While ushers squint at section and seat numbers on ticket stubs, visiting ballplayers complete their pre-game handshakes in the dugout, and the home team’s defense gets comfortable, pounding the inside of their gloves to get ready for the first ball in play, the lead-off hitter stands in the batter’s box ready to see the first pitch. A lead-off hitter may only be the first batter of an inning once over the course of a game, but the role designated to the hitter batting first in the order is essential. Last season, the top seven teams in runs scored from the first batting position all made the playoffs. It makes the task of getting on base – by hit, walk, or hit by pitch – a critical one.
|2013 Rk||Team||R||HR||Time on Base||RS%|
The number of runs scored out of the lead-off spot can be a telling story of a team’s lineup. It speaks to the ability to get on base at the top of the order, as well as the production coming from the middle of the lineup that drives in the lead-off man. It may also indicate baserunning strength, with runners putting themselves in better scoring position, utilizing speed and taking extra bases, when appropriate.
It seems as if the Texas Rangers are paying attention to the value of a lead-off hitter who can get on base as they signed on-base extraordinaire Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year $130MM contract. Texas had the eighth most runs scored from the lead-off position in 2012, when they made the playoffs, but dropped to 19th this past season, when they missed the playoffs.
The question is how many runs Choo adds to a lineup by batting first in the order. Does Texas redeem the most of their $130MM investment from Choo getting on base? How does his former team Cincinnati replace his productivity?
Tracking the number of times a batter reaches base is a simple task. It is the combination of hits, walks, and hit-by-pitches minus home runs. A percentage can then be calculated to highlight the frequency for which a baserunner scores once they reach base. Last season, despite ranking fourth in runs scored from the lead-off position, the Reds RS% was 31.53%, or nearly ten points lower than the other highest ranked teams in runs scored. It was Shin-Soo Choo’s ability to get on base at an uncanny rate that offset the low RS%.
To put it more clearly, Choo reached base 279 times last season (not all while batting first, but a large majority, and we will use his total numbers for the sake of the following argument). He got on base 0.392 times per plate appearance. In comparison, Texas Rangers lead-off hitters got on base 0.315 times per plate appearance. Over an average season of 750 plate appearances, and assuming the same 33% RS% the Rangers produced last season, that equates into 19 extra runs scored if Choo replaced the hitter batting first in Texas’ order each day last season. Instead of being ranked 19th in runs scored from the lead-off hitter, they would have been ranked sixth.
|Season||Player||PA||Times on Base||Per PA||Per 750||RS%||Scored|
|2013||Texas Batting 1st||762||240||0.315||236.220||31%||73|
|Oliver '14||Billy Hamilton||600||176||0.293||220.000||31%||68|
Of course, as much as Texas gains, the Reds will have a huge void to fill by losing Choo from their lineup. In 2012, the season before Choo arrived in Cincinnati, the team ranked 28th in runs scored from the lead-off spot. They have plans to use prospect Billy Hamilton to replace him in 2014. Oliver projects him to get on base 176 times (0.293 per PA), which equates into 68 runs scored over 750 plate appearances (assuming 31% RS%). Choo scored 23 more runs after reaching base for the team last season.
Whether Shin-Soo Choo is worth $130MM over seven years is a broader question. What is undeniable is his contributions to the lineup in the lead-off role. He gets on base, which helps generate runs. A simple beauty. After trading last season’s main cog in the first slot of the order, Ian Kinsler, for middle-of-the-lineup production in Prince Fielder, Texas needed someone to fill the top of the card. They got one of the best in the game. Exactly how many runs he'll add is up in the air, but an on-base machine at the top of the order is a valuable thing.
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