|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.
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.
3. On-base percentage
4. Stealing bases
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 3½ because he had speed, awareness at the plate, a good on-base percentage; he gets a ½ 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 3½ 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.