A common refrain from Brewers fans is, “The Brewers need a lead-off hitter.” This chorus has been prominent since Doug Melvin traded Norichika Aoki to Kansas City, and it reverberated beneath the club’s hunt for a 1B during the winter meetings. Yet, the fans’ desire for a lead-off batter is over-stated, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, fans overplay potential batting order spots for roster construction, compared to the importance of actual fielding positions. Fans seem unwilling to accept the general determinism that accompanies fielding positions in the MLB. Since clubs cannot typically move players around the diamond as they please, there is a sense that fielding positions are more important than batting order spots (for, managers can and do change batting orders all the time). Secondly, fans dream of lead-off production without weighing the full balance of batting order dynamics; lead-off production depends almost wholly on runs scored, given the dearth of runs batted in from that position. This impacts the type of player that teams might want to bat lead-off. Finally, following this point, there simply is not a specific type of lead-off batter; in 2012, NL managers batted their seventh best bats lead-off, and only five players played 100 games at lead-off (that number improved to six in 2013). Stated simply, even NL managers seem to suggest that a lead-off batter is more of a last minute accommodation, rather than a full-time batting role.
Personally, my interpretation of this issue has changed over time. Several years ago, I would typically argue in favor of batting the best OBP, or even a team’s best bat, first in order. The general idea was to get the team’s best bats the most PA. Yet, it may not be the number of PA that benefits a team’s best bats, but where those plate appearances occur.
In terms of run production, here is how the batting positions in the 2013 NL depended on runs scored and runs batted in. At the top of the order, a batter’s value depends much more on runs than runs batted in, whereas later batting spots rely more on runs batted in (but not to the extreme extent that lead-off batters depend on runs scored). Below, the “% of Production” judges a batting order’s balance between R and RBI against their “abstract” runs created (or, more simply, their batting stats. It is worth noting that in general, the 2013 NL scored fewer runs than the basic runs created calculations suggested. So, in general, the whole league “underplayed” their stats):
|Order||R / RBI||RRBI / PA||RC / PA||% of Production|
|2013 NL||1.05||9480 RRBI||9972 RC||95.1|
|RRBI ((2*R*RBI)/(R+RBI))||RC [((H+BB)*(TB))/(AB+BB)]|
In terms of maximizing the Brewers’ runs scored, the club should be much more concerned about stacking their very best bats in the middle of the order, rather than worried about who is going to lead off at the top of the order. What the Brewers need to balance is which batting positions are going to have the most power and discipline potential, and note which positions are not going to be as productive. Once the Brewers determine how to stack their best bats, they can address who will bat first: which bat can afford to lose 22% of his potential production, and benefit from a position that does not require runs batted in?
Judging from the 2013 National League’s positional performances, there is not much of a difference in batting order production, depending on how bats are moved into different positions. One can test this idea by placing the average NL fielding positions into different batting order spots. First, here’s how the 2013 positions produced, in terms of their R and RBI (and, how Miller Park’s environment impacts positions):
Now, here’s how those positions look if we place them in different types of batting orders (prorating production by plate appearances and following estimates for production lost). For instance, let’s try something crazy and place our bats in order from best to worst. This would be akin to leading off with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the Brewers’ recent glory years. Not surprisingly, this batting order is not as productive as one might expect, 22% of Braun’s production potential goes out the window (not to mention 11% of Fielder’s potential). Batting your fourth and fifth best bats in the fourth and fifth spots just doesn’t make up for that. In fact, as the charts below show, teams in 2013 would have been more productive had they batted their worst two bats first and second than batting them best-to-last; as you can see, other models suffer similar fates (I also tested bumping the best three bats down 4-5-6, rather than 3-4-5):
|Order||PA||Best-to-Last||RRBI||Worst First||RRBI||Slighty-Better First||RRBI||Dropping Best||RRBI|
PA calculated by dividing (League Batting Order PA) by (Number of Teams). Estimated RRBI calculated by multiplying (Positional Production — See Above Chart) by (Plate Appearances). That number is then multiplied by the “% of Production” estimate from the first chart. These estimates are also adjusted to Miller Park.
More than anything, working with potential batting orders shows the importance of having many strong bats on a roster. The exceptional 2012 Brewers’ offense proved the importance of this: since they received solid production from some middle diamond positions (such as catcher), they could afford to have Aoki bat in right field. Moreover, given the excellent corner bats at LF, 3B, and 1B, the Brewers did not need clean-up performance from their right fielder. This allowed Aoki to break-out in the lead off spot, and thrive at the top of an excellent batting order (and, even then, he actually produced approximately 80% of this potential runs created). One might argue that this very logic explains why having Aoki bat lead-off in 2013 did not ignite the Brewers’ batting order; since they lost valuable corner production for portions of the season (sometimes from LF, 1B, and 3B at the same time), they could not hide Aoki’s bat. Having a potentially great lead-off batter won’t necessarily improve a weak batting order.
In light of the recent Winter Meetings, one might argue that it is much more important for the Brewers to land a 1B than a lead-off batter. In this sense, the Brewers don’t need a lead-off bat like they need a 1B. Aoki was quite a fan favorite, and fans equate his performance with the strength of lead-off hitters in general. Yet, Aoki’s strongest season came within the midst of an excellent all-around, multi-faceted batting order. Given the strength of 1B in the current National League, not to mention other potential holes on the diamond, the Brewers need a first baseman. The rest can sort itself out.
Sorting the Bats
Luckily, we have the entire offseason to write and debate about precisely this type of issue. So, here’s a particular best-case scenario that is fun to think about for sorting out the Brewers batting order. If Braun and Ramirez remain healthy for an entire season, and Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy remain generally productive bats, the Brewers will have a handful of bats to shift around their order. In the case that each of these bats are productive, the Brewers could benefit from the general contact-oriented nature of Segura and Lucroy’s bats by bumping down Braun and Ramirez:
2B Gennett / Weeks
1B Francisco / Halton
One of the benefits of this type of batting order is that if the Brewers cannot find a suitable 1B, the issue of platoon production from Juan Francisco and Sean Halton is minimized. Furthermore, if Ron Roenicke can effectively use the baserunning attack as he did in 2012 (or at least effectively use aspects of the baserunning attack), keeping contact-oriented bats (especially Segura and Lucroy) high in the order could help produce some of those magical intangible assets that we all love to dream about in a batting order. We want a batting order that clicks, and if the Brewers have a handful of productive bats to choose from, dropping down Braun and Ramirez could help maximize production elsewhere in the order.
As much as Brewers fans would like to think of the potential that a fine lead-off batter could add to the Brewers, this issue is secondary to other concerns for the Brewers:
(1) The Brewers need to make specific personnel decisions about other positions, especially at 1B.
(2) The Brewers have relatively inflexible fielders at almost every position, which means they cannot simply shift around personnel in the field to land a lead-off bat.
(3) There are question marks about health and production at most positions, which negates the need for a specialized batting role based on batting order (rather than fielding) position.
Of course, by the time the season rolls on, this issue will probably be moot. The Brewers could be one of nine or 10 NL clubs that do not have a lead-off batter to play 100 games, and that would not necessarily say anything of their potential success one way or the other. Roenicke could use boatloads of batting orders, or he might end up with one set crew that he likes; either way, the Brewers’ lead-off position can be settled by lot, and the success of their lead-off position will depend more on whether the club can acquire a 1B and receive production in the middle of the diamond. In the case that everything goes right, almost anyone can bat lead-off. So…who’s on first?
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2013.