Leadoff hitter: the changing of the guard.
A team's fastest player and best basestealer is no longer the perennial leadoff man since the statistical numbers game has changed how managers set up their lineups
In 2016, Brian Dozier of the Twins hit a career-high 42 home runs, with 27 from the leadoff position. He clubbed six HR to lead off a game and 13 leading off an inning.
What in the name of Rickey Henderson--or shall we say Craig Biggio?--has been happening in Houston? Has that been George Springer leading off for the Astros? A slugging center fielder who stands 6-foot-3, weighs 215 pounds and hit 29 homers last season?
And what in the name of Kenny Lofton has been going on in Cleveland?
Has that been Carlos Santana batting first for the Indians? A former catcher who stole just 35 bases over his first seven seasons?
"I think there are old-school and new-school ways of looking at lineups," offered Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor, whose leadoff man has been second baseman Brian Dozier, a 42-homer producer in 2016.
Have you checked out Wrigley Field? Joe Maddon, who is nothing if not new-school, chose a converted catcher--packing 235 pounds on a 6-foot frame--to replace departed free agent Dexter Fowler as the Chicago Cubs' table setter.
Maddon entered the season maintaining that Kyle Schwarber--a former high school middle linebacker--was the "obvious" selection to hit No. 1 for the defending World Series champions. Schwarber's slow start in his new role--he was hitting below .200 through June 3--temporarily bumped him to the No. 2 spot, but it didn't alter Maddon's long-term view of the 24-year-old power hitter.
"It's so obvious to me that in this group of players, he needs to be the leadoff hitter," Maddon said of Schwarber, who despite his anemic batting average was among the major-league leaders in pitches per plate appearance and walks.
Don't ask if Maddon needs glasses. He's been wearing them for years. Besides, his credibility was virtually bullet-proof after he helped the Cubs end their historic World Series title drought last season.
"I like Schwarber hitting No. 1. I think he's intimidating there," Maddon said, adding that the "geek" gods in the Cubs' analytics department supported his choice.
Before we let Maddon continue, maybe it's Astros manager A.J. Hinch who needs specs. Or are those shades he sometimes wears hopelessly rose-colored?
Not only has Springer been leading off, but diminutive teammate Jose Altuve--5 feet 6 and weighing 164 pounds soaking wet--has been hitting third.
"I can appreciate the old-school thought of a fast guy who gets on base and creates havoc," Hinch said. "That's very valuable as well. But when you're laying out your lineup and you want your best hitters to get the most at-bats, sometimes it doesn't look aesthetically the way you're used to the game looking. But that's the way it is today."
With apologies to Lou Brock and Tim Raines--not to mention Otis Nixon, Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson, Bert Campaneris and other fleet-footed leadoff specialists of the past--what is the grand old game coming to?
Was that really Dozier--third in the majors in homers last season--leading things off for the Twins?
"Back in the old days, it was that guy who could be kind of an instigator and wreak some havoc on the base paths," Molitor said. "Maybe not have a lot of power but steal a base and bunt and do things like that. But now (the concept) of the No. 2 hitter has changed, (the concept of) the No. 3 hitter has changed, right on down the line. And (at leadoff) I think we now focus more on the guy who can get on base, hit the ball over the fence a little bit and maybe jump-start your offense. With these guys, it could be 1-0 in a hurry."
Molitor is a Hall of Fame player who knows a thing or two about leading off. A career .306 hitter, he averaged .300, 14 homers, 67 RBI and 38 steals from the No. 1 spot, compiling a .365 on-base percentage. His nickname: "The Ignitor."
Yet, like most modern managers, Molitor heeds the data that baseball computers spew out.
"I think we probably look at every portion of our game at a deeper level now, whether it's analyzing each spot in the lineup and how often they come up with runners on base," Molitor said. "We used to think the 3-hitter was your best hitter and your 4-guy was a cleanup hitter. But it's changed because we have more information to put into the equation. Not only have the slots changed, but we also look at what type of pitches certain hitters hit better. It might influence where we put them in the lineup against a given guy. There's a lot more information to consider."
In 2016, Dozier's midseason move from cleanup back to leadoff--which had been his predominant spot over the previous three seasons--ignited his second-half surge that produced 28 homers.
Overall last season, Dozier led off in 73 games and on six occasions homered to open the first inning. But leadoff legend Henderson--who is second in career walks (sandwiched between sluggers Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth on the all-time list)--would shudder at this next stat: Not once did Dozier start an opening frame with a base on balls.
Undaunted, Molitor said of Dozier, "He's not a prototypical leadoff guy, but he knows how to create runs. He runs the bases really well, takes quality at-bats, sees a lot of pitches and gets enough walks, too."
Last season, 27 of Dozier's 42 homers came from the leadoff spot, and 30 were bases-empty jobs. He finished with 99 RBI. Had he stayed entrenched in the meat of the order, would he have driven in more runs--or fewer?
"Mollie and I always joke about it," Dozier said. "I know sabermetrics and the possibility to drive in more runs and all this. I just love the leadoff spot. Just like Mollie, I like to ignite, get things going. Let's just say you don't play the game on paper."
Try convincing those who value the legacies of leadoff speedsters such as Juan Pierre and Maury Wills. They still question the sight of Santana, a first baseman/DH, leading off for Cleveland.
"Baseball is different now," said the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Santana. "Before, the leadoff guy was running or stealing bases. I know I take a lot of walks. That's why I'm hitting leadoff."
During George Springer's first 50 games this year, he belted 14 home runs, including five that led off a game for the Astros.
To wit, the switch-hitting Santana finished 2016 with as many bases on balls (99) as strikeouts. Over the past six seasons, his 601 walks placed him second in that category behind Cincinnati Reds hitting machine Joey Votto (637).
"When your 8 and 9 (hitters) are on base and you're coming around to the top of the order, he's the guy that's hitting in the middle," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Plus, he's a switch-hitter. Having him there is a luxury, I think. And I think he actually likes hitting up there because he gets that extra at-bat in a lot of games."
Matt Carpenter--even less of a baserunning threat than Santana--was the Cardinals' primary leadoff hitter for four seasons until St. Louis signed ex-Cub Fowler for the role this year. Carpenter had been more than competent, compiling an excellent .387 on-base percentage when leading off. But the addition of Fowler enables the Cardinals to deploy Carpenter's significant home-run power in the heart of the order.
"More teams are leaning to putting a guy who gets on base in the leadoff spot," Carpenter said, summarizing his tenure as St. Louis' leadoff man. "The days putting your fastest guy in the leadoff spot are over. The key is, 'Can you get on base?' That's something that's being valued more."
So maybe that's what Toronto manager John Gibbons was thinking last season with Jose Bautista? A prototypical middle-of-the-order hitter, Bautista led off for what amounted to 25 percent of the regular season--as well as in the desperate, final three games of the Blue Jays' unsuccessful ALCS stand.
"It really sparked us," Gibbons said of Bautista's presence atop the order during the regular season. "I've always liked putting your top dogs up there. Maybe it gets them an extra at-bat. It's also important that you generate something at the bottom of the lineup, so that when it does roll over to your run producers, maybe there's some guys on base."
So why the hubbub about the likes of Schwarber and Springer leading off?
Though commonly known as "table setters"--conjuring an image of players light and lithe--leadoff hitters traditionally have come in all shapes and sizes. Some have resembled buffet chefs--or, more bluntly, buffet patrons--bringing skills as varied as a Sunday smorgasbord.
In recent times, Marlon Byrd, Lenny Harris, Mike Trout, Jason Heyward and Corey Hart are among those who have spent considerable time batting leadoff--each while tipping the scales at 230 to 245 pounds.
One of the most respected leadoff men in the last 35 years was Brian Downing, once a skinny 5-foot-10 catcher who took up body-building and bulked up from 170 pounds to 195. He became known as "The Incredible Hulk."
Like Schwarber, he moved from behind the plate to left field. Over a 20-year career, Downing stole just 50 bases. Yet he was a leadoff man par excellence for the Angels of the '80s. Downing compiled a gaudy .421 OBP from the top spot in 1987, a year in which he led the American League in walks (106).
To appreciate that sort of on-base artistry, even on a one-year basis, consider that only 51 players in major-league history have lifetime OBPs higher than .400--and Joe DiMaggio (.3983) isn't among them.
Downing retired when the Angels failed to offer him a contract after the 1990 season. Whereupon a desperate Texas manager Bobby Valentine called from spring training the next year--while the 40-year-old Downing was on a motorcycle trip--and begged him to fill a leadoff void for the Rangers. Downing performed the role pridefully for two seasons before finally hanging it up.
"I don't want to slight anyone, (but) I think Downing's the best leadoff hitter I've had," Valentine said.
Some atypical leadoff hitters haven't necessarily been heavy, but have put up weighty numbers--cleaning up like men who typically bat fourth. In 1996, the Baltimore Orioles' Brady Anderson hit 35 homers from the leadoff spot on his way to totaling 50 dingers--26 more than he hit in any other season. It was the second time Anderson reached 50 as a milestone; he stole 53 bases in 1992. In 1,311 games batting leadoff--the equivalent of eight 162-game seasons--Anderson hit only .260, but the rest of his numbers were all-world. He averaged 22 homers, 76 RBI and 32 steals while posting a .367 OBP. Granted, he also averaged 114 strikeouts, but he virtually matched that by averaging 95 walks and 16 hit-by-pitches.
Twenty years ago, Anderson said, "I think we have to rethink our traditional attitude. I think some people have a misconception of the leadoff role. I think the more talents you bring to the role, the harder it is on the other pitcher and the better it is for your team. I mean, where does it say you can't bring another dimension to leading off--power? What's wrong with getting a run without having to bunt, steal and all those traditional things? You see, I see myself as a run scorer. I mean, isn't that the point of the game?"
For the most part, though, baseball wasn't ready to listen.
Ten years after Anderson's SO-homer season, Alfonso Soriano, en route to a 40-40 year (46 homers, 41 steals), hit 39 homers batting leadoff for the Washington Nationals. Five times in his career, Soriano hit 29 or more home runs from the leadoff spot, for an average of 35 per season over that span.
Still, if you check the list of baseball's all-time stolen-base leaders, Soriano (289) is tied for 175th. Knee issues, combined with his increasing value as a power hitter, conspired to curtail Soriano's running.
Most of the top all-time basestealers were leadoff batters, but the majority were so-called "banjo" hitters. Few had the blend of speed and power exemplified by stolen-base king Henderson. (In addition to stealing 1,406 bases--a lead of 468 over runner-up Brock--Henderson hit 20 or more homers four times. He finished with a lifetime total of 297 homers, with only four coming outside of the leadoff spot.)
Biggio, a Hall of Famer for the Astros, also was a multidimensional leadoff hitter, averaging 19 homers, 71 RBI and 25 steals in what amounted to almost 10 seasons at the top of the order. He assumed regular leadoff duties in his fifth big-league season, coinciding with his unconventional switch from catcher to second baseman (he later would play the outfield, too).
At least two great leadoff men, all-time hits leader Pete Rose and Wade Boggs, would take exception to the banjo tag, yet power wasn't their bag, either. Both were career .300-plus hitters, but each averaged fewer than seven homers per season. Nor was speed their forte. Rose averaged eight steals per season, Boggs only one.
Both likely would agree with the age-old stereotype that the first man in the order should be lean and mean--and have the means to steal.
Enter new-wave managers such as Maddon and Hinch, who has a psychology degree from Stanford. In baseball's evolution of batting orders, the first batter now may not later be last. But the times definitely are a-changing.
Never mind that Carpenter stole just 13 bases in his first five full big-league seasons. The Cardinals liked him leading off until Fowler became available for $82.5 million over five years. Fowler had a .393 OBP during the 2016 regular season while setting the table for the Cubs. "You go, we go," Maddon would tell Fowler.
With Fowler gone, Maddon turned to Schwarber. The kid had a career .353 OBP, but the sample size was just 71 regular-season games over two years. In the 2016 World Series, however, returning from a serious knee injury suffered in the third game of the regular season, Schwarber batted .412 with a .500 OBP.
"When he came up a couple of years ago, I actually wanted to do it then and put Fowler in the 2-hole," Maddon said of batting Schwarber leadoff. "I thought it made a lot of sense. If you remember, Dexter wasn't really killing it at that time. We did our research, and the guys assured me Dexter was going to peak better in the second half. They were right. They also were right that Schwarber would benefit from him getting on base."
As a rookie in 2015, Schwarber hit just .246, but had 16 homers and 43 RBI in 273 at-bats--along with a .355 OBP.
"I like the idea of him, (Kris) Bryant and (Anthony) Rizzo (1-2-3)," Maddon said, noting that Bryant, the reigning N.L. MVP, and Rizzo combined for 71 homers and 211 RBI in 2016. "None of it is attractive to (the opposition). There is pause involved there. If you don't pitch to him, the guys coming up next are really pretty interesting. And if we don't hit (Schwarber) No. 1, he's not going to get the same kind of pitches to drive hitting 4 or 5, based on protection."
As Rizzo said, "The pitcher has to think about being locked in right away. Three pitches could mean three home runs."
The most emphatic statement of Schwarber's young career is a home run in the 2015 NLDS that landed atop the new right-field scoreboard in Wrigley Field. It traveled 419 feet.
But the exclamation point on his new role as leadoff man came early this season.
It barely traveled 90 feet.
With the Cubs down 2-0 in the bottom of the first, the left-handed-hitting slugger dropped a perfect bunt down the third-base line against a Milwaukee Brewers shift.
"The situation dictated it," Schwarber said about the first bunt hit of his big-league career. "You need to get on base. If it's wide open, I'm going to take it."
Meanwhile, Schwarber's lack of speed doesn't faze Maddon. Who wants to see a basestealer possibly thrown out ahead of Bryant and Rizzo, with the likes of Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras following them?
"I'd prefer that he subscribe to the Brian Downing method of leading off," Maddon said. Alas, Downing stole just 12 bases in 606 games leading off, but he finished his career with an overall .370 OBP and more walks (1,197) than strikeouts (1,127).
In 1982, Angels manager Gene Mauch raised eyebrows by asking his muscular left fielder--one of the first players ever to embrace year-round weight-training--to assume leadoff duties. Mauch couldn't help but notice Downing had put up a .418 OBP as a catcher in 1979, when he hit .326 and made his only All-Star appearance.
Still, as Mauch once told reporters, "Brian Downing would rather eat green flies than bat leadoff."
Like Schwarber, however, Downing was a good soldier. Just a year earlier, after returning from a broken ankle, Downing had moved from behind the plate to left field. So successful was the transition that, over a more than two-year period, Downing set an A.L. record with 244 consecutive errorless games in the outfield.
"I was kind of an undersized guy, and once I got out from behind the plate and Jim Fregosi (who began the '81 season as Angels manager) threw me out in left field, I thought I could get a little stronger and become more of an offensive player," Downing said. "That's kind of how it started. For many years in the '70s, I'd lose a lot of weight during the season and then be starting over. Then I started working out and training year-round to keep my weight up. It obviously turned me around."
In 1987, during Mauch's second stint as Angels manager, he again asked Downing to lead off. In 110 games at the top of the order, Downing hit .291 with 21 homers while registering as many RBI (57) as strikeouts. His whopping .421 OBP and .507 slugging percentage added up to a .929 OPS from the No. 1 spot.
Before questioning the wisdom of Houston's Hinch, consider that a first-hand view of Henderson influenced his perception of the leadoff role. Hinch was a rookie catcher with Oakland in 1998, when a 39-year-old Henderson was in his fourth and final stint with the A's.
"I learned quickly that he was an all-around hitter: power, speed, on-base," Hinch told one publication this spring. "So I think that definitely impacted me in my beliefs that the leadoff hitter is a real hitter and a real run producer."
Springer, 27, hasn't necessarily turned his plus-speed into stolen bases; he had 16 steals in 2015 but only nine last year, when he was caught stealing 10 times. And he must reduce the strikeouts (he tied for fourth in the A.L. last season with 178). But in addition to his 29 homers last season (27 from the leadoff spot), he had a .359 OBP and was fourth in the A.L. in walks (88).
Hinch likes the chemistry that began in late-May 2016, when he moved Springer from No. 2 to leadoff and shifted Altuve from No. 1 to No. 3. Altuve led the majors with 216 hits--his third consecutive 200-hit season--and continued as a base-stealing threat, pilfering 30 bags after averaging 41 the previous four years. But though he increased his walks--finishing with 60, compared with a previous four-year average of 35--Springer has the edge in that department.
"When you look at the stereotypical things, you're going to look at Jose and think he's going to bunt, he's going to run, he's going to do all of these small-ball things," Hinch said. "But I think when you break him down as a player, what he does is get hits, and you want hits with guys on base."
Consider that Altuve established career highs in homers (24), RBI (96), OBP (.396) and slugging (.531) while leading the A.L. in batting average at .338.
As for Springer, he started this season with a big-league-record four leadoff homers in his first nine games. He hit eight last season. Soriano holds the single-season record in both leagues--13 with the Yankees in 2003 and 12 with the Cubs in 2007.
"Just because I'm hitting first doesn't mean I have to take a pitch or be your stereotypical leadoff hitter," Springer said this spring. "I have that 3-hitter mentality, but I'm just hitting first."
And as Hinch notes, after leading off the top or bottom of the first inning, it's all out the window anyway, as a myriad of situations arise.
Henderson's 81 leadoff homers are the most for a career, followed by Soriano's 54 and Biggio's 53. Jimmy Rollins (45), Anderson (44), Ian Kinsler (42) and Curtis Granderson (42) are next.
Whether Springer will threaten those marks remains to be seen, but it sounds as if Hinch will provide the opportunity.
"You want him to get less at-bats?" Hinch asks when the subject of moving Springer down in the order is broached. "He's a good leadoff hitter. He's a dangerous leadoff hitter."
In mid-May, Hinch watched Springer open a nationally televised game in Yankee Stadium with a home run, then homer again to lead off the second inning.
"Our offense when it's worked the best has had him at the top," Hinch said. "I appreciate the run-production conversation or questions, or what could be or might be if he was in the middle of the order. But he gets the most at-bats of anybody on our team for a reason. And it's because of how dangerous and dynamic he is."
Perhaps a broader, more flexible view is what today's managers have over their old-school counterparts. If a player has sufficient positives, those qualities are employed in the manner that best helps the team. There are fewer attempts at re-invention.
For example, in 2015, Cleveland's Francona moved Santana from the middle of the order to the No. 2 spot for 30 games. The player struggled, hitting .196.
"The problem was he didn't like it," Francona said. "He wasn't comfortable bunting and moving runners, which he really didn't do, but he just wasn't comfortable. I know you can't let your nine guys dictate where they want to hit. But if they're hitting in a spot that's affecting them in a negative way, and I have the ability to change it, I'd be kind of silly not to. Regardless of why, if a guy isn't comfortable, I want to help him, I don't want to hurt him."
Maddon agrees. Of Schwarber, he said: "I don't want him to change anything. His DNA is to see pitches and take walks. Just have good at-bats. Just go up there and hit."
Said Schwarber: "I'm always going to be both patient and aggressive. I really want to get my pitch. I feel if I stay being myself at the plate, good things will happen. I'm not a speed guy who'll go out there and steal 50 bags or beat out every ball hit in the infield. That's why I want to be myself and drive balls when I can."
Today's managers have more statistical tools at their disposal and, unlike their grizzled predecessors, aren't too stubborn to use them.
"I'm all about the geeks," Maddon said of the Cubs' analytics department. "Everybody should have his own geek."
In-house preseason analysis projected that the Cubs--with Schwarber leading off--would score more runs than in 2016, when they were third in the majors (808).
"The projection with Schwarber hitting first and the pitcher eighth (another characteristic of Maddon's lineups) was really high. Really high," Maddon said, avoiding specifics. "If that number is right, I'll take it."
Hinch also seems to worship the geek gods.
"I think OPS (on-base plus slugging) has replaced OBP when it comes to how we evaluate hitters," Hinch said. "When you start looking at guys that get the most at-bats and give you the most opportunity to score runs, they're dangerous hitters. They're not simply these table setters of the past."
In the end--fast or slow, big or small--perhaps it's not the players who have changed, but rather the people who size them up. And yet, with all due respect to the leadoff men of today, the Twins' Molitor said with a wink: "I'll still take Rickey Henderson every day of the week."
By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
Most Hunters Leading Off Game (1911 through June 3, 2017) SEASON Player, Team Year HR Alfonso Soriano, Yankees 2003 13 Brandy Anderson, Orioles 1996 12 Alfonso Soriano, Cubs 2007 12 Bobby Bonds, Giants 1973 11 Jacque Jones, Twins 2002 11 Charlie Blackmoon, Roockies 2016 10 Rickey Henderson, Yankees 1986 9 Ray Darhem, Giants 2004 9 Brad Wilkerson, Expos 2004 9 Alfonso Soriano, Nationals 2006 9 Jimmy Rollins, Phillies 2007 9 Chris Young, Diamondbacks 2007 9 Hanly Ramirez, Marlins 2008 9 CAREER Player HR Rickey Henderson 81 Alfonso Soriano 54 Craig Biggio 53 Jimmy Rollis 46 Brandy Anderson 44 Ian Kinsler 42 Curtis Granderson 42 Ichiro Suzuki 37 Bobby Bonds 35 Devon White 34 Ray Durham 34
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|Author:||Levine, Bruce; Bierig, Joel|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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