hitter will make a good leadoff man. The manager just has to be willing to see the possibilities.

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite players, Brian Downing. Mr. Downing came to the majors as a catcher. In telling you this, it is my purpose to suggest that as is typical for that position, he was not fast. He stole 50 bases in his career and was caught 44 times. About halfway through his career he was moved to left field, where he was a surprisingly solid defender, and also spent a lot of time at DH, playing until he was 41. A career .267/.370/.425 hitter, Mr. Downing was usually good for 20-25 home runs and 85 walks a season. This year’s version of Nick Swisher isn’t a bad approximation of Mr. Downing, though the latter made better contact.

Slow, patient, powerful, Downing was clearly a middle-of-the-order hitter in traditional terms. Nevertheless, in 1982, Angels manager Gene Mauch, Mister Bunty-Deadball-Baseball himself, made Downing a leadoff man. He spent a good deal of the rest of his career in the role and was very effective. Similarly, Casey Stengel made Hank Bauer a leadoff man, and Earl Weaver often listed Merv Rettenmund in the first spot (these players are somewhere on the same branch of the baseball family tree with Downing). They both would have preferred a Rickey Henderson type if they had had him, but they didn’t, so they improvised. Earl had Don Buford, who was actually very good in the traditional leadoff mold (though a rotten percentage basestealer) but sometimes chose to lead off Rettenmund anyway. Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds both spent time in their careers leading off. They scream 3-4 hitters to you now, but that’s not always how their managers chose to see them.

There are no rules to who should be a leadoff man, only received images that you can throw out the window if you don’t have anyone who fits that image, or even if you do, because you might have someone better. The speed component of that image has ruined many a baseball team, because managers can’t see that a slow high-OBP leadoff hitter is more valuable than a fast low-OBP hitter. The only thing between Baker and a more sensible leadoff man—as, ironically, he proved this weekend, see below—was a lack of imagination.

Isn't the Reds' offense the top offense in the NL?

Yes and no. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I would strongly suggest that the answer is irrelevant. The manager’s job is to correct his club’s deficiencies. Even if the Reds’ offense is succeeding in spite of the prominent role given to a non-hitter, that doesn’t mean that Baker (or we) should accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After all, the Reds are merely a .553 team, which means they’re on a pace for 89 or 90 wins, and their run differential is just plus-25, which suggests they’ve been a bit lucky. Indeed, before Sunday’s action, BP’s third-order wins saw them as a 37-38 team, not the 42-33 team they were. A correction could be coming, and it’s Baker’s job to stave it off. If he can’t improve the pitching staff (something that might happen when Edinson Volquez returns), the least he can do is squeeze some extra juice out of the batting order. It is literally the least he can do. It could prove to be the difference between leaving the Cardinals behind and being left behind by them. Not fixing an obvious problem because things seem to be working out anyway is the very definition of complacency, and complacency kills wannabe contenders dead.

As for the Reds’ actual offensive performance, as alluded to above, they have mostly succeeded despite Orlando Cabrera’s starring role. Going into Sunday’s game, the Reds were second in the league in runs scored per game with 4.88, an average virtually equal to that of the league-leading Brewers, who averaged 4.91. They were first in batting average, second in on-base percentage, and first in slugging percentage. They ranked fourth in the majors in True Average, trailing the Red Sox, Brewers, and Yankees. One of the main reasons that they’re not clearly the top team is that their home park has helped them quite a bit. They’re hitting .291/.355/.479 at home, but only .255/.323/.398 on the road. Among the Reds who turn into total pussycats on the road: Cabrera, batting .215/.246/.308 away from the friendly confines. The club has allowed just 4.2 runs a game on the road, versus 4.5 overall, but its record is just 17-16 because it can’t score enough to win consistently. The upside construction of the batting order is part of that.

You must be a Cubs fan or something because this is an idiotic commentary.

The correct answer is “or something,” as longtime readers well know. I leave the issue of whether or not it’s an idiotic commentary to you. By the way, kudos on making such an original attack. Never before has a Baseball Prospectus writer been hit with the “you must be a [insert team name here] fan to make that argument” line. Not once!

Tell me: who from the Reds' 40-man roster would you use as a leadoff hitter?

As if by magic, Brandon Phillips has shown up in the leadoff spot for three games in a row, the first time that’s happened all year. So far he’s gone 5-for-12 since being moved up, giving him an overall line of .311/.370/.477. Cabrera has dropped to second in the order, which isn’t far enough. Phillips seems like a reasonably good choice to me. He has only a career .330 OBP as a Red, but he has enough power to lead off the game with a home run (Stengel’s theory on Bauer, who wasn’t a big walks guy, either) or put himself into scoring position with a double or a triple. Phillips is not a great percentage basestealer, but he swipes about 25 bags per season, so he’s fast enough to get around the bases for the other hitters if you care about stuff like that (not essential compared to a good OBP, but better than not). Moving Phillips up also gives him a shot at the most plate appearances on the team, which means more chances for him to do the things he does well and takes plate appearances away from Cabrera.

When/as/if Chris Dickerson comes back from his broken hamate bone (he’s supposed to begin a rehab assignment in the near future), I would also bring him into the mix by spotting him for Jonny Gomes in left field against some right-handed pitchers. Gomes is hitting .293/.331/.476 against righties, but he’s a .233/.313/.451 hitter against them for his career; chances are he’s going to regress a bit, and one way to put off that moment is to selectively limit his exposure to them. Dickerson isn’t going to make Cincinnati forget Edd Roush or anything, but in his limited major-league playing time, he has a .367 OBP, something more or less consistent with his Triple-A stats. As a left-hander, he makes a natural alternative to Gomes when the situation calls for it.

Drew Stubbs is a good enough hitter against left-handers (.264/.324/.496) that he could take the odd turn at the top against southpaws. Finally, if you don’t like any of those options, I would take a page from Joe Maddon’s book—catcher/DH John Jaso and his .271/.398/.396 have been leading off quite a bit of late for the Rays—and stick Ryan Hanigan up there from time to time when he returns from his trip to the DL (he’s rehabbing at Louisville now). This would be particularly helpful on the road, where Ramon Hernandez has hit a cool .197/.293/.273. I suspect that most of the 63 walks that have given Hanigan a nice .281/.383/.371 line in 496 career PA result from his batting eighth most of the time, but it’s worth finding out if this is truly the case.

Greg, I hope this response helps clarify your thinking about the role of the manager on a major-league baseball team. The front office giveth and the front office taketh away (or more accurately, don’t giveth), but the manager can’t just pout and say, “They didn’t give me Tim Raines so I’ll just put the batboy out there.” They have to struggle against their team’s limitations in order to maximize production. Until Friday, Baker hasn’t done that, choosing to emphasize his team’s limitations instead. It’s been a career-long problem, one that Baker will have to overcome if he’s going to avoid being out-managed and out-played by Tony La Russa’s Cardinals. 

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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