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Building A Better Leadoff Hitter

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because so far all attempts to clone Rickey have been fruitless

Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners
it’s a bird it’s a plane
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Since Ichiro’s departure back in 2012, the Mariners have struggled to fill the top of their lineup with any consistency. In fact, the only Mariner to make more than 100 appearances at the leadoff spot is Dustin Ackley (RIP, Dustin’s beard). Past luminaries at the position have included Endy Chavez, Brad Miller, and for a brief, fever-dream of a moment, Logan Morrison. While there will be several points of emphasis over the off-season—rebuilding on an outfield whose members qualify for AARP benefits, finding some starting pitching that doesn’t melt down halfway through the season like that raccoon’s cotton candy—establishing a tenable leadoff hitter has to be high on the list. Over the last offseason, JerryCo attempted to address both the unathletic outfield and the leadoff hitting issue at once by signing Norichika Aoki, which worked out about as well as combination shampoo-conditioner. Closing 2016, there are now several candidates for Servais to pencil in at the top of the lineup. Let’s take a look at some of them.

First, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what qualities make an ideal leadoff hitter. Last year, Beyond the Box Score published a piece showing that, while speed is an important quality in an effective leadoff hitter, the single most important quality for a leadoff hitter is a high on-base percentage. Speed is important, as a speedy player is more likely to leg out an infield or bunt single (here’s a case where a high BABIP is understandable). But base stealing threats and players who rely on speed alone are best served in the middle of the lineup, where they’re more likely to squeeze extra bases out of the 7-8-9 hitters. Theoretically, the leadoff hitter should be one of the team’s best hitters, but this is another case where batting average alone doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2014, Dee Gordon out-hit Matt Carpenter by about ten points, but Carpenter had an OBP of .375, compared to Gordon’s .321. The difference? Carpenter walked in 13.4% of his plate appearances; Gordon, in just 4.8%. So it’s not enough for a player in the leadoff spot to just be a good hitter, just like it’s not enough for them to have speed; they also have to possess plate discipline. All these things add up to OBP. An ideal OBP for a leadoff hitter is something in the .330 range, or about midway between average and above average (the same is true for wOBA, which weighs different ways of getting on base, not just whether or not one reached base). A sampling of Mariners leadoff hitters, 2013-2015: Austin Jackson (.312 OBP), Brad Miller (.329 OBP), Dustin Ackley (.270 OBP), Endy Chavez (.317 OBP), Michael Saunders (.341 OBP curse you Jack), James Jones (.268 OBP).

In today’s baseball, where strikeouts are up and walks are down, the importance of the leadoff hitter, that first canary down the mine shaft, looms even larger. Since Aoki decided to spend the first part of 2016 using the leadoff spot as a rehearsal space for his upcoming modern dance piece Man At War With Air and Gravity, this has forced JerryCo into holding a flurry of late-season auditions for the top spot. Let’s check in on them:

Aoki has looked way more like the player he was supposed to be in the second half—that is, in between his stints in Tacoma—which have pushed his walk rate back up and pulled down his K rate towards more career norms (he has never had a double-digit K rate in his career, except for his brief sojourn in Tacoma). Of all the choices above, he’s the only one who has anything close to the OBP of an ideal leadoff hitter. It’s a little unfair to put Ben Gamel up there, as he has all of 26 plate appearances in MLB, but his number of walks and O-swing % both suggest a player with a very good understanding of the strike zone. He was running an OBP of .365 in AAA with a wOBA of .353 and his contact rate is around 80%, so it’s a strong possibility that once he adjusts to playing in the majors every day the bat will come around. Guillermo Heredia is one of the more pleasant surprises, having zoomed through the minors; his plate discipline numbers are especially impressive considering he was facing AA Southern League pitching just a little over two months ago (NB: his speed number is artificially low; he’s projected at 4.2). Despite their speed, Martin, Marte, and O’Malley are probably best off hitting towards the end of the lineup, although it might be interesting to stick one of them in front of a Dae-Ho or a Zunino.

I include Ian Miller at the end simply as a look towards the future—Miller is currently in AA-Jackson, where he has provided a spark at the top of the Generals’ lineup for the last several months. A light-hitting, unheralded draft pick out of technically-it’s-Division-One Wagner College, Miller has been dismissed as a one-tool prospect: a speedster who’s a stolen-base machine. This year at Jackson he stole 49 bases and was only caught 3 times. But Miller has worked hard this year to cut down his strikeouts (down 3%), raise his walks (up 2%), and generally kick his Steamer projections in the teeth. After starting off the year buried in the seven- or eight-hole at Jackson, he has risen to become the team’s leadoff hitter. In the final week of the season, he led off with a walk five of the seven times. Miller is a bellweather of the new regime’s focus on controlling the zone and understanding what type of hitter you are in order to best help the ballclub. We’re not there yet, but at some point—maybe sooner than we think—the Mariners will have a consistent leadoff hitter, and our Sporcle quizzes will be that much easier. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see which of these players makes the strongest case over the rest of the season/off-season/spring training to be king of the mountain—or at least, the lineup card.