In the past. I’ve written about the Brewers’ RF situation in 2012, which featured strong lead-off bat (but average-at-best positional bat) Norichika Aoki. On Thursday, I mentioned that the Brewers’ overall below average run production at RF could be attributed to the fact that Aoki batted lead-off, and Roenicke placed his right-fielders in the first-or-second spot approximately 115 times in 2012.
One of my typical assumptions (or arguments, or assertions) throughout the season is that positional production is more important than batting-order production. The rationale is simple: although it is relatively easy to move players between batting order spots, it is relatively difficult to move players between fielding positions. Although there is some hierarchy in the types of hitters allotted to certain spots, there is much more defensive determinism in the MLB — if a player has only batted 3rd or 4th during a season, a manager can readily move him to the 2nd or 5th spot if needed; however, if a Right Fielder has not played 3B in the majors or minors, that manager is not going to simply move that RF to 3B if a spot is open.
However, I am beginning to wonder if my reliance on defensive determinism results in an over-valuing of positional batting production. First and foremost, if a club has monster bats at other positions (let’s say, for the sake of argument, LF, 3B, and C), that club can probably afford looking for a particular type of batting order profile in another position (such as RF). In the Brewers’ case, even if Aoki is not necessarily an above average RF, the ability of the Milwaukee Nine to cover production elsewhere, as well as the ability of Aoki to serve as a viable lead-off option recovers some of that lost RF firepower. This is an argument made to me in the past by many, and I’m not sure I saw its value then; but, to everyone that saw that value of batting orders beyond my short-sightedness, I believe I’m starting to come around.
Aoki’s case at lead-off batter is stronger than I expected, too. Believe it or not, batters that played approximately 1/3 of the season batting first accounted for only 57.4% of the 2012 NL lead-off batter plate appearances. Specifically, National League clubs sent eighteen batters to the plate as a lead-off hitter more than 52 times in 2012, and those eighteen batters accounted for just under 6900 PA:
Bourn (Atl): 151 G, 698 PA, 95 R, 56 RBI, .273/.346/.390
Rollins (Phi): 133 G, 613 PA, 93 R, 64 RBI, .255/.325/.452
DeJesus (ChC): 116 G, 510 PA, 66 R, 33 RBI, .275/.358/.404
Cozart (Cin): 102 G, 471 PA, 52 R, 27 RBI, .223/.262/.379
Aoki (Mil): 101 G, 467 PA, 64 R, 39 RBI; .286/.353/.438
Furcal (StL): 94 G, 442 PA, 63 R, 43 RBI, .272/.341/.350
Reyes (Mia): 95 G, 431 PA, 48 R, 25 RBI, .274/.339/.403
Altuve (Hou): 85 G, 367 PA, 42 R, 15 RBI, .271/.332/.380
Pagan (SF): 80 G, 365 PA, 66 R, 28 RBI, .290/.338/.491
Tejada (NYM): 78 G, 361 PA, 38 R, 18 RBI, .293/.334/.358
Blanco (SF): 74 G, 326 PA, 45 R, 22 RBI, .241/.340/.351
Fowler (Col_: 65 G, 296 PA, 36 R, 27 RBI, .301/.384/.465
Gordon (LAD): 62 G, 280 PA, 31 R, 14 RBI, .217/.269/.271
Lombardo (Was): 58 G, 262 PA, 29 R, 20 RBI, .273/.312/.367
Schafer (Hou): 59 G, 257 PA, 31 R, 19 RBI, .240/.303/.319
Presley (Pit): 59 G, 257 PA, 33 R, 15 RBI, .251/.382/.407
Jay (StL): 52 G, 246 PA, 33 R, 18 RBI, .303/.362/.403
Bloomquist (Ari): 54 G, 239 PA, 35 R, 18 RBI, .291/.318/.405
(San Diego did not have a lead-off batter with more than 50 G)
Frankly, this list startled me. I expected to find more regular lead-off batters, even if managers move batters around the order rather frequently. In fact, during the 2012 NL, managers batted their seventh best hitter in the lead-off spot (on average). That’s right — the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, second, and even seventh spots featured better bats than the lead-off position. Given this figure, it makes more sense that there are so few regular lead-off bats in the 2012 NL; if managers had better players to bat lead-off, they wouldn’t be stringing together their seventh best bats atop the batting order.
The value of Aoki shines through here. Not only was Aoki one of five National League batters to play 100 games (or more) at the lead-off spot, but he also posted one of the best OBP (5th) and SLG (4th) among those eighteen batters.
This arguably changes the equation or perspective to analyze Aoki’s value. Whereas his basic runs created (and actual R and RBI) were average (or worse) compared to right-fielders, his ability to serve as a regular lead-off bat supplied the Brewers strong value. Aoki managed to score approximately two more runs, and drive-in approximately five more runs, than the average NL lead-off batter (park adjusted and prorated for his PA as a lead-off batter). Prorated for a full-season (a workload like that of Michael Bourn, Aoki would be on pace to drive-in approximately seven more runs, and score between three and four more runs, than the average lead-off batter).
One of the advantages the Brewers have going into 2013 is that they have one of the only regular lead-off batters from 2012 NL. Even better, that batter is above average, allowing the Brewers to yield more R and RBI from the lead-off spot. Furthermore, because of the Brewers’ ability to play Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy (and, to a lesser extent, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart), they can bet on the probability of average or better production at approximately five positions on the diamond. This allows the Brewers’ batting order to effectively eat any of the lost production that an average RF might provide to the batting order.
An average RF might give the Brewers another middle of the order bat. Yet, with Aoki leading off, the Brewers can arguably use Braun, Ramirez, Hart, and even Weeks, as middle-order bats. These batters will allow the Brewers ample opportunities to bring Aoki home, and having a batter like Aoki at lead-off will give those middle order bats strong opportunities to drive-in runs.