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March 25, 1998

Batting first... Number 25...

Should Andruw Jones lead off for the Braves?

by Gary Huckabay

The Atlanta Braves' offense was almost as formidable as its pitching staff last year, scoring 791 runs - the second highest total among teams playing in oxygenated atmospheres, and only four fewer than San Diego. A large portion of that was due to the excellent performance of the hitters in the Braves' leadoff slot.

Kenny Lofton was the Braves' center fielder and leadoff hitter for most of the year. Despite missing 40 games with hamstring injuries, he put up an excellent .409 OBP. Part of this was nullified by his sudden inability to steal bases well, but he was still a fine lead-off man. When he did go down to injury, Jeff Blauser and his .405 OBP (.391 when batting leadoff) replaced him without the offense missing a beat. Kudos to Bobby Cox for moving Blauser up, rather than a more prototypical speed guy like, say, Michael Tucker. The two combined to score an impressive 113 runs out of the leadoff slot.

Looking for to 1998, both are now gone - Lofton was wisely allowed to seek out people willing to overspend for his skills on the free agent market, while Blauser was let go in a panicky move by John Schuerholz after Jay Bell's ludicrous Arizona contract. (Blauser, of course, signed with the Cubs for a "reasonable" two years and $8 million.)

Hidden in the glitz of those departures, the team lost its prime internal replacement when SS Ed Giovanola signed a minor league contract with the San Diego Padres. Giovanola is a fine fielder and has a little bit of pop, but he excels at getting on base. He's got a little bit of pop, and an excellent knack for getting on base. His OBPs over the last three years in Richmond were .410, .417, and .385. Despite all of his impressive work, it was Rafael Belliard cashing three postseason checks in each of those years instead of Giovanola. With the team's commitment to Raffy the Offense Slayer rock-solid, Giovanola had no choice but to leave; the Pad people could have quite a double play combo with Giovanola and his soulmate Quilvio Veras.

So who now can the Braves use as their leadoff hitter? Before spring training, Cox and his staff decided to tab the Braves' phenom, Andruw Jones.

There's really no doubt among analysts that Andruw is going to be a superstar, despite his pedestrian major league performances to date. He's shown tremendous power in the minors - and occasionally in the majors, as the Yankees found out in Game 1 of the '96 World Series - and his defense is breathtaking. I don't mean to pick on the authors of the Prospectus and their new defensive rating system, but his "105" rating for '97 is a major understatement, and not just in the subjective eyes of Braves' fans who saw him make highlight-reel catches on a daily basis while he was playing regularly. His range factors in both right and center field were 22% and 25% above league average, behind a pitching staff notoriously stingy with fly balls.

However, it was probably another extremely good portent of the future that grabbed Cox's attention while inking the '98 lineup - Andruw's walk rate was one walk per 7.14 AB, the highest on the Braves' team among players with 100 PA or more. It's remarkable that a 20-year-old has the highest walk rate on the team (Lofton's was one per 7.7 AB, Blauser's one per 7.41 AB), and a sign of Andruw's tremendous potential.

The questions remain, though - is Andruw really the best person to place in the leadoff position, and is making Andruw a leadoff hitter the best thing for the team or for Jones? I would have to submit that the answer is no, and here's why:

  1. Andruw had a very low batting average last year, .231, meaning that all those walks only lifted his OBP to .329. That's unacceptable for a leadoff man. His OBP was wildly inconsistent during the year - he had three months (May, June, August) with OBPs over .380, but had OBPs of .299 in July and .203 in September. Inconsistent playing time certainly had something to do with this, but it's still a sign that he's not suited for the leadoff slot.

  2. As mentioned above, Andruw has amazing power - his adjusted SLGs, according to the Prospectus, were .492 in Durham and .623 in Greenville in '96. It seems a waste to have Andruw's doubles, triples, and homers hit with no one on the bases, which would necessarily be the case for a man batting first in the game, and then behind a poor 8th hitter (probably Weiss) and the pitcher.

  3. The Braves have a hitter with a walk rate just below Andruw's last year (1 walk per 7.15 AB in just under 200 AB), a higher BA (.258), and less power to go to waste - Tony Graffanino. His .344 OBP still isn't what you want to see in a leadoff hitter, but he is 26, and thus still has the potential to improve strongly with regular playing time - unless, as is rumored, the Braves decide to resign "Mr. Clutch," Mark Lemke, before the season opens.

    (Some would point out that Walt Weiss had a much higher walk rate - 1 walk per 5.94 AB- with Colorado last year. I'd respond that you need to consider that it was in Colorado, and that he had about 2/3 of his at bats in the 8th slot, leading to many semi-intentional free passes. His .377 OBP looks impressive, but a reasonable estimate that Coors adds 20-30 points to the OBP of a Rox hitter leaves him looking little better than Graffanino, and more likely to decline than anything else.)

  4. There is the threat that, by trying to adjust Andruw's swing to meet to Braves' conception of that of a leadoff man, they may cause a serious disruption of his swing that will greatly detract from his future production. While it is possible to have the tremendous production Andruw seems capable of from the leadoff slot - see Henderson, Rickey - it's probably a lot tougher having to adjust your swing to make it happen. Andruw does seem to be having serious trouble with the switch- he's hitting only .229 in Florida, and struck out 12 times in his first 28 plate appearances.
In our email exchanges prior to penning this article, Chris Kahrl and I discussed a possible Braves' lineup with Graff batting first and Chipper Jones batting second. We had trouble agreeing on much else (Chris put Andruw in the 6th slot, while I thought 3rd was more appropriate), and our lineup would never be implemented anyway (the Braves' $34 million men, Andres Galarraga and Weiss, would be the 7-8 hitters they deserve to be based on their performance). Still, I would advise Bobby Cox, if I could, to try batting Andruw lower in the lineup and let him show what he can do as the heart of the Braves' offense, where I hope he stays for another, oh, 15 or 20 years.

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

Related Content:  Andruw Jones

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