When it comes to how to choose a leadoff man, Major League Baseball seems to be in a very slow-developing movement. It may be coming one at a time, but we're starting to see a bit more open-mindedness. It's a welcome change.
The latest news on this front would be that Cubs manager Joe Maddon plans to bat slugger Kyle Schwarber leadoff this coming season. He mentioned it back in the Winter Meetings and has continued to say he's going to do it.
I just can see the horror on the faces of the old guard, too.
He's so slow! (He's actually not, he's just not fast). He can't steal bases! (He's 3 for 6 in his career, but he's not a great stolen base threat by any stretch). He'll clog the bases! He has too much power!
Eh, I couldn't care less about any of that. You know what a good leadoff man should do? Get on base. That's it. I don't care about anything else.
The leadoff man is the player who is going to see more plate appearances than anyone else on the team. The name of the game for any given offensive player is to not make outs, thereby extending the game and giving your team more chances to score runs. Ultimately, if no one is making outs, the runs are following.
I'm not sure why it's been such a tough concept to grasp for such a long time, but it seems for decades the leadoff man has to be a center fielder (most likely) or middle infielder with very low power and a good base-stealing ability, OBP be damned.
Absent one of those, though, why pigeonhole a low-OBP center fielder into the leadoff spot?
Let's look at the Giants, for example. Denard Span -- a center-fielder who stole 31 bases in 2014 and has never hit more than 11 homers in a season -- is your prototype. Of course, last season he hit .266 with a .331 OBP. The league average OBP was .322, so he's above average, but not by much.
Look at first base and see Brandon Belt. He didn't steal a single base. He did slug .474 due to 41 doubles, eight triples and 17 homers (consider the home ballpark and what it does to lefties -- otherwise Belt is over 20 homers easily). He also hit .275 with a .394 OBP, ranking fourth in the NL.
But, Matt, what do you do with cleanup?
I don't care. Brandon Crawford, probably. Are we really going to be so concerned with the nickname "cleanup hitter" that we're gonna give an inferior player more at-bats than Posey over the course of the season? Who would you rather step to the plate more often: Posey or Span? Be serious.
Getting back to Schwarber, he's a good fit. In his rookie year, he hit .246, but walked enough to bring home a .355 OBP. Note: That's way better than Span was last season, but what do you want to bet the overwhelming majority of the baseball community (players, managers, coaches, media, fans) would rather hit Span at the top than Schwarber?
It's hard to shake the traditional line of thinking, though. It took me years to get over it.
Someone who isn't scared to do it? Indians manager Terry Francona, as we saw with his bullpen usage in the playoffs en route to an AL pennant.
Guess who hit leadoff the most for the Tribe last year? A lumbering DH who clubbed 34 home runs. Yes, Carlos Santana. Thanks to his 99 walks, he had a .366 OBP, and his career skill set lines up with that. He's just a career .247 hitter, but thanks to his plate discipline, his career OBP is .365. He only stole five bases last season and, again, hit the 34 homers.
Hitting Santana leadoff instead of cleanup would send many people into a frenzy. Instead, Francona rode it to an AL title and nearly a World Series title.
It should be noted that even Tito couldn't help himself when it wasn't Santana, though, as Rajai Davis -- a fast center fielder with a terrible .306 OBP -- batted leadoff second-most on the Indians.
Still, we're gonna give Francona credit here for realizing what value Santana had at the top of the order. He had Santana at the top in 10 of their 15 playoff games.
Now, much of this discussion is because of the Cubs deciding to hit Schwarber at the top, but I'm also eyeing the free agency of Jose Bautista. Most people are viewing him as a power bat who is still on the market, but what if we looked at him in a different direction?
In the past seven seasons, Bautista has a .387 on-base percentage. That's outstanding for anyone not named Joey Votto. He'll be 36 next season, so maybe the power starts to go, but I'm betting the on-base chops last another two to three years. He could obviously help a team as a leadoff man while also providing above-average power. He did so in 40 games last year for the playoff-bound Blue Jays.
To reiterate, no, I don't care that he doesn't run often and plays a corner outfield spot.
This isn't to advocate hitting the top OBP guy leadoff no matter what. Obviously there are other lineup considerations and each situation has many variables.
If you're the Reds, for example, you really hope Billy Hamilton's surge (he hit .285 with a .358 OBP from July 5 to the end of the season) sticks so you can hit Joey Votto second. When you have Ian Kinsler, you hit him ahead of Miguel Cabrera. And on and on.
It's just that far too often, we see teams plugging in a weak-hitting center fielder to the leadoff spot when there are better options. The problem is they just can't get past the traditional lineup structure.
The Marlins are another team that comes to mind. Dee Gordon is a career .325 OBP guy, but he plays second base and he's fast, so he led off more than anyone else on the team last season despite only appearing in 79 games. His OBP on the season was .305, by the way.
Why not Christian Yelich? He hit .298 with a .376 OBP (13th in NL). If we're still worried about power guys, there's plenty left in Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Bour. J.T. Realmuto could even figure in the two-hole, too.
As baseball evolves, we should never be closed off to discussions about ways to do things more efficiently. Lineup construction is always a hot topic among fans, and hopefully the use of players like Santana, Schwarber and maybe Bautista at the top will start to open some eyes as to what can be done when we break away from tradition.