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A View from the Couch: Leadoff Hitters – The Table Setters

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Pete Rose. Maury Wills. Rickey Henderson. Kenny Lofton. Craig Biggio.

When baseball fans hear these names, they think of one thing: great lead-off hitters and game-changers. All would find a way to get on base, steal bases, draw walks, and be able to have power.  But is the complete lead-off hitter disappearing? Is power being weighed more heavily than stolen bases or on-base percentage? Are lead-off hitters just able to have one attribute?

In a recent article by MLB.com columnist Alden Gonzalez  (2011), Brett Butler, the current Triple-A manager in the D-back’s system with extensive experience as a lead-off hitter, was quoted saying,  “There are guys out there that relish [consistently getting on base], but there are those that don’t. They don’t try to walk, they’re not looking to lay down a bunt. They’re not looking to do that because, let’s face it, the game today has changed in regard to putting up numbers, that the home runs and RBIs are going to get you more value. And the fact of the matter is a lot of them look at it that way. But you still have those that understand what the importance of a lead-off guy is all about and in fact knows, ‘If I get on base, that’s going to help our club win.’ And they’re selfless players that do that.”

Supporting Butler’s views is the short list of players who completed the 2011 season with an on-base percentage of at least a .350 and 30 steals i.e. Jose Reyes (Marlins), Emilio Bonifacio (Marlins), Matt Kemp (Dodgers), Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox), Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Ian Kinsler (Texas) (Gonzalez, 2011).

Taking the above information into consideration, it seems teams will look at their respective lead-off position in a different way. Teams like Atlanta (Michael Bourn) and Detroit (Austin Jackson) employ players who steal lots of bases, but who have a low on-base percentage, strike out a lot, and walk rarely.

Conversely, teams like Milwaukee (Richie Weeks) and Kansas City (Alex Gordon) have players who may not be the quickest, but have good pop. The few lucky teams, like Texas (Kinsler) and Boston (Ellsbury) possess players who do it all: hit for power, speed, and on-base percentage. Of course, not every team is blessed to have players with this skill set coupled with a combination of power and speed.

One person who opposes Butler’s view is Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who refutes the belief that the production from the lead-off spot is diminishing.   Scioscia in Gonzalez’ (2011) article says, “I think you’re seeing more dynamic players. So if anything, it’s improving, because they’re bringing the on-base [percentage] that a prototypical lead-off hitter takes, but they’re combining it with the ability to drive the ball out of the park. And that’s a unique combination.”

While Scioscia’s point is well noted, stats do not lie.  The fact remains that on-base percentage, which is becoming more and more an important statistic, is diminishing.  In the 1990s, lead-off hitters averaged an on-base percentage of .347 whereas it decreased to .341 in the 2000s, and over the last two seasons reduced further to .329 (Gonzalez, 2011).

At the same time, plate appearances per strikeout went from 7.47 to 7.13 to 6.30 and plate appearances per walk went from 10.63 to 12.13 to 12.75 (Gonzalez, 2011).   If the lead-off hitter does not bring the power, he better find ways to get on base to be effective – be it a walk, hit by pitch, or hit.

Is the lead-off position changing? Is there less emphasis today on getting on base? Is it all about power?  Who would be the ideal lead-off man for the Blue Jays?

Your views are always welcomed and encouraged.

From the couch.

Source:
Gonzalez, Alden.  December 2011. Prototypical lead-off hitters become dying breed. http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20111215&content_id=26171852&c_id=mlb.

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