The importance of batting order position is often overstated, especially in shallow or medium depth mixed leagues. In deeper and mono contexts, where plate appearances come at a premium, a slot in the upper third of the lineup can make a difference. The same goes for formats that allow daily lineup changes, as the leadoff spot can be a popular place for hitters with a pronounced split. Provided you have a bench with a little depth, you can often build an excellent platoon on the cheap by leveraging these roles. With that in mind, here are five players whose Opening Day stock is up because of unexpected opportunity at the top of their clubs’ lineups.
Delino DeShields, Texas Rangers
DeShields was an afterthought early this draft season, and rightly so following a massively disappointing sophomore campaign in 2016. He took more at-bats at Triple-A than he did in the majors and was reduced to a frequent pinch-runner down the stretch, even as the Rangers ran away with the AL West. When he was allowed to hit, all DeShields could muster was a .209/.275/.313 triple-slash.
He re-opened eyes this spring, hitting .323 in 62 at-bats, pushing his OBP up to .442 by virtue of taking 14 walks, and most importantly for our purposes, stealing a league-leading 14 bags in 14 tries. Spring training stats being what they are, this could be predictive of nothing. For the time being, though, DeShields’ performance spelling Carlos Gomez in the leadoff spot may have manager Jeff Bannister considering DeShields there in the regular season.
It’s worth remembering that DeShields was a 22-year-old Rule 5 draftee with a spotty minor-league performance record when he held his own at the plate and swiped 25 bags in 2015. It shouldn’t surprise if he gets his development back on track in his age-24 season. If DeShields can hit well enough to find 400 plate appearances, and if some of those come at the top of the order, he could add useful counting stats to his impactful speed.
Corey Dickerson, Tampa Bay Rays
Dickerson is another player attempting to improve upon an underwhelming 2016, his first season in Tampa Bay. A sharp dropoff in Dickerson’s line-drive rate led to a .245 batting average in 2016, a 65-point slip from the .310 he registered in 2014-2015. In another respect, Dickerson was the guy he’s always been, hitting for substantial power against right-handed pitching. All but two of his 24 bombs came against northpaws.
Another 25 or so is a reasonable expectation if he can hang onto the strong side of the Rays’ designated hitter platoon, with room for more if he sustains the elevated fly-ball rate and recaptures some of the hard-hit rate from his Colorado days. You may have heard members of our team discuss how Safeco’s reputation as a pitchers' park is a little outdated given the way it’s played recently. The same is true for the Trop. It was almost neutral on left-handed home run power in 2016, a year after it was the most favorable park in baseball in that regard (strange but true).
Dickerson led off in yesterday’s season opener, a continuation of the way manager Kevin Cash filled out his lineup card during spring training. A leadoff role doesn’t necessarily change Dickerson’s value a ton, but it does redistribute his likely contextual contribution from RBI to runs.
Adam Frazier, Pittsburgh Pirates
Chalk one up for the occasional stat-line scouters among us. I spotted Frazier last June, just before he was called up to Pittsburgh and exceeded even the Frazier family’s most optimistic expectations. Frazier was fulfilling his pinch-hitting, pinch-running, utility-man destiny through the dog days before becoming something close to the Pirates' regular left fielder in September, thanks to Starling Marte’s back injury.
Frazier finished the season with a .301/.356/.411 line that underscores his ability to hit for contact and derive a useful slugging percentage from spraying the ball all over the yard, even if he’s an absolute zero when it comes to home run pop. He tore the cover off the ball this spring and earned perhaps the most surprising Opening Day leadoff assignment of all. Considering Frazier’s pedigree and the Pirates’ loaded outfield, it’s difficult to see how this will last once the Pirates get healthy and out of interleague play, where they can DH a still-recovering Gregory Polanco.
On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to think that Frazier is something close to Josh Harrison’s equal at second base right now. Harrison’s contract status–he’s signed through 2018–may dictate playing time at the keystone to an extent, but the Bucs have some at-bats to hand out at third base so long as Jung Ho Kang remains blocked from entering the States. Frazier’s fantasy utility is limited by his lack of power and the fact that his stolen base efficiency in the minors was downright putrid, but he’s an interesting gamble in the right format.
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
Gordon spent the majority of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons batting leadoff, so this is hardly a new role for him. With that said, he’s taken barely more than 100 at-bats from the top of the order since, and there’s not much in his 2016 performance save for his steady double-digit walk rate to suggest that you’d want to re-install him there. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what manager Ned Yost plans to do.
Gordon’s swinging-strike rate will have to improve from the career-worst 12.2 percent he registered in 2016 if he’s going to stick as the table setter. His 2016 batted ball mix on contact–both in terms of type and quality–looks quite similar to 2015, when he slashed .271/.377/.432. That provides reason for optimism if he can fix the contact rate. If Gordon gets anywhere near 2015’s line, he ought to score plenty of runs, even for an offense that PECOTA projects as the second-worst in the American League.
Further, while a 33-year-old coming off two injury-shortened seasons is hardly the kind of player you might think will outperform his projections on the basepaths, Gordon has always been more of an opportunistic type than one who relies on foot speed. He swiped eight bases last year despite a career low on-base mark and down-the-order placement. It’s not much of a reach to envision Gordon picking his spots and creeping into the teens with a mild rebound in performance and a stable leadoff job.
I’m not at all convinced this is going to be a thing, but Joyce did hit leadoff in the A’s final preseason game while a healthy Rajai Davis started and batted ninth. And it’s not impossible to build a case for Joyce as more than a once-a-week leadoff hitter if you’re really trying. Witness: Joyce resuscitated his career in Pittsburgh last year, largely because of his outright refusal to swing at anything outside the zone.
His 16.6 percent swing rate on pitches off the plate was easily the lowest among players with a meaningful sample. The result was a 20.1 percent walk rate, the highest among that same group of players. Joyce might just be the best hitter the A’s have against righties. For an offense that PECOTA projects to be the lowest scoring in the junior circuit, there’s value in maximizing the number of plate appearances from the guy most likely to get on base and create runs.
Davis is the presumptive leadoff man, and while he has taken the bulk of his at-bats from that slot, he’s never been a true everyday option there. Davis’ age-36 campaign doesn’t figure to be the first, especially if Oakland is trying to keep him healthy enough to peddle at the trade deadline. Conversely, it’s also pretty simple to build the case against Joyce as a guy you want taking a pile of plate appearances. Witness: throw the ball over the plate. He probably can’t hit it.
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