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Wednesday, April 17
 
Speed kills at leadoff spot

By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com

There has never been a better leadoff hitter than Rickey Henderson. Even though he is now 43 and a bench player for the Red Sox, during his career he embodied everything one looks for in a great player at the top of the order.

Today's game has no one who comes close to Rickey. And there are fewer solid leadoff hitters than ever before. Teams are more likely to get runners on base and try for the three-run homer than they are to play "small ball" -- stealing bases, bunting a runner over or executing the hit-and-run.

Despite what some may think, Rickey's greatest quality as a leadoff man was not his high on-base percentage. In fact, for those who consider Jeremy Giambi to be the right choice as Oakland's leadoff hitter, the ability to get on base is not even the second most important quality.

Best duo ever?
Are Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine the best pitching tandem you have seen?
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale may be the best 1-2 punch -- or Koufax and anyone. Maddux and Glavine are the Koufax and Drysdale of this generation, but the game is different now. Although I'm exaggerating a little, Koufax would strike out 8,000 people today because the hitters are free swingers and they don't choke up with two strikes. There are more strikeouts than ever before, and the pitching is worse.

The success of Maddux and Glavine can be attributed to their control. It's more important than anything else, including their ability to change speeds. They are able to throw all their pitches for strikes. Even if they are behind in the count, they can throw a changeup for a strike or throw a pitch right off the corners. When they don't have their control, they get knocked around.

Other special pitching duos I remember were Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry in San Francisco, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman in New York, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton in St. Louis, Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue in Oakland, and Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette in Milwaukee.

But if Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling stay together for about three more years, they may be the best ever. So far they have only done it for one year. They are certainly the most powerful duo. Koufax was as overpowering as Johnson, but Drysdale wasn't as overpowering as Schilling is.
-- Joe Morgan

Just like baseball has its five-tool players -- those who can hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw -- there are also five tools for leadoff men. With Rickey as the perfect example, here are the five that comprise a great leadoff hitter, in order of importance.

1. Speed
Speed is No. 1 because it puts pressure on the defense. It doesn't necessarily mean the leadoff man has to steal bases. But he can get down the line and break up a double play. The infield knows it has to hurry on a ground ball to force him at second base. The outfield knows the leadoff man can go from first to third on a single. The pitcher knows he has to deliver the ball quicker to the plate. The hitter knows he will get fastballs early in the count; the pitcher doesn't want to go to a 2-1 or 3-1 count because it presents an automatic hit-and-run situation.

2. Awareness
The leadoff man must have the right mentality and realize the importance of his job the first time up. He has to be willing to take pitches and sacrifice part of his at-bat to give his team a longer look at the pitcher. Taking as many pitches as possible allows his teammates to see how sharp the pitcher's breaking ball is, how much control he has with his fastball, and how much movement is on his pitches. The more pitches a team sees, the better.

3. On-base percentage
On-base percentages are overrated for a leadoff hitter. All the sluggers have high on-base percentages. Jason Giambi led the American League in on-base percentage a year ago, but what does he do once he is on base? All he can do is stand at first base and wait for someone else to move him around. But if a player has speed and the right mental approach, on-base percentage becomes more important for a leadoff man. The more times he is on base, the more he can use his speed.

4. Stealing bases
A good leadoff hitter does not need to steal bases, but it doesn't hurt. There is a difference between a base stealer and someone who steals bases. Many players can steal bases, not many are base stealers. When a base stealer is on first base in the ninth inning and everyone in the ballpark knows he is going, the other team still can't stop him. Maury Wills and Lou Brock were two players who fit this mold. Neither player walked much, but they were unstoppable as base stealers.

5. Power
This is one of the qualities that separates Rickey, who has hit 290 homers in his career and more leadoff homers than any player in history.

Rickey is the only five-tool leadoff hitter ever. A few others had four tools, like Wills, Brock and Davey Lopes. Pete Rose, who was an excellent leadoff hitter, would get a 3 because he had speed, awareness at the plate, a good on-base percentage; he gets a for stealing a base every once in a while. His main asset was his mentality and his ability to take the extra base or break up a double play.

Hitting behind Pete for the Reds was valuable to me as a left-handed hitter. Every time he got on base, the hole opened between first and second base. Any time I hit the ball through the hole, he automatically went to third; he never stopped.

Although I had the qualities of a good leadoff man, I offered more options to my team as either a second or third hitter. I could take advantage of the hole on the right side, drive in runs or serve as a second leadoff man if, for instance, Pete got out to lead off the game.

Of today's players, Kenny Lofton, Craig Biggio and Ichiro each have 3 of the five tools. Although he is not as dominant as he used to be at stealing bases, Lofton has been on base in 12 straight games for the White Sox and is still a catalyst, as he was at the end of last season for Cleveland. Biggio used to have four tools, but he is no longer as big a threat stealing bases.

While Ichiro does his job to get on base, he doesn't allow his teammates to see pitches. He will hit the first pitch. Recently, I saw him swing on a 2-0 count to start the game, something a good leadoff hitter is not supposed to do. He may have had 242 hits last season, but he also walked only 30 times. Getting on base alone doesn't make one a great leadoff hitter.

At the same time, no leadoff hitter is better than Ichiro when there is a runner in scoring position. He always tries to get a hit and drive in the run. Past leadoff hitters drove in fewer runs because they thought their primary job was to get on base.

I like the speed and offensive ability of Colorado's Juan Pierre, although I have yet to study his mental prowess as a leadoff man. One player who has the perfect mentality is Los Angeles' Dave Roberts, even if he is not as good as the others. Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said Roberts made the team because he was fundamentally sound and would try to bunt and to take pitches. Roberts has the potential to be a four-tool leadoff hitter.

In Oakland, though, Jeremy Giambi is not a good leadoff man, even with a better than .400 on-base percentage. A's manager Art Howe hits Giambi in the top spot because he said he has no one else who can lead off.

Here was the A's lineup on Opening Day: Jeremy Giambi leading off, followed by Randy Velarde, Scott Hatteberg and David Justice. That's four automatic double plays on any ground ball. The A's lead the American League at hitting into double plays and are last in baseball in stolen bases. Any time the A's hit the ball on the ground, they put no pressure on the infielder making the turn at second base because they lack baserunning speed to get from first to second and from home to first.

The A's lineup has to change if they want to win a championship. They can get away with a lineup built around high on-base percentages during the regular season, when they can generate big offensive numbers against mediocre pitching. But they will not win in the postseason without an ability to manufacture runs at the top of the order. When the A's faced the Yankees' excellent pitching in the last season's American League Division Series, they walked 11 times and scored only 12 runs in the five-game series.

Some people may prefer Jeremy Giambi over Arizona's Tony Womack as a leadoff hitter because Womack has such a low on-base percentage. But the Diamondbacks won the World Series with Womack hitting leadoff. His speed came into play late in the series and helped them win the championship. During their championship run, the Yankees had two players with speed at the top of the order -- Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter.

"Small ball" comes into play more against teams with the best pitching. And it all starts at the top. No one has the next Rickey, but having a leadoff man with a few more tools than on-base percentage will get a team closer to its ultimate goal.

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is a baseball analyst for ESPN and writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.







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