Tuesday Lunch: Lead-Off Woes | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Last year, I featured Norichika Aoki as one of the Brewers’ special weapons. Aoki helped the exceptional offense by providing a specific need for the batting order. Even though he might have been an average-at-best bat in RF, the fact that the Brewers maintained excellent production at other positions around the diamond allowed Aoki to serve specifically as a lead-off batter. With strong production elsewhere on the diamond, Aoki’s strengths shone in the lead off spot, and he scored and drove in slightly more runs than the average NL lead off bat in 2012. This was one of many components that helped drive the 2012 Brewers’ offense, and it was certainly one of the club’s best applications of a batter in their order.

Between 2012 and 2013, the National League runs scored and Miller Park environment declined by approximately 31 to 37 runs (dropping to approximately 4.20 RS/G at 2013 NL/Miller Park from approximately 4.39 RS/G in 2012). In this regard, the Brewers’ decline of 136 runs scored looks slightly better — approximately 25% of the Brewers’ decline can be attributed to their environment. Still, that leaves us with the nasty reality that the Brewers’ offense was 100 runs worse in 2013 than in 2012. An offense that was poised to improve on their power/speed abilities and multi-faceted attack encountered injuries, suspensions, ineffectiveness, and rotating replacement cats throughout the season.

If 2012 proved the value that a strong lead-off option can provide a great offense, 2013 proved the club’s inability to use a regular lead-off batter to spark a batting order. Players’ batting values can be effectively measured against their fielding positions simply because players do not frequently shift fielding positions. This is one of the reasons that I cited Aoki’s advantage in 2012 — in the context of a stronger team, Aoki’s positional shortcomings were turned into a specific strength to score more runs. In 2013, Aoki’s fate shifted with the injuries and ineffectiveness of the rest of the club. The Brewers played without their 3-4-5 hitters for some or all of the season, depending on the player, and coupled with other areas of ineffectiveness, that severely hindered their ability to score runs. Aoki was once again among a handful of NL lead-off batters to start more than 100 games at lead-off, but this year, he scored 11 fewer runs and drove in 13 fewer runs than the average lead off batter. Having an “ignitor” could not spark an offense battling injuries and ineffectiveness.

What is striking about the 2013 National League is the strength of lead-off batters in general. In 2012, managers on the Senior Circuit only used regular lead-off batters for approximately 57% of their total lead off PA; they batted, on average, their seventh best bat in the lead-off position. In 2013, despite the depressed run environment, National League managers batted their Top Five hitters in the Top Five spots — a surprising occurrence. In 2013, NL managers batted their fourth best bat in the lead-off position (this seems logical, in batting order theory. 3-4-5 had the three highest OPS, and then came the lead-off batter, in fourth). Lead-off batters hit .267/.333/.388 in 2013, compared to .257/.319/.382 in 2012. Given the decrease in the overall run environment, that’s quite an improvement. Still, managers only were able to use “regular” lead-off batters (approximately 50 GS or more leading off) in 57% of lead-off plate appearances. This should suggest that some of the regulars might not have been great, but other part-time lead-off bats produced well. Seven of 16 regular lead-off batters were below average (for lead-off bats) in 2013:

S-S. Choo: 143 GS, 669 PA, 105 R, 52 RBI, .294/.432/.481
M. Carpenter: 136 GS, 632 PA, 110 R, 69 RBI, .323/.398/.483
D. Span: 134 GS, 611 PA, 66 R, 39 RBI, .269/.322/.360
N. Aoki: 133 GS, 609 PA, 68 R, 32 RBI, .296/.367/.375
E. Young:* 120 GS, 564 PA, 68 R, 32 RBI, .254/.318/.346
S. Marte: 118 GS, 556 PA, 83 R, 34 RBI, .278/.336/.440
D. DeJesus:* 86 GS, 379 PA, 49 R, 31 RBI, .265/.344/.417
C. Crawford: 85 GS, 389 PA, 50 R, 27 RBI, .304/.353/.432
D. Fowler: 84 GS, 380 PA, 54 R, 35 RBI, .263/.378/.411
E. Cabrera: 73 GS, 334 PA, 40 R, 17 RBI, .263/.340/.345
G. Parra: 70 GS, 325 PA, 47 R, 23 RBI, .274/.321/ .436
A. Pagan: 66 GS, 298 PA, 43 R, 29 RBI, .282/.336/.418
A. Simmons: 64 GS, 302 PA, 38 R, 18 RBI, .219/.256/.332
J. Rollins: 63 GS, 278 PA, 22 R, 18 RBI, .243/.290/.357
J. Pierre: 63 GS, 279 PA, 29 R, 8 RBI, .233/.277/.291
G. Blanco: 54 GS, 249 PA, 26 R, 15 RBI, .242/.305/.313

A lead-off batter can become a crucial part of a great offense, or perhaps, even a necessary part of a good offense. But, in the 2013 Brewers’ case, they received little-to-no benefit from having a regular lead off batter in their offense. Certainly, one might point to the struggling offense behind Aoki, and blame some of the other replacement bats for their inability to bring Aoki home. Yet, Aoki wasn’t as good, either, and his inability to produce any benefit at the lead-off position hurts his overall value.

Batting lead off already depresses a player’s run production, since they typically have fewer opportunities to bat with runners in scoring position. A lead off batter’s balance between R and RBI is greatly skewed in favor of R. Therefore, in 2013, Aoki’s inability to produce as a RF hurt the Brewers even more than in 2012; taking the harmonic mean between R and RBI, right field was the Brewers’ worst position in 2013:

Position Brewers R and RBI (Expected based on PA)
CF 86 RRBI (71 expected)
C 77 RRBI (72 expected)
3B 77 RBI (74 expected)
LF 79 RRBI (83 expected)
1B 71 RRBI (75 expected)
SS 68 RRBI (69 expected)
2B 55 RRBI (73 expected)
RF 59 RRBI (91 expected)

During the 2013-2014 offseason, the Brewers’ offensive needs are tied to positions, rather than batting order spots. Between 2012 and 2013, fans and analysts could argue about batting order spots to optimize an already strong offense. This year, we must do completely the opposite. The Brewers were below average at the three top positions (1B, LF, and RF), and they failed to utilize production from SS; 2B might have been a less-important position, but they were below average, there, too. Unfortunately, since the club produced runs at below average levels at five of eight positions, there is no benefit to judging batting positions for the upcoming 2014 season.

Judging positions by taking the harmonic mean between R and RBI gives a quick, at-a-glance look at production. The benefit of using R and RBI to judge offenses is that they are already scaled to environments, as well as the context of a team. Certainly, one can argue that RBI are a factor of luck, and R are too, in some cases. (Yet, whether a club is generally lucky or not will still impact their runs scored, and if a club wins lots of games because they score lots of lucky runs, those wins count just the same). This is certainly not a measure that should be used to predict performance, and it should be used with other stats. It’s basically a way of saying, “in the context of the league, here’s how positions produced runs and RBI”:

1B .118 .124
RF .118 .123
LF .109 .114
3B .106 .111
2B .104 .109
C .102 .107
CF .100 .105
SS .092 .097

If you want a quick and dirty measurement of how many runs a player should produce at a certain position in Miller Park, you can multiply any of these ratios against a specific number of PA. (Ex., in 600 PA, one might expect a 1B to produce 74 runs in 2013 NL/Miller Park).

Logical Batting Order
If you follow the value of the bats that NL managers placed in their batting orders, and translate that into fielding positions, here is the logical 2013 NL batting order:

3B (4th Most Productive)
1B (Most Productive)
SS (Least Productive)

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.

IMAGE: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/BgvZzkVAoCw/Pittsburgh+Pirates+v+Milwaukee+Brewers/_cfnq8daA4l/Norichika+Aoki

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