Monday, June 20, 2011

Setting The Table

What do Jose Reyes, Ichiro, and Juan Pierre have in common? If you guessed that they are all career leadoff hitters, then you are correct. Every player in Major League Baseball is described by their defensive position. PA announcers around the league announce players by their defensive positions. Likewise, fans will refer to players as "the shortstop" or " the catcher." Players are sometimes referred to by their most common offensive position in the batting order, but these occurrences are less frequent. Even though baseball fans choose to call players by defensive positions, certain offensive positions remain important and unique. Specific spots in the batting order such as 1-5, 8 and 9 have significance to them, just like defensive positions. For example, the fourth hitter in the lineup is usually reserved for the player with the most power and the best ability to drive in runs.

The leadoff position in the batting order has extreme importance as well. The leadoff hitter has to have speed, good base running ability, and most importantly, the ability to get on base. The first hitter in the lineup is responsible for reaching first base safely however he can, so that the big bats that follow can score him. Whether a team is built upon manufacturing runs using bunts, sacrifices, stolen bases, or hit-and-runs, or built on home run hitting, every team needs a qualified and productive leadoff hitter.

Leadoff hitters should excel in specific statistical categories in order to prove their worth. These statistics have evolved over time. In the past, a hitter with a high batting average and lots of stolen bases would be considered a good leadoff hitter. Players that fit this mold include Kenny Lofton, Craig Biggio, and Rickey Henderson. Biggio and Henderson both compiled over 3,000 hits in their careers and all three players stole at least 400 stolen bases. These players were among the best at the leadoff position, finding numerous ways to get hits including bunting for singles and using their speed to beat out infield singles. Despite the success of these types of players, , managers in 2011 do not look to those strengths when choosing their leadoff hitters.

Instead, managers look for players with high on-base percentages (or “OBP”). As a result, players like Jayson Werth, Kevin Youkilis, David Eckstein, and Ryan Theriot find themselves leading off for their respective teams despite lacking blazing speed or frequent hits. These players consistently get on base, whether by hit, walk, or getting hit by pitch. None, except Werth, has ever shown above average speed, but their responsibility is not to steal bases. All four players have career on base percentages over .340, and career batting averages below .291. Werth and Youkilis are considered doubles hitters with above average power. Such hitters would not usually find themselves leading off, but their ability to give their teammates chances to collect RBIs separates them from other faster leadoff hitters.

The key to Werth and Youkilis’s success is their high pitches seen per plate appearance (or “P/PA”). Both see over 4 pitches per plate appearance, ranking them in the top 15 in MLB this season. P/PAis an indicator of plate discipline and patience. Usually a P/PA over 3.90 is considered good and anything over 4.00 is great. Leadoff hitters should sport high P/PAs because as the first hitter of the game, they have the responsibility to enable his teammates to see the types of pitches the pitcher throws, his speed, and accuracy. Players who have high P/PA and high OBP usually hit well with two strikes and foul lots of pitches off, thus putting in play only a pitch they want. These players provide other benefits for the rest of the lineup. In addition to allowing fellow teammates a better look at the pitcher, players with high P/PA cause the opposing pitcher to throw more pitches. This is important because the game has evolved from a time when pitchers had no pitch counts to the present, where pitchers begin games with a maximum number of pitches they can throw before exiting the game. If a team wants to exhaust a pitcher, hitters with high P/PA will do the trick.

Eckstein and Theriot fit the mold of players who may not have great talent but are hustlers. These players are not physically gifted like many of their counterparts.Instead, they play a cerebral game, outsmarting the opposing team and out-hustling them. David Eckstein played 10 seasons in Major League Baseball and compiled 143 hit-by-pitches. When batting, Eckstein always stood very close to the plate, forcing pitchers to either throw the ball where he wanted to hit it or to hit him. Both possibilities result in Eckstein reaching base. In addition, both he and Ryan Theriot are smart base runners. Despite not accruing lots of stolen bases, both infielders scored, on average, one run every other game over their careers (Eckstein-.535, Theriot-.529). Both hitters read the ball well and thus knew when to go from first to third or when to turn a single into a double.

Leadoff hitters have the dubious job of beginning the process of scoring runs. Getting on base, staying on base, and then scoring runs are responsibilities that fall to the first hitters in the batting order. Recently, these hitters have not all fit the previous model of the first hitter in the lineup, but despite not having Ricky Henderson-like speed or an Ichiro-like batting average, today's leadoff hitters still produce runs. Seeing lots of pitches, taking an extra base, and making few mistakes make a good modern day leadoff hitter. Hitters will probably never be known by the position they held in the batting order because such positions are fickle and sometimes from game to game. Despite this fact, the leadoff position, like the clean-up (4th spot) role, possesses special qualifications for which only a select few players qualify.


  1. Great post, except Kevin Youkilis bats cleanup, hasn't batted leadoff since around 2006.

  2. Your right, but my point only was that in times of need he was called on to hit leadoff where as most 3-4 or 5 hole hitters wouldn't even be considered to do so.