Generally speaking, lineup construction on any given day probably carries too much of our discussion. Sure, it matters, but to nitpick every single spot in the order is ultimately a slight waste of time. Then again, we baseball fans love to analyze the minutiae of every single situation anyway, so whatâs the harm?
Given that weâre in the middle of spring training, what better time than to look ahead at possibly the most-argued lineup spot: the leadoff man.
Whatâs funny is how out of whack priorities can be when it comes to finding the correct leadoff man.
Remember Joey Gathright? He carried a career .631 OPS (68 OPS+) in parts of seven seasons from 2004-11. Yet he started more at the top of the lineup and took more plate appearances there (as a starter) than any other spot in the batting order. In 302 career plate appearances in the one-spot in the lineup, Gathright hit .232 with a .282 on-base percentage.
So why was he hitting leadoff? Because he could run like the wind. He stole 81 bases in his career, with three seasons of 20-plus steals. Of course, you canât steal first base and itâs such a misguided concept to pigeonhole a bad hitter into the leadoff spot just because he can run.
If thereâs a close call and one of the players is an excellent base-stealer, sure, Iâll side with him. If not, I donât care. Sorry. My leadoff man would always be one of the better hitters on the team with great on-base chops. Gimme the OBP, you can keep the speed. The leadoff spot is for setting the table. You set the table by getting on base, not dreaming on what might happen if he gets on.
With that in mind, weâre gonna run through each league team-by-team and see who the best leadoff man on paper would be. Iâm not picking who will lead off. Iâm discussing who I think should lead off. Note the âon paperâ mention, because sometimes there are other factors at play.
We start with one of my least favorite entries. I love Buck Showalter and I love Adam Jones, but this isnât the right fit. Jones is a swing-first player with power who doesnât take walks. His career high in walks actually did come last season, but it was 39. He sports a career .318 on-base percentage. For comparisonâs sake, some .318 OBP guys last year were Mike Zunino and Cheslor Cuthbert. The league average was .322, so the Oâs actually have a below-average OBP guy setting the table? And one who could hit 30 homers? Câmon!
Of course, the Orioles donât have many great options. At the bare minimum, it should be Hyun soo Kim against right-handers. The lefty-swinging Kim looks like heâll be in a platoon, but he hit .302 with a .382 OBP last season (it was .321/.393 against righties, too).
Against southpaws, I guess I wonât argue with Jones in the top spot, but itâs due to a lack of options. Jonesâ skillset says he should be a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Boston Red Sox
On the flip-side, the options are plentiful here. Though they wonât have as much power as the Oâs, the Red Sox led the league in team OBP last season. David Ortiz takes his .401 mark with him, but returning are Mookie Betts (.363), Xander Bogaerts (.356), Dustin Pedroia (.376) and Rookie of the Year possibility Andrew Benintendi (.359 in only 34 games).
There isnât really a wrong choice, but Iâm going Pedroia here, as the Red Sox did eventually last season and will probably do again in 2017.
Chicago White Sox
Manger Rick Renteria, please donât make shortstop Tim Anderson your leadoff man. He hit .283 last season but struck out 117 times vs. 13 walks. His .306 OBP was well below average, and a table-setting situation doesnât suit him, at least not yet.
We might see some of Charlie Tilson, and his minor-league track record suggests that wouldnât be so bad.
Could I suggest Melky Cabrera? He sports a career .337 OBP after posting a .345 mark last season. If weâre worried about that sort of thing, the Sox still have Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier for the power spots in the order, too.
Of course, Tilson could really settle in and then Tilson-Cabrera-Abreu-Frazier works well for the top four. Just let Anderson develop lower in the order, please.
Iâm good with either Tilson or Cabrera here.
Hereâs a great example of how to do it right. Listen to Terry Francona. The Indians won 94 games and the AL last season with 1B/DH Carlos Santana, who hit 34 homers and only stole five bases, leading off the majority of the time. Oh, the horror!
Santana only struck out 99 times, which coincidentally matched the number of times he walked. His .259 average doesnât look like much, but his .366 OBP was eighth in the AL.
Santana is an excellent choice by an excellent manager.
Ian Kinsler is just fine. Moving along ...
Of course, his splits donât indicate he was much different there than second. Look:
- Batting first: .261/.362/.454
- Batting second: .260/.354/.462
Springer also struck out 178 times while stealing nine bases. He did walk more than Jose Altuve, but Altuve hits for such a high average (.338) that his .396 OBP was fourth in the AL. Altuve stole 30 bases. Yes, Altuve added power, but Springer still hit more home runs (29 to 24). Altuve also only struck out 70 times in 717 plate appearances, an amazing rate.
Itâs not as if the Astros are desperate for middle-of-the order hitter when they have Springer, Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick. Plus, Alex Bregman would make for a fine two-hole behind Altuve.
I donât see many better leadoff options in baseball than Jose Altuve, and heâs not even hitting there on his own team.
Kansas City Royals
Now that Jarrod Dyson is in Seattle, Iâm fearful that manager Ned Yost will go back to Alcides Escobar, and thatâs an utterly dreadful idea. The average AL leadoff man hit .270 with a .333 OBP last year. Escobar hit .242/.269 from the spot. Yuck.
I realize heâs coming off a terrible season, but Alex Gordon might merit another look. Even with that .220 average last year, he still got on base at a .312 clip. In 2015, his OBP was .377. From 2011-15, it was .359.
Gordon is the choice. If he struggles badly out of the gate, I guess itâll have to be Whit Merrifield (.283/.323 last year) or Cheslor Cuthbert (.274/.318), whoever is playing second.
Just, please, no Alcides.
Los Angeles Angels
In the past two seasons, Yunel Escobar has hit .309 with a .365 OBP. No reason to overthink this one.
A first baseman who used to be a catcher? GASP!
Yep, Iâm going full-on Joe Mauer. He still works a count and takes walks. He only struck out 93 times last season while posting a .363 OBP. Brian Dozier was the primary leadoff man last year and he had a .340 OBP, but hit 42 bombs. I donât care about the 18 stolen bases. Get Mauer in front of him. A 2-0 lead in the first is better than 1-0. Itâs math.
And if Mauer frightens you too much, how about Robbie Grossman? He hit .280 with a .386 OBP last year.
New York Yankees
Middle infielders Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius donât fit the bill, each sporting an OBP of .300-.305 last year. Chase Headley once had back-to-back seasons with an OBP over .374, but heâs been .327 since the beginning of 2014. So it looks like itâs either Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury. Theyâre the same age, but Gardner had a 21-point OBP advantage last year while Ellsbury struck out fewer times and stole four more bases.
You know my preference. Gardner is the pick.
Itâs going to be Rajai Davis, who led the AL with 43 stolen bases last season. Of course, his .306 OBP in each of the last two seasons is below league average and terrible for a table-setting leadoff man. Iâd rather have Ryon Healy, who hit .305 with a .337 OBP as a rookie last season (72 games, 283 plate appearances). Before his call last season, he was hitting .326 with a .382 OBP between Double-A and Triple-A. Maybe he doesnât stick. Maybe he does. Iâd just rather have someone leading off who actually gets on base.
There are two very good options here and it really depends upon lineup preference. Jarrod Dyson fits the mold as he hit .278 with a .340 OBP and 30 steals last season. Jean Segura hit .319 with a .368 OBP and 33 steals. Now, Segura was awful in 2014-15, but there might have been some circumstances working against him (he lost an infant in 2014 and during these years was hit in the face multiple times by pitch).
I mentioned lineup construction. The Mariners have an awesome offensive nucleus of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Iâd rather them be 2-3-4 than 3-4-5, so Segura at the top is my choice with Dyson a productive late-order hitter. Maybe even ninth, as then every time after the first through the lineup, it looks like Dyson, Segura, Cano, Cruz, Seager.
Whatâs the difference? Let me answer the question with a question. Who would you rather have bat more times in a game: Dyson or Cano?
Tampa Bay Rays
With a dearth of legitimate options here, perhaps Matt Duffy parties like itâs 2015 when he hit .295 with a .334 OBP for the Giants. He was even 12 for 12 in steals. Otherwise, Kevin Kiermaier fits the bill. He had a .331 OBP with 21 steals last year. His OBP the previous season was .298, though.
I think Iâd give Kiermaier the shot first, but Duffyâs right there.
Carlos Gomez settled into the role down the stretch, hitting .284 with a .362 OBP. It was only 130 plate appearances, but if he keeps that up, itâs lovely.
Toronto Blue Jays
Through 163 career games, Devon Travis sports a .301 average and .342 OBP. So long as he can stay on the field, heâs a fine selection.
Of course, Iâd love to see the Jays go back to the Jose Bautista well. They have enough down-order power in Josh Donaldson, Kendrys Morales, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, for those concerned, and Bautista has four seasons with at least 100 walks, helping to push that OBP with the Jays to .382 (and thatâs over nine years).
My vote would go to Bautista, regardless of Travisâ status.
Now that Segura is gone, A.J. Pollock is the only viable choice, and heâs a very good one.
Dansby Swanson could be better, but I like him fine in the two-hole with Freddie Freeman behind him. Ender Inciarte, meantime, boasted a .351 OBP last year while only striking out 68 times and stealing 16 bases. He got off to a terrible start, but hit .341/.396/.440 after the All-Star break. Hoo boy will we take that. Ender it is.
The Cubs are set to hit Kyle Schwarber leadoff this season. Itâs bound to draw the ire of many because OMG BIG GUY WITH HUGE POWER NO RUN. He also has a career .353 OBP against a .242 average, showing heâs patient beyond his years at the plate.
But is he the best option?
What about Ben Zobrist? He hit had a .386 OBP last year with 96 walks against only 82 strikeouts. Few in the majors have a better eye at the plate than Zobrist, either.
I know why Maddon has configured this as such. Schwarber hits left and Maddon wants Kris Bryant (right) to hit second with Anthony Rizzo (left) to hit third. Zobrist is a switch-hitter, but if he led off, Schwarber is hitting cleanup and itâs lefty-lefty behind Rizzo, giving opposing teams the late-inning option to use a lefty specialist for two straight hitters.
But I think Iâd go with Zobrist, Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber (with righty Addison Russell fifth) if this matters so much. Zobrist is my pick.
Billy Hamilton is a huge discussion point, as he looked for a bit like he was trying to resemble Gathright. Hereâs the thing, though: He might have finally put it all together last season at age 25. In the second half, Hamilton hit .293 with a .369 OBP. Given his ridiculous speed (he was 36 of 40 in steals in the second half last year) and Joey Votto hitting behind him, if Hamilton keeps that up, heâs going to lead the league in runs scored. Give him a shot this year to keep his second half going.
Charlie Blackmon is coming off a career year, so thereâs no big reason to move him for the Rockies, but Iâd flip him and DJ LeMahieu to start the season. LeMahieu walks more, strikes out less and had Blackmon by 35 OBP points.
So to start the season, LeMahieu is my No. 1 choice with Blackmon the other option, but thereâs no reason to split hairs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Keep an eye on Joc Pedersonâs growth, though. If he continues to raise his average (up from .210 to .246 last year) and can cut down on the strikeouts, his penchant for working counts and taking walks really fits well. Hell, his .352 OBP last year was great, given his strikeout tendencies. Sure, the Dodgers would have to reconfigure things (from a lefty-righty point of view) if Pederson led off, but itâs worth watching.
Dee Gordon is skinny and steals lots of bases. Plus he plays second base, so heâs an old-schoolerâs obvious leadoff man. If every year of his career was like 2015, heâd work well there, too. Itâs just that he had a career .314 OBP before that season and then was at .305 last year.
Christian Yelich, by the way, has a career .368 OBP and posted a .376 mark last season. I donât think this is a particularly tough decision. Yelich all day, every day.
In fact, hit Gordon ninth. Then itâs like heâs leading off every time through the order in front of Yelich, Martin Prado, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna but getting fewer plate appearances than the rest of them. He can steal bases and score runs the few times he gets on base in front of them.
The Marlins were second in batting average last year but 13th in runs because they ranked 12th in OPS. They need to get on base and hit for more power. Leading off with Gordon doesnât help them with either.
Jonathan Villar led the majors with 62 steals, so he obviously has to lead off, right?
Actually, yes, he does (did I fool you?). He got on base at a nice .369 clip.
New York Mets
The way I see it, there are two options.
Jose Reyes got off to a slow start after his domestic-violence suspension, but he hit .279 with a .339 OBP in his last 48 starts. We know heâs plenty comfortable leading off as well.
The other would be Asdrubal Cabrera, who hit .280 with a .336 OBP over the course of a whole season and is roughly two years younger. Both are switch-hitters, but Cabreraâs OBP is more average-driven.
Iâll go Reyes, but I wonât be surprised if he has a bad year and needs to be swapped out.
The Phillies actually have a pair of very good options. Cesar Hernandez hit .294 with a .371 OBP and 17 steals last season. Odubel Herrera was at .286, .361 and 25, respectively. Iâd go with them hitting one-two in the order I listed, though the Phillies seem to want Herrera in the three-hole.
Josh Harrison only walked 18 times in 522 plate appearances last season. He better hit for an average well above .300 in order to justify holding down the top spot.
What about Starling Marte? He hit .311 with a .362 OBP and 47 steals last season. Heâs actually hit leadoff more often than anywhere else in his career, but the Pirates bumped him down last year. In fact, he hit cleanup more often than any other spot in 2016. They bumped him because heâd shown a big divide in strikeouts and walks. Last year he walked only 23 times against 104 strikeouts in 529 plate appearances. Youâd like to see more walks and possibly fewer strikeouts (this was only 129 games), but where else to look?
Perhaps Josh Bell can fit the bill. The switch-hitting rookie had only 152 plate appearances last season, but he walked more than he struck out (21 to 19) while hitting .273 with a .368 OBP. In Triple-A last year, he hit .295 with a .382 OBP. The skill set seems to be there, at least enough to try him.
Also, I know the idea of catchers hitting first freaks people out, but Francisco Cervelli has a .373 OBP the past two years as the Piratesâ regular catcher. He even stole six bases last year, if that sort of thing convinces you that itâs acceptable.
Iâd pick Bell to start, with Cervelli as a fall-back option.
San Diego Padres
Among Padres players who appeared in at least 100 games last season, Travis Jankowskiâs .332 OBP was within 10 points of the team lead. He also stole 30 bases and he displayed some decent-to-good on-base chops in the minors. The only other person Iâd think about here is Yangervis Solarte, but one, he only has Jankowski by nine points of OBP, and two, he doesnât run while having a lot more power. The gap in OBP isnât enough to overcome how much more the lineup needs Jankowski at the top and Solarte toward the middle.
San Francisco Giants
This wonât happen, but Iâd go with Brandon Belt. He walked more than 100 times last season and was fifth in the NL with a .394 OBP. Then follow him with Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford. There isnât much middle-of-the-order power, but thatâs already the case. No Giants player had even 18 homers last year (Belt led with 17).
It should be noted that Joe Panik is the ideal option, should be bounce back. He was injured some last season and only hit .239/.315/.379, but in 2015, he hit .312/.378/.455. He did walk more than he struck out last season, too. If he puts those together, you go Panik (L), Posey (R), Belt (L) as the top three.
So Belt is my pick, but a good version of Panik would trump that.
St. Louis Cardinals
Dexter Fowler ranked sixth in the NL in OBP last season and in his career sits 16th among active qualifiers. Thereâs a reason the Cardinals signed him, and this is a no-brainer that merits no further discussion.
Trea Turner is the easy and obvious pick and I wonât avoid taking him. In only 73 games last year, he hit .342 with a .370 OBP and 33 steals. I do worry that the 59 strikeouts against only 14 walks could develop into a problem should he slump as a super soph.
If thatâs the case, though, thereâs Adam Eaton, who has an excellent career leadoff profile. Heâd be the pick for many teams, but is the fall-back here.