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April 10, 2009

Leading Off

Bop 'Til You Drop Up Top?

by Christina Kahrl

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Thirty years or so on, sabermetrics has been around long enough to have a few canards of its own to live with or live down. Take for example the old assertion from the '80s, that lineup order doesn't matter. That's taken as a literal, absolute truth in some quarters, but lineup optimization does mean the difference of a few extra runs here and there, fueled in no small part by the relentless mathematical fact that any one team's leadoff hitters will collectively get 120 more plate appearances in a season than their ninth-slot batters, and you'd much rather invest that additional playing time in better ballplayers. Operating in an environment where teams pursue fractions of runs' worth of difference in individual matchups or on the bases by running with more and more efficiency, and paying attention to who bats where, makes for another area where clubs can and do help themselves.

There are very few teams that enjoy the benefits of employing an obvious star-quality leadoff hitter, the guy who gets on base, steals bases, and even kicks in some power. Today we have the Orioles' Brian Roberts or the Mets' Jose Reyes, carrying on the game-changing precedents we might identify in Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines or perhaps even Bobby Bonds. Most other teams have to come up with something, because somebody has to lead off. The classic stathead working solution-or Earl Weaver's, or Joe McCarthy's-would be to put a better OBP up top. The Yankees have elected to do this with Derek Jeter, but that's not tied to his declining value as a slugger as much as it has always been something of a fall-back option during his entire career, as The Captain moved down to hitting second when the Yankees added Chuck Knoblauch in the '90s or, more recently, Johnny Damon. Deciding to put Damon's power behind Jeter's OBP is just a worthwhile adaptation to their respective talents at present. American League leadoff hitters generated a collective .347 OBP last season, so Jeter's career leadoff OBP of .389 or our PECOTA-projected season OBP of .360 suggest he's a good choice.

In contrast, you do have the few power hitters in the slot, and there can be a logic to some of the selections, but that's a reflection of a broader game-wide trend over time in terms of leadoff hitter production over the last fifty years:


Leadoff Hitter Production by Decade
Years   AVG/ OBP/ SLG   MLVr    OBI%
'50s   .263/.336/.367  -.006   12.1%
'60s   .259/.322/.360   .003   12.4%
'70s   .268/.332/.365   .008   12.5%
'80s   .270/.337/.376   .015   12.5%
'90s   .274/.347/.391   .006   12.9%
'00s   .275/.340/.407  -.003   13.3%

First, we're bringing two BP stats into the mix: MLVr is the rate of marginal lineup value, where an average hitter in the league is exactly .000; what the chart tells us on this score is that the high-water mark of leadoff greatness relative to the rest of the lineup, unsurprisingly enough, was the era of Henderson and Raines. The other number that runs hand in glove with the rising slugging we're seeing from leadoff men is OBI%, which is the percentage of runners on base that leadoff men are plating these days. Keep in mind, that's not opportunities, but rather the percentage of all of the ducks on the pond that they start off with that they've driven in; as leadoff men have hit for more power, they're driving in a higher number of baserunners.

Of course, when you have the benefit of employing slugging leadoff hitters like Curtis Granderson or Ian Kinsler, players with top-shelf power and excellent baserunning and good OBPs, you wind up with hitters whose value at the top of the order is understated because people might focus on the power and wonder why they aren't batting lower in their teams' orders. The Cubs thought they had that same kind of player when they signed Alfonso Soriano, but then they also felt he might be able to manage center field, and now that Soriano's repeated leg injuries have encouraged the team to apply the brakes after already learning Soriano was anything but a center fielder, they're left with accommodating the finicky slugger's stated preference to bat leadoff, which might seem all the more odd given that he was one of the National League's better batters when it came to plating a baserunner from second base, though maybe he relishes getting the benefit of a pitcher's sac bunt before his at-bat.

In contrast, you've got the teams that choose what we might call the Omar Moreno/Chuck Tanner route, banking on speed to generate some tangible benefits, or the line of thinking that made Juan Pierre a zillionaire (and a payroll white elephant). That can mean guys like Felipe Lopez or Willy Taveras, or the Marlins' Emilio Bonifacio, who may well be the new Tony Womack. Rediscovering that fewer men on base makes for fewer runs can be a tough lesson, but there's some wisdom to the idea of going with better baserunning in front of the people who can bop a bit. The Giants' employment of Randy Winn or the Angels' use of Chone Figgins are decent examples of taking guys whose OBP won't be outstanding on the classic Henderson scale, but they'll be around or above-average for a big-league leadoff man, because when you add in their value as two of the best baserunners in the majors last season, you wind up with guys who might not be anyone's classic ideal of a right fielder or third baseman, but both serve well enough in the lineup role of batting atop the order.

The multitude of ways that you can skin this particular cat makes some of the current selections for leadoff hitters on contending teams that much more entertaining. Take the leadoff platoon on Chicago's South Side. Ozzie Guillen's initial solution involved starting DeWayne Wise, a lefty-swinging center fielder, up top against right-handed pitching, and possibly turning to his starting third baseman, Josh Fields, against lefties. Ozzie's since turned to rookie second baseman Chris Getz against right-handers, which reflects the experimental nature of his solutions. Platooning in your leadoff spot might seem unusual, but it's a worthwhile adaptation. For a good stretch with the Tigers in the '80s, Sparky Anderson would platoon second baseman Lou Whitaker in the role, kicking his starting second baseman down to the ninth slot against southpaws, making light of the lefty batter's struggles while keeping his defensive value on the diamond. Wise might not be the ideal candidate given a long career's worth of disappointments, but somebody has to bat leadoff, and whether Ozzie trusts in Wise or rookie second baseman Chris Getz against right-handers, while letting Fields mash and bash against lefties to exploit the Cell's cozy left-field corner, it makes for a fun blend of Guillen's desire to keep tactical options on the menu while employing the kind of talents that helped the Sox slug their way to a title in 2005.

The Sox aren't alone in picking a platoon solution, though as defending division champs, they're under the spotlight. The A's-who we've pegged as the favorite in the AL West-are trusting to Ryan Sweeney, and while Moneyball and OBP were supposed to be synonymous, this is as much a scouting-based faith in his long-rumored upside; PECOTA more sourly suggests he'll deliver mediocrity even in a Wise-like platoon, producing a .346 OBP against right-handers. Perhaps in a weak platoon with his defensive replacement, Rajai Davis, that's good enough to get by, but it's not exactly the grinding offensive attack that, once assembled, subsequently propelled the A's to the postseason and Michael Lewis to the bestseller list.

Perhaps more obscure, down in St. Louis, the Cards' Tony La Russa might run with a second-base platoon of Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan, while the Pads might alternate as well across positions, with Jody Gerut in center leading off against right-handers and David Eckstein at second base getting the call against lefties. Consult your daily box scores, and you're sure to find some entertainment, but where the Pads or Cards might not command all that much controversy, you can be sure that early-season slumps by the Captain in the Bronx or problems for the White Sox and A's in their leadoff slots will engender increasing concern should those clubs struggle to score.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Dewayne Wise,  OBP

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