Leafing Through Pages: Analysis of Sports and Other Topics

03/07/2010

The Role of the Lead Off Hitter and Batting Orders

Everybody knows that the role of a great leadoff hitter is to not only get on base, but score runs whether it be through advancing to third on a line drive single or stealing second and getting himself into scoring position. Even today, the role has changed as Larry Bowa points out in the lack of an ability to draw a walk.

Here’s an interesting blog post analyzing the 2009 season and how the leadoff hitters fared from every single major league team.

Sabermetricians often like to point out players such as Juan Pierre and his lack of success and general disappointment as a leadoff hitter. In that article there’s a mention of Jerry Owens who hit leadoff for the White Sox in 384 PA in 2007. He hit .268 with a .325 OBP and stole 32 bases in 40 opportunities.

Juan Pierre in 2008 hit lead off in 283 PA. He hit .261 with a .293 OBP and stole 28 bases in 34 opportunities. Last year he was markedly improved in 254 PA where he hit .314 with a .372 OBP. He also drew 16 BB and 2 IBB compared to 11 BB and 0 IBB in 2008.

There’s also been examples of players who don’t steal bases who have made very effective lead off hitters. Kevin Youkilis in 2006 hit lead off in 467 PA. He would hit .286 with a .385 OBP and walked 63 times with 0 IBB.

He actually hit worse batting 4th and 5th with a BA of .241 in 112 AB and 131 PA. He also drew 18 BB at those spots.

One interesting facet is the role of a team’s batting order. The 2000 Toronto Blue Jays lineup studied in the link showed that the optimal lineup in comparison to the worst was a difference of as many as 4 wins. Thus it could be the difference between an 82 win season and a wild card berth at 86 wins.

Also pointed out was the best overall hitter, Carlos Delgado, was most effective in the leadoff position. This is likely in part due to his ability to not only get on base but also his power. A player able to get on base and hit for power, given an additional number of AB (roughly at least 81 if he gets an additional AB in half of his games played), would also help the team score more runs in that instance.

Another article also points out the case of batting order and makes some interesting observations initially. The best hitters are often the 3rd, 4th, and 5th as they usually hit for high power and drive in higher RBI as a result in the eyes of most managers. The next two best hitters are generally hitting leadoff and 2nd, because they can get on base and score runs for the 3/4/5 hitters.

All of that is fairly conventional and expected. It’s shown that that range expected over the course of a season was roughly a difference between 643 runs to 671 runs, 28 runs and roughly 2-3 additional wins or additiona losses in the case of the former.

A big deal this offseason has been about pushing Jose Reyes down in the order. Traditionally he’s been a lead off hitter but talk has been about moving him down to the 3rd spot due to his increased power.

In 2005 he hit .273 with a .299 OBP and drew 25 walks. In 2006 he hit .301 with a .354 OBP and drew 52 walks. He also had 19 home runs. 2007 he hit .280 with a .354 OBP and drew 77 walks. He also hit 12 home runs. In 2008 he hit .297 with a .358 OBP and drew 66 walks. He also hit 16 home runs.

He’s been a very solid lead off hitter, even with his mid teen HR power, in part because he gets on base almost 36% of the time and draws a good amount of walks. Rumored replacements include Carlos Beltran who offers 25+ HR power but also has put up OBPs of .376 and .415 the last 2 seasons, and Luis Castillo who’s in the mold of the “traditional” lead off hitter. He rarely hits for more than 3 HR a season but can walk 65-70 times and has got on base at a .355 and .387 clip the last 2 seasons.

It remains to be seen how lineups are created by Opening Day of 2010 and it’s worth keeping an eye out on who gets the coveted lead off roles for your favorite teams. Does the manager go with a guy who can on base at a high percentage or a guy who can steal 70 or 80 bases? As a final reference, the 2001 Seattle Mariners who won 116 games had the player batting lead off put up the third best OBP on the team despite drawing just 33 walks.

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