Bobby Valentine has used many lineup combinations this season. I generally like what Bobby does with the playing time he gives players but I, like many, quibble with Bobby as to who leads off for the Red Sox. If you ask 100 baseball fans, they may have 100 answers for ideal leadoff hitter qualities. Here are my qualifications.
1) On Base Percentage and Weighted On Base Average
The days of putting your fastest player in the leadoff spot should be gone. Everyone in baseball should repeat the following phrase to themselves 10 times a month: “You can’t score a run if you don’t get on base.” It sounds simple and it really is, yet managers overthink it and “don’t want to clog the bases for the big boppers.” But the big boppers can’t drive in the runs if nobody is on base in front of them. You don’t get extra runs if your leadoff hitter can run a sub-4.0 to first base.
2) Walk and Strikeout Ratios
Granted, walks are factored into OBP and wOBA, but looking at a hitters walk rate is helpful. Another managerial mantra should be “it doesn’t matter how you get on base.” Tim “The Antichrist” McCarver once famously said that “a walk was as good as a home run here.” And verily, we all laughed at him. However, it is often the case that a walk is as good as a single.
Conversely a high strikeout rate is a bad thing for a leadoff hitter. Remember, a strikeout, although common in baseball, is a negative outcome. Baserunners rarely advance on strikeouts, and you can even score a run on a double play. But in 45 years of watching baseball, I can’t ever remember a run scoring on a strikeout. And scoring more runs than your opponent is, you know, the main goal of the game.
3) Ability to Steal Bases
Speed (or at least good baserunning ability) is a factor to be considered in choosing a leadoff hitter but I rank it as the lowest factor to be considered. The old-school manager is somewhat correct that you don’t want to clog the bases with slow runners, but a slow runner who is on base is more valuable than a speedy runner sitting on the bench because he struck out.
4) Sluggers Need Not Apply
Maybe this is old-school but I still believe that a team’s power hitters belong in the 3-4-5 spots in the batting order. The RBI is discounted in the Sabermetric community as an indicator of individual value but the goal of the game is to score runs, and somebody has to drive them in. If you are so desperate to score runs that you would put your power hitters at the top of the lineup, your problem is not creating the ideal batting order but bad player acquisition.
Now that I have my criteria, I’ll give you some findings. First, a batter who should not, repeat NOT, be leading off is Mike Aviles, who has led off in 33 of 49 games this year. In 2012, Aviles has an OBP of .287 and a wOBA of .318 (slightly above the 2011 league average of .316). Also, Aviles’s walk rate is 3.8% and his K rate is 12.3% (for a ratio of 0.27). In his career, Mike has a .314 OBP, a .322 wOBA, a 4% walk rate and a 13.2% strikeout rate (0.31 ratio). As a leadoff hitter Aviles is hitting .294 in 78 career games but only has a .322 OBP in those games. Stop it, Bobby! Stop it! (And because I care, Bobby, here’s a hint – in 25 games in his career, Aviles is hitting .349 and has a .371 OBP when batting eighth.)
Bobby V’s second favorite leadoff hitter has been Ryan Sweeney, who has 30 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter. At first blush, Sweeney makes some sense, as his 2012 OBP is .343 (.342 in his career) and his wOBA is .341 (career .320). However, in 2012 Sweeney’s walk rate is an anemic career low of 3.6% and his strikeout rate is a career high of 21.0%. In 60 games in the leadoff spot, Sweeney has hit .232 with a .282 OBP. No, Bobby, no! Bad Bobby!
Let’s take a look at a couple of injured players just to be complete. When Jacoby Ellsbury hit 32 HRs in 2011, some asked why Carl Crawford shouldn’t be the leadoff hitter. Crawford, to his credit, said that he never felt comfortable in the leadoff spot. And the numbers bear Carl out. For his career, Crawford has an OBP of .333 (sorry Carl, can’t throw out 2011), a wOBA of .343, a walk rate of 5.3% and a K rate of 14.7% (0.36 ratio). In 374 games batting leadoff, Crawford’s batting average is .284 with a .319 OBP. Thank you for your honesty, Carl.
Jacoby Ellsbury certainly ticks all the boxes. For his career, Ells has a .354 OBP (a career high of .376 in 2011), a .361 wOBA (another career high of .402 in 2011), a walk rate of 6.9%, a K rate of 12.3% (0.57 ratio) and has unquestioned speed. As a leadoff hitter (80 % of his career), Ellsbury has hit .294 with a .347 OBP. However, is he the ideal leadoff hitter for the Red Sox? (Here’s another hint, Bobby – in 9 games making up a very small sample size, Ellsbury is hitting .310 and has an OBP of .421 when hitting second.)
Lately, Bobby V has seen the light and inserted Daniel Nava into the top slot, and I think this is a good choice for right now. This season Nava has a .429 OBP, a .396 wOBA, and has identical walk and strikeout rates of 18.2% (for you humanities majors, that is a 1.00 ratio). Nava’s BABIP is .319, so he’s been a little lucky, but Nava is a fine choice (for now) to lead off with this roster.
Kevin Youkilis seems like a great candidate to lead off. Youk has a career .389 OBP, a .381 wOBA, a 12.5% walk rate and a 18.3% strikeout rate (0.68 ratio). As a leadoff hitter in 98 games, Youlikis has hit .282 with a .382 OBP. However, with an overall career slugging percentage of .489 and an isolated power mark of an impressive .201, having Youk lead off doesn’t seem the best way to utilize all of his talents.
I believe that the best candidate to lead off permanently is Dustin Pedroia. For his career, The Laser Show has a .372 OBP, a .367 wOBA, a 9.3% walk rate and a very low 8.6% strikeout rate (for an excellent ratio of 1.08). While not a speed merchant, Pedroia is a decent enough baserunner who won’t clog the bases and turn the top of the lineup into a station-to-station team. In Evan Brunell’s excellent piece http://firebrandal.com/2012/05/24/aviles-one-of-best-baserunners-pedroia-most-clutch-sox-plus-more/ , he notes that Dustin Pedroia is the 8th best baserunner in baseball (Mike Aviles is 4th best). A bit troubling is Pedroia’s numbers as a leadoff hitter, a rather pedestrian .253 batting average and a .318 OBP in 79 games. However, when leading off, Pedroia’s BABIP is .261, so he was definitely unlucky. Also, Pedroia has played 763 games in his career, so the bigger sample size of his entire career seems to be the better predictor of his success in the leadoff spot. I also believe that Pedroia would find a way to get on base if he were hitting tenth.