On May 1, these players were leadoff hitters in MLB games: Kyle Schwarber, Mike Moustakas, Seth Smith, Carlos Santana, Michael Conforto and George Springer. Among this group are power hitters, two former catchers, three guys who would generously be described as slow, and one guy who is a slow, power-hitting former catcher coming off knee surgery.
The changing face of the leadoff hitter is a revolution that has long been called for by statistical analysts, stressing that getting on base is a more important factor in scoring runs than speed and the ability to steal bases. Some managers are finally willing to toss aside any notion of convention by putting these sluggers in the leadoff spot.
In the case of Schwarber, a very big-bodied slugger, he hit leadoff in 28 of the Cubs' first 31 games entering Monday’s play. The three times he didn’t hit leadoff were games he didn’t start. Santana has hit leadoff in every Indians game, after doing so 85 times last year in a season in which he hit 34 home runs. The Orioles, who stole just 19 bases as a team in 2016, have lacked a conventional leadoff type for years. While manager Buck Showalter has used five different leadoff hitters in 2017, Smith, who has 21 career stolen bases in 11 seasons, hits leadoff when he starts. Royals manager Ned Yost hasn’t had the resolution to stick with Moustakas, using him three times in the leadoff spot, while moving him to the 2-hole of late. Some habits are hard to break.
Back in spring training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon explained why he loved the idea of Schwarber hitting leadoff in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. "There’s a pause there," he said. "If you don’t want to pitch to him, the guys coming up behind are pretty interesting. It’s formidable, so it’s uncomfortable from the other side."
Maddon was a minor league manager in the Angels' system in 1982 when Gene Mauch -- in most ways, a classic old-school manager -- employed one of the most unconventional leadoff hitters in history. Brian Downing was a 31-year-old former catcher-turned-left fielder with below-average speed. In 146 games as a leadoff hitter that year, he stole just two bases, but he hit 26 home runs, posted a .366 OBP and scored 105 runs. The Angels won their division. Downing would spend much of the rest of his career as a leadoff hitter, even starting there 56 times as a 41-year-old DH with the Rangers in 1992.
The Astros, however, have a prototypical leadoff hitter in Jose Altuve. He hits for average, gets on base and has swiped 30-plus bases the past five seasons. Indeed, manager A.J. Hinch used Altuve in the leadoff spot most of the first two months of 2016 before switching to the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Springer, who started there 116 times and hit 20 home runs. He scored 89 runs even though he struck out 130 times and stole just six bases.
At least Springer has above-average speed. As Maddon alluded to with Schwarber, the threat of a home run from the first pitch of the game means the opposing pitcher never has an easy moment. Springer has hit four home runs leading off games this year.
If it seems that leadoff hitters are hitting more home runs, it’s because they are. Entering Monday, players in the leadoff spot had accounted for 10.0 percent of all home runs; in 2016, it was 10.3 percent. In 2012, it was 8.2 percent, and, if you go back to 1972, leadoff hitters hit just 5.9 percent of all home runs. Relative to the league, leadoff hitters are hitting more home runs and driving in more runs than ever before. What’s interesting, however, is that leadoff hitters aren’t necessarily scoring more runs:
The rate of runs actually has remained fairly constant. What’s changed to some extent is how those runs are scored. As leaguewide batting averages decline and home runs increase, more runs than ever are scored via home runs. In other words, you’re less likely to score on a single, since there are fewer singles. That makes the strategy of getting to first base, stealing second and scoring on a base hit less viable.
Managers of yesteryear maybe weren’t quite as dumb as we want to believe though. After all, leadoff hitters always have had a better-than-average OBP -- except in 2017, at least so far. Maybe Yost needs to reconsider Moustakas; Royals' leadoff hitters have a .214 OBP. Or maybe the managers of today aren’t as smart as they should be, given all their statistical access.
Consider the Miami Marlins. Dee Gordon has hit leadoff in 27 of the team’s 30 games. He’s super-fast and can steal a base. He also has a .318 OBP and no power. In the three games he didn’t start, catcher J.T. Realmuto hit leadoff. Realmuto had a .343 OBP last year and is at .374 this year. He’s a league-average runner. The Marlins would probably score a few more runs with Realmuto hitting leadoff and Gordon hitting lower in the order, in part because the leadoff hitter usually gets an extra plate appearance. Yet manager Don Mattingly remains stuck in the old archetype. You can almost see the neurons fighting in his brain: This guy LOOKS like a leadoff hitter, but this other guy SHOULD be the leadoff hitter.
So the revolution continues. Then again, maybe the revolution is irrelevant. Studies show that batting orders don’t really matter all that much, unless you do really dumb stuff, like batting your pitcher leadoff. But in a game in which everyone can hit home runs, the reasonable choice may be to simply stack all your best hitters at the top of the order -- even if they run like Kyle Schwarber.