Overtime: On Leadoff Men

By Jack McLoone

Kyle Schwarber looks more like a clean-up hitter than a leadoff man (Courtesy of Wikimedia).

An appropriate way to lead off the 2017 season would be to talk about the guys at the top of the order, right?

If asked to describe the quintessential leadoff man, how would you describe him? Probably as a thin, relatively short and quick shortstop or centerfielder; a slap hitter who beats out a lot of infield singles and doesn’t hit a ton of home runs. He’s Ichiro, Tony Gwynn or, if you’re feeling statistically inclined, Tim Raines.

On the other side of the batter body spectrum is the new leadoff for the defending champion Cubs this season: Kyle Schwarber. You know, the 6’0”, 235-pound catcher-turned-left fielder. Right about now you’re probably thinking that Joe Maddon has finally crossed the genius line from Albert Einstein to Doc Brown. Well, that’s exactly how Maddon will be replacing the departed Dexter Fowler.

Fowler, a centerfielder, is the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David for leadoff men, standing in at 6’5” (wow he’s tall) and 195 pounds. He batted leadoff in all 118 games he started and slashed .277/.393/.449 in those games. That was good for a bWAR (baseball-reference.com’s WAR calculation) of 4.2. He only stole 13 bases, but he led the Cubs in the category and they only stole 66 as a team anyway.

So why shouldn’t fans consider this a signal that Maddon has lost it and is plunging the Cubs into another 108 years of darkness?

Just look at the Cubs’ World Series opponent, the Indians. Standing in at 5’11”, 210 pounds, Carlos Santana is Cleveland’s designated hitter and first baseman. And in 86 games, he was their leadoff man, the most of any player on the team.

Including Santana, there were five (or six, if you count Jose Bautista’s time leading off in Toronto) non-traditional leadoff men in the majors last season. They include:

  • OF George Springer (HOU) – 6’3”, 215 pounds
  • 3B Yunel Escobar (LAA) – 6’2”, 215 pounds
  • 1B/3B Matt Carpenter (STL) – 6’2”, 205 pounds
  • 1B John Jaso (PIT) – 6’2”, 205 pounds

So, what in the world do these guys have in common with someone like Fowler or the Vitruvian leadoff man, the 5’11”, 170-pound Dee Gordon?

It’s an incredibly simple comparison, yet one that looks like the signaling of a major shift in lineup construction: regardless of their body types, those were players that got on base at elite rates.

The genesis of Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” rosters was the exploitation of that undervalued (at the time) skill. Well, the rest of the league has caught on, and now its taken the next step.

Mike Matheny became manager of the Cardinals in 2012, which was also Matt Carpenter’s first season as a mostly big-league player (he appeared in 114 games). The next year, Matheny may have accidentally kick-started a revolution by placing Carpenter into the leadoff spot.

In 2013, Carpenter was the only atypical leadoff man in baseball, and yet he was second among leadoff men in on-base percentage (.398 in the leadoff spot), bookended by Shin Shoo-Choo and Fowler.

In 2014, Carpenter was still the only atypical leadoff man, and led all of them in OBP from that spot in the order with a .375.

In 2015, the Pirates got in on the experiment, slotting the 6’5”, 230-pound Gregory Polanco into the leadoff spot – though he is fairly quick, as he stole 17 bases that year. He had an OBP of .328, on the lower side of leadoff men. Carpenter once again led the leadoff men in OBP with a .389.

In 2016, Carpenter started 114 games as the leadoff man. He also led off 80 times in 2015, 156 times in 2014 and 136 times in 2013.

The accepted logic for a long time has been “get speedy guys on base so your best power hitters in the three, four and five spots can drive them in.” However, some simple analysis has pointed out that, for every spot in the lineup a player moves down from first, the batter loses 16 plate appearances. For example, the lead off position sees around 750 at-bats a season, the fourth just about 700 and the ninth just a tick over 600. In a sport built upon the little differences, that is a lot.

And that’s why it makes sense for Kyle freaking Schwarber – who plays left field with the speed and precision of a wrecking ball free of its chain on a slight decline – to lead off. His one year in the majors he had a .355 OBP, but in both his seasons in the minors it was over .400. The Cubs aren’t moving Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo to leadoff, because there is still something to be said for having guys on base for your best power hitters. And moving Schwarber to fifth or sixth is out of the question due to the aforementioned loss of at-bats.

With the influx of bigger-bodied on-base machines rising to the role of leadoff man to replace the speed-only kind of players like Alcides Escobar (the only leadoff man with a sub-.300 OBP last season) and Billy Hamilton (the same, but in 2015), we may be witnessing one of the more significant reshufflings of the batting order since the introduction of the DH.

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