When you think of your ideal leadoff hitter, you think of Rickey Henderson. He had a high on-base percentage, astonishing (understatement) speed, and great pop from the leadoff spot. Now, we likely won't see another Rickey Henderson again. He had such a tremendous combination of power and speed that the game hadn't before seen and has yet to see since.
Since it's unlikely for Rickey Henderson to make a Michael Jordan-esque comeback, what qualities can we hope for from our favorite team's leadoff hitter? According to The Book, on-base percentage is the single most important statistic for a leadoff hitter. Second is speed. Stealing bases is most beneficial in front of singles hitters, so as the top of the order has better power hitters, stealing bases is not as beneficial from your leadoff guy as many baseball fans believe. But, when you think of the leadoff hitters we have today, you think of speed demon guys like Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Jose Reyes, and Ben Revere. But, like I said, on-base percentage is more important than speed, and these guys aren't getting on base as much as teams would hope.
The 2009 season was arguably the best season for leadoff hitters as a whole since 2002. Here are the numbers showing the drop off in production from the leadoff spot since 2009.
Leadoff hitters have accounted for 255 fewer runs since 2009. Why? Pitching has gotten better in the game, which has led to leadoff hitters' OBP dropping over 20 points. Strikeout rates are increasing and walk rates decreasing. That's a formula for failure.
It's a trend we see from hitters overall at every spot in the lineup, not just the leadoff role. Since 2009, the overall BB% in baseball has dropped from 8.9% to 7.6% while K% has increased from 18.0% to 20.4%. Along with that, OBP has dropped from .333 to .314 league wide. So what makes this decline from the leadoff spot any more or less important compared to the decline in offense across the league? There's something unique about the leadoff guy in baseball. Leadoff hitters are supposed to be your team's best players at getting on base. They're supposed to have patience and great plate discipline in order to maximize their ability to work the count and get on base. Their job isn't to drive in runs. Their job is to get on base. So, which leadoff hitters are playing a role in the overall drop in OBP the most? Is there anything that can be changed to increase production from this top spot?
The ideal OBP is .340, which is generally considered an above average OBP. As The Book says, OBP is more important than speed out of your leadoff hitter. Well, 2014 could be the poster child season for this statement. Let's take a look at the top five and bottom five stolen base players among leadoff guys with at least 300 plate appearances. These stats are including appearances only as the leadoff batter in the lineup.
The Book states that speed is more valuable in front of singles hitters, who are less likely to drive the ball, so having a guy in front of them who can steal second is valuable because a single can drive him in. Batting players like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton at the top of your lineup is not the most effective decision. Base-stealing threats who do not get on base enough to deserve a spot at the top of the lineup are much better suited at the six hole in the lineup in front of singles hitters who hit 7-9 rather than holding down the leadoff spot, which should be one of the best three hitters on the team.
So we've seen the difference in those speed demons at the top of the lineup compared to the bottom of the pack in leadoff batters in the stolen bases category. We've seen that those towards the bottom were much more successful in terms of OBP, wOBA, and wRC+. What was the reason behind the difference in production? Could it be that the speed guys were unlucky this past season? Was their BABIP below average? Remember, these stats are including appearances only as the leadoff batter in the lineup.
IFH+BUH stands for infield hits plus bunts for hits.
There's that BB% thing again. There's a trend in this chart: the higher the BB%, the higher the OBP, generally speaking. This chart is a great example of why baseball needs to get rid of batting average as a statistic. In terms of average, Shin-Soo Choo was only seven points better than Billy Hamilton, yet his OBP was 66 points higher. Dee Gordon had a significant advantage over Matt Carpenter in terms of average, but OBP speaks for itself.
Did the BABIP monster play a role in the OBP deficiency of our speed guys? It doesn't take Bill James to see that BABIP was (and generally is) on the side of the speed demons. Their BABIP and OBP actually benefited quite substantially from infield hits and bunts for hits. It's safe to say that their lack of walks was the key factor in their lower OBP.
Let's take a look and compare the plate discipline numbers of these guys. Was there a general trend in the reason behind the lower walk rates?
P/PA stands for pitches per plate appearance.
As you can see, as the BB% increases, we generally see a lower O-Swing%. Carpenter, Choo, Markakis, and Calhoun all had better discipline at the plate when swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone compared to the speedsters. Swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone is not necessarily a terrible thing if you can square up the ball. But, these aren't the type of hitters who can drive the ball, but rather they try to use their legs to beat out the throw. Our speed guys also had a generally higher swing percentage, which resulted in fewer pitches per plate appearance. Each of them had a below league average P/PA, while Kole Calhoun was the only player of our other four who didn't have a P/PA above league average. P/PA doesn't necessarily correlate to a higher total in runs, but it does show us the difference in patience at the plate, and we all know that patience along with good plate discipline are two key factors in finding a good leadoff hitter.
We've only looked at the high and low end of the spectrum in terms of leadoff hitters in the stolen base category. For those of you wondering, here's what the middle of the pack looks like. These players were 14-18 of the 31 players who saw a minimum of 250 plate appearances in the leadoff role.
Here's the plate discipline as well.
The trend looks the same here. As the BB% increases, the OBP increases for the most part as well. They also show that the higher BB%, comes with a higher P/PA, and a lower O-Swing% for the most part. These players in the middle of the pack in steals from the leadoff spot, all have higher on-base percentages than Reyes, Revere, Gordon, and Hamilton. They all tend to have a higher wOBA and wRC+ as well. Heyward, Gardner, Aoki, and Eaton all have a BB% above league average which drives up their OBP. They have great plate discipline as well. Their speed is the cherry on top.
The Book seems to be right about our ideal leadoff hitter for the 2014 season. Although speed is nice at the leadoff position, on-base percentage is the most important statistic to look at. If you are Brandon Phillips or like-minded, you will most certainly disagree. But, we saw a change in 2014. We saw guys like Kole Calhoun and Nick Markakis take over the leadoff position for their teams as well as a few others who were below league average in terms of their Spd rating but excelled in the role.
We're in a day and age where runs are coming at a premium in baseball. While speed demons are tremendous assets on the base paths, and guys like Billy Hamilton provide great defensive ability, they may not be your ideal leadoff hitter. Managers may not be maximizing their offensive lineups if they're plugging these guys in at the top of the lineup due to their speed.