Tuesday Lunch: What is the benefit of a lead-off batter? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

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.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. SecondHandStore says: November 13, 2012

    Great article. Would you agree that the second batter should be the player with the best line drive percentage to give Aoki the best chance to take third from first and score from second? In the case of the Brewers that would be Jonathan Lucroy.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: November 14, 2012

      Thank you for the kinds words! I agree completely with you that Lucroy would be an excellent hitter to have behind Aoki. You could then move Hart and Weeks to 5/6 behind Braun and Ramirez, and then run Gomez/Segura after that. That’s a strong order right there!

      • SecondHandStore says: November 14, 2012

        Yep! That’s exactly the way I’d order the line-up.

  2. Chris K in Sheboygan says: November 13, 2012

    What a luxury by the Brewers to have a Leadoff batter the ability of Aoki at next to nothing for payroll. Add to it he’s one that doesn’t strike out much is more bonus.
    All the sabermetric equations of position and such I don’t get. He passes my eye test in the OF and at the plate. And he certainly fits the roll in the batting order.
    You had an article about Roenicke and the Brewers struggles to win the midscore games and at the time it related to the fact he used the combo of Gomez,Morgan and Weeks at the top two in the order.
    Then enter Aoki and the Brewers were off!
    I am legitimately surprised the NL teams batted their 7th best batter at leadoff….Of course that’s what the Brewers were doing with their combo before Aoki. It’s almost like there’s no respect for slap hitters with high contact rate/low k% in baseball these days.
    I’ll be honest I’m hoping its Aoki,Segura 1,2 in the order next year.
    Give me Braun,Ramirez,Lucroy,Hart,Gomez,Weeks to follow.
    Now at #2 you can interchange Segura,Weeks,Gomez accordingly to struggles-hott bat-pitching matchups.
    That batting lineup seems simple to me and I don’t see a better lineup card honestly that could be done.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: November 14, 2012

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris. A few thoughts:

      (1) The main issue with fielding position and performance is that MLB teams do not interchange players at positions that they have not played. This means that there is little-to-no flexibility over where a player plays on the field, which means that certain positions literally result in consistent trends or attitudes (such as, SS and C are defense-first, LF, RF, and 1B are offense first, etc. In recent years, CF, 2B and 3B have been shifting and are in the middle somewhere).

      The basic idea is that since players are locked to their positions in the vast majority of cases, it is crucial for teams to put together rosters that yield average or better performance based on batting positions; since they can’t move players around the diamond, they need to be sure that players fit the position with their production.

      (2) I don’t think that there’s no respect for high contact / low K% in baseball; I think players simply do not approach the game that way. Unfortunately, teams can only use players that play within the confines of specific eras; in the modern, small-park eras, the value of a home run is significantly high, to the extent that the collateral K’s (and BB) that result in fewer balls-in-play are worthwhile.

      (3) I’m not sure about Segura batting 2nd; while he has a pretty good tendency to walk, and bats the ball in play, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to turn those traits into a strong performance for batting average. I think Lucroy’s bat would be much better suited to keep things rolling ahead of Braun and Ramirez.

      • Chris K in Sheboygan says: November 14, 2012

        Ok Nic, the part I’m looking at is that the “traditional” Corner OF power for the Brewers is made up by Weeks’ additional power at 2b. That’s where I’m looking in how a makeup from traditional expectations at positions to me is flawed. If a team is getting power from a nontraditional power position they are afforded that difference where a power bat is typically expected to come from.

        In regards to Segura. That spot can be interchangeable. If he’s projected to be a #2 spot in the order as it seems to fit his batting profile, I’m saying do so as long as he’s showing quality at bats.
        Lucroy is just a great hitter he’s going to provide success anywhere you put him in the lineup. I’m just curious, is it better to have him behind Braun/Ramirez then ahead of them? I’ve often thought Weeks/Hart behind them seemed to be lacking in success. Add to it Braun/Ramirez ability at 2bs should Lucroy be on 1st reduces the likelihood he scores on those hits. Meanwhile his line drive and BABIP brings in a Braun/Ramirez standing on 2b.

        Trust me I’m a huge fan of Lucroy and the additional ABs he can see at 2nd vs 5th I would love. I’m just thinking on the Braun aspect say a single by Lucroy, single by Braun, Lucroy is standing on 2b not 3B more than likely a Segura/Gomez. That then leads to Braun not being able to steal 2b in to scoring position. See my train of thought?

        • Nicholas Zettel says: November 14, 2012

          I think this is all very fair. Good post, thanks again for reading and commenting.

  3. Bob says: November 14, 2012

    Nice article.

    This is one of the questions that makes baseball so interesting to follow in the off-season. There are a lot of ways to break down a statistical analysis between two players and determine which is “better”, but that doesn’t automatically mean the superior player makes your team better.

    I think the mindset that the corner position players (LF, RF, 3B, 1B) need to be power hitters is one of the reasons why there is so much roster churn at the leadoff position. Power hitters typically don’t have the skill set to be leadoff. There aren’t many players left like Vince Coleman, or even Juan Pierre, who play a corner OF and hit for average instead of power. When you eliminate these types of players from consideration, that puts more pressure on finding a player from a defense-first position (2B, SS, CF) who also has the skill set to hit first.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: November 14, 2012

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Bob. I think you’re right about the power argument. It’s amazing just how scarce those players are, too; it’s kind of like a pitching rotation. Every has that model #2 or #3 in mind, but really, a guy like 2012 Marco Estrada turns out to look more like a #2 pitcher because of the scarcity of full-time pitchers. I think it ends up working the same way with batting orders; if you have only one or two great hitters on a team, where are you going to bat those guys? Except for the rarities like Rickey Henderson, the best hitter will not typically bat lead off.

  4. Dan V says: November 14, 2012

    How many of those players on the list started in right the day they hit leadoff? A couple, zero…? Certainly an interesting article.

    I agree with nz that Segura will be best at the backend of the lineup. In a couple years, ideally he’ll be hitting line drives from the two spot.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: November 14, 2012

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Dan. Interesting question about position, I should have paid more attention to that…..I feel like I might do more on this soon, maybe roll with a topic that has momentum?

      I also agree with you on Segura; frankly, i feel like his plate discipline is underrated, and that if he can keep that walk level high, he has the potential to be a very good OBP/contact bat. Nothing wrong with that, especially at SS.

  5. TrollFighter says: November 15, 2012

    Nice article Nic. I was having this same argument the other day on the jsonline blogs. I’m glad to see someone do the research and present it so eloquently.

  6. The_Ignitor says: November 16, 2012

    I think managers sometimes get to infatuated with speed at the top of the lineup. Or the “contact” guy at #2. Just get my best hitters the most PA’s and I will be happy.

    With that said Segura should not be anywhere near the top of the Brewers order next year unless he is on fire for 2 solid months. The kid is easily our worst hitter and that is with a lineup that will feature Carlos Gomez. The Brewers should have 6 above average to great bats next year in their lineup. They should not over think it.

    Nicholas’s first lineup should be the one they use.


Websites mentioned my entry.

  1. Tuesday Lunch: Lead-Off Woes | Disciples of Uecker
  2. Brewers Do Not Need a Lead Off Bat | Disciples of Uecker

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