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Dee Gordon, and how I learned to love a leadoff hitter again

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Remember Austin Jackson?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

What does it mean to be a leadoff hitter?

In the most literal sense, you hit first. You’re the first guy a pitcher sees when he takes the mound. Because you hit first, you also hit the most, because that’s how batting orders work. Ipso facto, you’d want one of your best hitters in that spot, or at least one of your best on-base guys. It also wouldn’t hurt to have some speed there, and if the guy is a patient hitter who will work long at-bats, you’ve got most of the ingredients for a leadoff soufflé.

This is the extreme simplification of a leadoff hitter.

Of course, as most of us know, baseball has a way of doing that. It disguises itself as simple and straightforward and relatable. Ball is thrown, ball is hit, ball is fielded. Didn’t succeed? That’s ok, most people don’t, and you’ll get some more chances later.

Again, that is the extreme simplification of a sport that is quite complex. Ball is thrown, ball is hit, ball is fielded became ball is thrown to certain location at a certain speed based on spin rates, hit at an optimal launch angle to create the best exit velocity, fielded by someone expertly placed there after analyzing thousands of data points.

The concept of a leadoff hitter has undergone similar new age transformations. Both from a numbers standpoint and the good ol’ fashioned eye test, things have changed. Gap-to-gap extra base hitters like Mookie Betts, George Springer, and Lorenzo Cain have assumed the leadoff roles for their respective teams, challenging the antiquated idea that hitting the ball far and hard automatically puts you in the heart of the order.

In 2017, MLB teams averaged 21 home runs from their leadoff spot, with the average leadoff hitter slashing .263/.331/.424. In 2007, it was 15 home runs and .277/.345/.414. Over that ten-year span, baseball thinking began to drift away from the high average, low power leadoff hitter. Teams would trade 3-for-5 with three singles for 1-5 with a home run.

The average leadoff hitter in 2017 struck out 143 times, compared to 112 in 2007. Again, as hitters accepted the all-or-nothing approach that leads to more strikeouts but also more dingers, that eventually made its way up the ladder. That’s how you get Springer hitting first and Altuve hitting third, something that would have never happened a generation ago based on their physical statures alone.

Whether you’re preferential to the old style of jackrabbit leadoff men, or acceptant of the slugging one-hole hitters of recent times, the overall vibe of the #1 hitter should remain the same.

For your team, it should be a guy who makes you excited. The game is underway, my guys are up to bat, and that makes me happy because Player X is hitting. He’s the guy who, every time the lineup turns over, makes you say, “This guy is up again!”

From the other team’s perspective, the leadoff hitter should be the pest. The game is underway, and that makes them irritated because Player X is hitting. He’s the guy who, every time the lineup turns over, makes them say, “This guy is up AGAIN?!”

Dee Gordon checks both of those boxes.

Graphic courtesy of Kate Preusser

While winning actual baseball games should always be the Mariners’ main goal, employing players that are fun to watch should be a close second. To quote your Little League coach: play to win, but don’t forget to have fun. Of course, if you can do both, both goals become more attainable.

Dee Gordon is doing his absolute best to fill the winning quota and the fun quota. He’s doing a damn good job, too. We’re only 23 games into the season, but Dee has already given us this volcano of joy after a Mitch Haniger home run.

And this beauty

Oh yeah and also this

Adding Dee to the leadoff spot not only energized the offense, but also the entire fanbase. In the years since 2011 – Ichiro’s last season as the M’s primary leadoff hitter – Seattle was subjected to a series of subpar leadoff men. If you remove Jean Segura’s production from last year, the team hasn’t had a competent leadoff man since Ichiro.

sOPS+ measures the value of splits relative to other teams at the same split (in this case, leadoff hitters). 100 represents the league average for that year’s leadoff hitters. The following table contains data for the Mariners’ leadoff hitters as a combined entity. While it includes the team’s primary leadoff dude for each year (and the amount of games they started in the leadoff slot), that is there to provide a point of reference for the badness. Pretend like every person who hit leadoff in a given season was combined into one person, giving us the numbers you’re about to see.

Mariner Leadoff Hitters

Year # of Leadoff Hitters Primary Games in leadoff spot AVG OBP SLG OPS R H K BB sOPS+
Year # of Leadoff Hitters Primary Games in leadoff spot AVG OBP SLG OPS R H K BB sOPS+
2018 2 Gordon 22 .286 .314 .357 .671 14 28 19 2 85
2017 4 Segura 118 .301 .349 .422 .771 112 209 104 45 105
2016 8 Aoki 90 .270 .342 .377 .719 98 183 117 65 90
2015 10 Marte 54 .247 .307 .394 .702 76 166 150 56 91
2014 7 Jackson 54 .244 .287 .319 .605 71 167 159 41 70
2013 8 Miller 67 .247 .296 .392 .688 88 170 138 48 91
2012 8 Ackley 97 .229 .281 .341 .622 86 156 131 50 74
Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference

2012-2016 was the saddest parade.

While sOPS+ rates the Mariners’ leadoff production as below-average, it’s still very early in the season. These numbers are a bit skewed by players like Betts, Cain, and Yoán Moncada, who each occupy their team’s leadoff spot and currently run OPS numbers north of .870. It doesn’t take a whole lot of mental gymnastics to understand that Dee’s 27 hits in 23 games, and AL-leading nine stolen bases, are in fact good. If Baseball-Reference included a fun category, the Mariners’ leadoff spot would show infinity.

Unlike the ensemble cast of 2012-2016, the Mariners leadoff spot now represents fun emotions, like hope, love, and optimism. No longer does the M’s first hitter cut the engine off before it even starts. Rather, it provides a jump start. 15 percent of Seattle’s total runs have come in the first inning, a figure eclipsed only by the fifth and seventh innings. The Mariners are scoring early, they’re scoring late, and they’re scoring enough to win more often than they lose.

I’m not saying Dee Gordon is entirely responsible for that, but I’m also not not saying that either.