Is the Leadoff Hitter Dead?

 

He was the greatest: Rickey Henderson
He was the greatest: Rickey Henderson

Rickey Henderson ruined it for everyone who came after him. He even ruined it for everyone who came before him. The career .401 on-base percentage, the 1,406 career stolen bases (most in MLB history), and the 2,295 runs scored (most in MLB history) seem to be unreasonable expectations for the No.1 spot in the order in today’s game. With strikeout numbers inflating along with the velocity of pitcher’s fastballs, is it fair to ask a leadoff hitter to post a .400 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage over .400 in 2014?

There are 20 players who have over 50 at-bats out of the leadoff spot with an OPS over .780, with only four of those players having on-base percentages over .400:

Scooter Gennett: .412/.434/.686 in 51 at-bats

A.J. Pollock: .324/.400/.634 in 71 at-bats

Gregory Polanco: .362/.448/.483 in 58 at-bats

Shin-Soo Choo: .269/.409/.404 in 171 at-bats

An additional six players meet the cut with a .360 or higher on-base percentage:

Carlos Gomez: .298/.374/.560 in 168 at-bats

Jimmy Rollins: .286/.373/.529 in 70 at-bats

Kole Calhoun: .305/.366/.534 in 118 at-bats

Coco Crisp: .288/.374/.457 in 208 at-bats

Jose Altuve: .333/.369/.459 in 183 at-bats

Angel Pagan: .314/.363/.419 in 236 at-bats

At the halfway point, however, only Jose Altuve, Coco Crisp, and Angel Pagan have 10 or more steals while posting an OPS over .780 and an on-base percentage of .360 or higher.

Rickey Henderson, over his entire 25-year career (including the several years that he was “hanging on”), averaged 74 stolen bases over a 162-game season, while having his .401 career on-base percentage and a career .820 OPS.

No one will ever be Henderson, but will any manager want to put a player in the leadoff spot when they are capable of producing a .400 on-base percentage and an OPS at or near .800? Only Shin-Soo Choo meets that criteria among players with 100 or more plate appearances out of the leadoff spot in 2014, but is his speed, or lack of speed, an issue?

Reds OF and leadoff hitter, Billy Hamilton
Reds OF and leadoff hitter, Billy Hamilton

It seems like the norm for teams to plug the “fast guy” into a leadoff position. Michael Bourn and Billy Hamilton fit that profile in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and for several years as manager of the Reds, Dusty Baker was running Drew Stubbs out as the leadoff hitter for the same reason. Denard Span, Dee Gordon, Jose Reyes, and Ben Revere all fit the fast-guy-in-the-leadoff-spot-who-can’t-get-on-base-at-a-high-clip profile, as well. If a player is going to be a true table setter and get on base, does that player need to be fast? Could Joey Votto lead off? Could a catcher with a good eye lead off? Is clogging the bases a “thing” or just a part of the managerial “book”?

Consider that a lead off hitter is only guaranteed to lead off an inning one time in a given nine inning game, and that is the first inning…why is it important for that player to have speed? Don’t you want that hitter, as well as everyone else in a lineup, to be capable of getting on base and creating runs? Perhaps getting on base isn’t a necessary part of being a leadoff hitter. Perhaps the ability to make contact is all that any single player in baseball needs to do, at any spot in the order, to be an effective part of a lineup.

In today’s MLB, leadoff hitters can be fast, they can have plate discipline, they can have power, and they can be run producers, but very rarely are any of them the total package. So many teams want Rickey Henderson, but he’ll never happen again. Should fans just expect one of those talents and refrain from bashing their hometown leadoff hitters due to their imperfections?

The perfect leadoff hitter died with the retirement of Henderson. It is time to kill the expectations of the No.1 hitter, along with the pitcher’s win.

 

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