September 19, 2005
BASEBALL: Follow The Leadoff
Where did all the good leadoff men go - or were they always this rare? It seems, at least, like finding guys who do the basic job of getting on base is awfully hard these days, especially if you think of a leadoff man in the traditional terms of a guy who can run and steal some bases but isn't a big power hitter. I decided to compare this season to some seasons in the not-too-distant past to see how much has really changed.
What I did was to look at all players with an On Base Percentage (OBP) of .370 or higher (in at least 450 plate appearances), which is a good cutoff to identify the mark of excellence in getting on base (it's 40 points above the MLB average). Then, I asked two questions:
1. How many of these guys can steal any bases?
2. How many of these guys wouldn't be used as leadoff men because they are big sluggers? Nobody's gonna lead off Albert Pujols, after all. And more to the point, as anybody who has played Rotisserie baseball, WhatIfSports or any other fantasy or simulation game can easily understand, in an age of tight budgets, it's a lot harder to afford a good leadoff man if you have to pay for one who's going to hit 40 home runs.
Of course, I quickly discovered that I needed a control group to measure how unusual the distribution of the OBP leaders was, so I compared 2005 to 1977 and 1987. I chose 1977 and 1987 because they were the seasons in the 1970s and 1980s most similar to today in terms of league offensive production: In 1977, the NL batted .262/.396/.327 and the AL .266/.405/.329. In 1987, the NL batted .261/.404/.327 and the AL .265/.425/.332. In 2005, the NL is batting .262/.413/.330 and the AL is batting .268/.424/.330. You can see the league leaders in OBP for 1977 here, 1987 here (both based on a full-season 502 plate appearances) and 2005 here.
Let's look at the breakdown of the .370-and-up OBP crowd in each league by steals and slugging. First, as base thieves:
Of course, since steals are a cumulative category, you'd expect 2005 to be just a little low, since the season's not over yet. But still: in 1977, 7 of 31 of the top OBP guys stole 20 or more bases; in 1987, the figure is 12 of 40. In 2005, it's just two guys - Bobby Abreu, whose .515 career slugging percentage makes him awfully expensive to use as a leadoff man, and Brian Roberts.
Now, your real slap hitter, with a slugging percentage below .400, is hard to find here in any era: in 1987, even Brett Butler slugged .425. But in each of the two older seasons, you could find a decent selection of guys below .500: 15 of 31 in 1977, 20 of 40 in 1987. This year? 10 of 34. And that group of 10 includes two bona fide mashers who are just below .500 (Abreu and Brian Giles), two slow-moving catchers (Victor Martinez and Joe Mauer), and three guys who don't run particularly well and have had careers marked by injury and inconsistency, to the point where nobody would have banked on them as leadoff men (Sean Casey, Nick Johnson, and Marcus Giles). That leaves three guys you would legitimately consider as elite leadoff hitters: Derek Jeter, Luis Castillo, and Placido Polanco.
The era of Raines and Rickey, this is not. A corollary is that it may be worth it for more teams to give up on locating a traditional leadoff man and just stack the top of the lineup with sluggers who get on base, especially if they run well (e.g., 1-Beltran, 2-Wright . . .)
"Bobby Abreu, whose .515 career slugging percentage makes him awfully expensive to use as a leadoff man"
I am always amazed at how few people in Philly realize that. The see all the pitches he takes, the walks and the SB's and think he should be at the top of the lineup. To me, he is the perfect 3-hole hitter.
WHY? Why CAN'T Bobby Abreu leadoff? One of the things that made Rickey such a devastating weapon was that he had 20-25 HR power. There is nothing wrong with a system that gets your best hitter the most ABs. Then, you follow with Utley, Burrrell and Howard and you have a pretty darned good shot at getting an early lead. Plus, you wear the starter down rather than having the 2 pitch AB from Jimmy Rollins.
Henderson's career slg% is .419. I guarantee that if he had 100 points more like Bobby, he'd have batted lower in the lineup. I can see where maybe Abreu should be used in leadoff if the Phils had no other option, but the platoon of Michaels and Lofton are a better option than Rollins (except for maybe the last 25 games).
Just to point out that Johnny Damon's OBP is .367 making him only .003 out of consideration. I realize you have to draw the line somewhere but to not consider him a decent lead off man due to this stat that could be changed by 5 for 5 game. In an earlier study on the same topic you excluded lead off guys with slugging %ages over a certain amount or steals under 20.
I do agree that there seem to be less "typical" lead off men than in the past but that seems largely because the game has changed and base stealing (thus speed) is less of consideration for lead off guys. Also with the proliferation of good hitters at the bottom of line-ups (especially in the AL) having a semi-power guy in the 1 hole takes advantage of the fact that there are (or so it seems) a lot more guys hitting .280-.300 in the 7-9 holes than in past decades.
Just curious what your perspective is on Ichiro? We in the Northwest feel pretty satisfied with him as a leadoff hitter. I'm not a baseball numbers nerd, but for the last two years I have heard numerous baseball afficianados comment on how overrated he is. At first I ignored it, but now I hear it more often. What is his place among baseball's best leadoff men?
Valid points here: Ichiro and Damon are both good traditional leadoff men, although Ichiro has not had a particularly good year. But then, some good guys were omitted in the other years as well. My point remains that good leadoff men are relatively scarce.
You certainly could lead off Abreu; it's a debatable point.
All the top OBP guys are sluggers. Here's a top 10 for today:
Giambi (.441 OBP, .546 SLG)
Helton (.439 OBP, .516 SLG)
Pujols (.433 OBP, .618 SLG)
Giles (.427 OBP, .491 SLG)
Lee (.425 OBP, .677 SLG)
Rodriquez (.418 OBP, .604 SLG)
Abreu (.415 OBP, .495 SLG)
Hafner (.410 OBP, .576 SLG)
Berkman (.410 OBP, .511 SLG)
Johnson (.404 OBP, .480 SLG)
One reason why Ichiro and Damon don't make this list, despite their high averages, is that there's no reason to pitch around them. During the current power era, the vast majority of weak hitters will have more trouble getting bases on balls than in earlier "little ball" times.
Rickey had exactly 4 seasons in which he hit more than 20 HR.
He had more seasons with a SLG under .400 than over .400.
Ditto seasons with more than 10 HR vs. less than 10.
He never had as many as 300 total bases in a season.
Rickey is the greatest leadoff hitter ever, but we romanticize his power. I don't know if that's due to his longevity, his record for leadoff HR, or his phenomenal 1990 season.
He was the perfect leadoff guy: great OBP, great base-stealer (over 80% success rate), and just enough power. Any more power, and you'd want him to hit #2 or #3.