April 18, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
The Daily Prospectus: On the Other Hand...
A lot of people have written in to express their astonishment over Joe Morgan's latest ESPN column. Reduced to its essence, Morgan argues that the ability to reach base isn't the most important skill for a leadoff hitter, nor even the second-most important. The column is filled with old-baseball-player wisdom, and the rationale behind it pretty much comes down to, "because I'm a Hall of Famer, and I say so."
Look, I'm not going to rail on the guy. It's important to focus less on the man--"Joe Morgan is stupid!"--and more on his argument. By all accounts, Joe Morgan is an intelligent guy; he's been wildly successful in two careers, and he does make some cogent observations when broadcasting a game.
I also think he's violently off base here.
Now, I'm not one of BP's math guys, but I figured one way we could test Morgan's ideas would be to see how well certain statistics correlate with run scoring. To that end, I used ESPN.com team stat breakdowns--something you should all check out--to take a look at what each team got from its leadoff spot last year.
It wasn't even close. Leadoff OBP correlates better with run scoring than stolen bases or stolen-base percentage. If you only look at runs scored by leadoff hitters, the ability to run looks a bit better, but leadoff OBP still has the highest correlation to run scoring.
Here's a chart detailing the findings:
Some of the more entertaining anomalies:
As I write this, I realize that park effects may be playing a role here. Comerica is an excellent pitchers' park, and the two Texas parks favor hitters. Having said that, a peek at last year's EqAs shows that the Tigers and Devil Rays were among the game's worst offensive teams, and the Astros and Rangers among the best, even after considering park factors, so I think these examples are illustrative.
I think it's safe to say that the most important quality for a leadoff hitter is the ability to get on base frequently. Speed is a nice thing to have, but if it's just getting you back to the dugout faster on 70% of your trips to the plate, it's not much of a tool.