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A closer look at great leadoff hitters

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Why not Anthony Rizzo?

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Anthony Rizzo leads off with a single during Saturday’s game against the Pirates
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Last Tuesday’s lineup with first baseman Anthony Rizzo leading off seemed like one of Joe Maddon’s classic attempts to shake things up and try something new in order to keep things light during a long season. You know, like when he played all three catchers at the same time, having Miguel Montero throw a scoreless inning in relief or having a pajama party on a plane:

Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers
Rizzo takes a selfie of the Cubs’ 2015 pajama party
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I was certainly among the skeptics, and was really just hoping changing things up would result in some offense, any offense, after a few terrible road trips.

Eight games in, however, this trick seems to have a lot more staying power than Miggy’s future in the bullpen. So, I wanted to take a closer look at leadoff hitters, our stereotypes of them, and what makes one great. Rizzo’s current sample size as a leadoff hitter is way too small to be meaningful, but hopefully looking at his career numbers can provide some insight as to whether this is a potential long-term solution for the Cubs.

The Stereotype

Conventional wisdom about leadoff hitters is summed up pretty well in this Wikipedia entry on line-up construction (italics mine):

The first player in the batting order is known as the leadoff hitter. The leadoff batter is traditionally an individual with a high on-base percentage, plate discipline, bat control, good speed, and the ability to steal bases.[13] His goal is to ensure the team has baserunners when the later, more powerful hitters come to bat. His need for a high on-base percentage (OBP) exceeds that of the other lineup spots. Because leadoff hitters are selected primarily for their speed and ability to reach base, they are typically not power hitters. Leadoff hitters typically hit mostly singles and doubles and draw walks to get on base. However, speed is not essential, as was shown by Wade Boggs, but it is highly desired among leadoff hitters. Once on base, his main goal is to get into scoring position (that is, 2nd or 3rd base) as quickly as possible, either through steals, hit and run plays or intelligent baserunning decisions, and then on to score.

That conception has contributed to the image of a speedy, steals oriented, OBP guy who isn’t a power hitter. It’s also led to listicles like this one (Which I’ll later refer to as BR Rank 1) identifying the top 10 leadoff hitters of the last 50 years (with no explanation or methodology for how that list was derived) because somehow everyone just *knows* good leadoff hitters when they see them, I guess?

Even slightly more robust lists like this one (Which we’ll call BR Rank 2), that do have a methodology, somehow wind up with Alfonso Soriano, Vince Coleman and Juan Pierre as the 20th, 19th and 18th greatest leadoff hitters of all time. Those are not three players I ever thought I’d put in the same sentence, but I guess I should be thankful that this list at least includes Wade Boggs and Paul Molitor, two Hall of Famers left off the first list, probably because they hit for too much power.

Like I said, this whole leadoff hitter business leaves me with a lot of questions. Which brings me to...

The Numbers

The problem isn’t just that these players aren’t similar, it’s that they are frustratingly different. In order to move past that a bit, this section will evaluate some of the “great” leadoff hitters above more closely based on five stats that should be indicative of good leadoff hitters. I’ve chosen to focus on these for the purpose of this article being kind of sort of substantive: OBP, Slugging Percentage (SLG), Stolen Bases (SB), Strike Out Percentage (K%) and Walk Percentage (BB%). It’s not going to be perfect, but it should give us some insight and it’s a lot less complicated than some more experimental metrics (some of which make an appearance in the caveats section below).

A note: these are career numbers and they are all taken from Fangraphs. I know that using career numbers isn’t ideal since what we really want to know is what were those numbers in the exact leadoff spot, but I’ve chosen to look at it this way for three reasons. 1) The potential hero of this story, Rizzo, has exactly eight games leading off, it’s a much better comparison if we look at his career numbers relative to other leadoff hitters’ career numbers. 2) Leadoff hitters are only guaranteed to actually leadoff once a game (more on this in a second) so I wanted to be more holistic about this enterprise. 3) It’s a lot easier to get career numbers than to try and disaggregate thousands of plate appearances by batting order and I wanted to publish this article before the All-Star Game.*

Let’s just take a look at the stats of the three batters above and see if we can find some similarities:

Leadoff hitters compared

Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Vince Coleman 9 19 .324 .345 752 16.1 8.0
Juan Pierre NR 18 .343 .361 614 5.8 5.6
Alfonso Soriano NR 20 .319 .500 289 21.5 5.9
Coleman - Soriano - Pierre comparison Fangraphs - Bleacher Report

Coleman, Pierre and Soriano are very different players. The first two have middling OBP and low SLG, Soriano has much better SLG, their K% are all over the map (looking at Soriano’s is making me break out on a cold sweat remembering him flail away at everything), Pierre and Coleman are both top 20 in all time stolen bases, Soriano is not close. Apparently all of the things we conventionally “look for” in a leadoff hitter aren’t all present all of the time, even for some of the great leadoff hitters. I created an expanded version of this chart to test this out:

Expanded leadoff hitters comparison

Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Rickey Henderson 1 1 .401 .419 1406 12.7 16.4
Pete Rose 2 3 .375 .409 198 7.2 9.9
Ichiro Suzuki 3 5 .355 .404 508 6.0 10.1
Kenny Lofton 4 9 .372 .423 622 9.1 10.2
Lou Brock 5 4 .343 .410 938 15.4 6.8
Craig Biggio 6 10 .363 .433 414 14.0 9.3
Tim Raines 7 2 .385 .425 808 9.3 12.8
Maury Wills 8 11 .330 .331 586 8.2 6.6
Vince Coleman 9 19 .324 .345 752 16.1 8.0
Willie Wilson 10 13 .326 .376 668 13.8 5.1
Wade Boggs NR 8 .415 .443 24 6.9 13.1
Paul Molitor NR 6 .369 .448 504 10.2 9.0
Juan Pierre NR 18 .343 .361 614 5.8 5.6
Alfonso Soriano NR 20 .319 .500 289 21.5 5.9
Expanded leadoff hitters comparison Fangraphs - Bleacher Report

It turns out that being a great leadoff hitter doesn’t entail doing the exact same things other leadoff hitters did well, rather, it’s being excellent at a few of these things, even if you’re not great at others. Even the great Rickey Henderson has a category where he’s not in the top half of this list, but he clearly made up for his higher (relative to this list) K% with an exceptional BB%, OBP and SLG (not to mention being the all-time leader in steals).

Hmmm. Henderson is basically superman, so instead of reaching for the impossible, let’s just take an updated look at this chart with Rizzo added into it. For the purposes of this chart I have two Rizzo lines. The first is his career line and the second is 2017 stats:

Expanded leadoff comparison w/ Rizzo

Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Wade Boggs NR 8 .415 .443 24 6.9 13.1
Rickey Henderson 1 1 .401 .419 1406 12.7 16.4
Tim Raines 7 2 .385 .425 808 9.3 12.8
Pete Rose 2 3 .375 .409 198 7.2 9.9
Kenny Lofton 4 9 .372 .423 622 9.1 10.2
Paul Molitor NR 6 .369 .448 504 10.2 9.0
Craig Biggio 6 10 .363 .433 414 14.0 9.3
Ichiro Suzuki 3 5 .355 .404 508 6.0 10.1
Lou Brock 5 4 .343 .410 938 15.4 6.8
Juan Pierre NR 18 .343 .361 614 5.8 5.6
Maury Wills 8 11 .330 .331 586 8.2 6.6
Willie Wilson 10 13 .326 .376 668 13.8 5.1
Vince Coleman 9 19 .324 .345 752 16.1 8.0
Alfonso Soriano NR 20 .319 .500 289 21.5 5.9
Anthony Rizzo (Career) NR NR .365 .487 41 17.0 11.2
Anthony Rizzo (2017) NR NR .393 .521 5 11.3 13.8
Expanded leadoff comparison w/ Rizzo Fangraphs - Bleacher Report

A few things jumped out at me here, Rizzo has the OBP, K% and BB% to make this work. In fact, 2017 Rizzo has been substantially better at drawing a walk and striking out less than career Rizzo. If that were to hold, and he kept his OBP right around .400, well he looks sort of like a Boggs with a higher K% and a lot more power, or a Tim Raines with more power and no steals, or Soriano-like power with half as many strikeouts and more than double the walks...

...okay, the comparisons aren’t perfect, but my point is, he does enough of these things within the band of where great leadoff hitters have done them that it isn’t totally outside of the realm of possibility that this could be a real thing.

This isn’t even all that radical — prioritizing OBP has been a trend for a while now (and Rizzo’s OBP puts him in the upper tier of leadoff hitters by that metric. This fivethirtyeight.com piece does a great job at looking at these trends in the context of the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment. What’s important to remember there isn’t that Schwarber didn’t work out at leadoff because he hit for too much power, or because he was too slow, he didn’t work out at leadoff because his K% spiked and his OBP cratered. The Rizzo experiment is essentially trying the same thing we tried before, but with a guy who’s got a lot more history of consistently getting on base:

For all of Henderson’s influence, though, teams weren’t yet asking leadoff men to hit for power — if anything, they were discouraging it. “There was an emphasis on the type of swing and your approach,” Glanville told me. “You wanted to go the other way, be able to use the whole field, spray the [ball], hit the ball on the ground … I was a three-hole hitter in college, but early on I [realized] I’ve got to make this adjustment to use my speed, focus a lot more on contact and use the whole field.”

But as statheads have proliferated throughout MLB front offices, the leadoff role has shifted even further from its traditional archetype. Teams now realize that it’s important to place their best hitters at the top of the order, giving more plate appearances to players who both get on base and slug the ball. (A team can also grease the wheels of offense slightly more by emphasizing on-base skills at leadoff and power in the No. 4 hole, with the top overall hitter slotting in at No. 2.)

The Caveats

While a lot of the current coverage of Rizzo’s move has focused on playing loose or sparking the offense, we’re beginning to see some actual numbers that back up this move. Small sample size warning, but Rizzo is batting .375 since he took over the leadoff spot, his OBP is .417 and he’s slugging .875. He’s always been a streaky hitter, but it will be interesting to watch his numbers evolve in his new role.

There are some potential downsides to Rizzo the leadoff man. This excellent piece from Fangraphs a few years ago concedes that it would be great if you could put a high OBP power guy in the leadoff spot, but most teams don’t because there aren’t enough of those guys to go around and you need them in other places in the order.

The lineup position subject to the most debate is probably leadoff. Multiple writers and analysts have noted that players who would make the best leadoff hitters are normally too valuable to use in the leadoff position. Bill James wrote in his New Historical Abstract, “All of the greatest leadoff men … would be guys who aren’t leadoff men, starting with Ted Williams … if you had two Ted Williamses, and could afford to use one of them as a leadoff man, he would be the greatest leadoff man who ever lived.”

Every method I’ve seen to determine great leadoff batters produces names like Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb … players who are probably better suited to the second through fourth spots in the batting order. I think I’ve found a simple method that solves the problem. I’ve always been interested in singles hitters who walk. It’s a skill set that matches our image of the prototypical leadoff batter.

As Fangraphs frequently does, they created a metric for this type of high OBP/singles guy and then tweaked it when it ranked leadoff greats like Henderson and Raines too low. Don’t worry too much about the math on this, the far more interesting thing is that the Cubs have a lot of the players who were high on that 2014 metric on their roster now, including Jon Jay and Tommy LaStella. Why the worry about putting power so high in the lineup?

Some of the most in depth looks at lineup construction have suggested that HRs in the leadoff spot are “wasted” because the leadoff man is less likely to have runners on when they hit them:

The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns?

The Book is a fascinating, numbers heavy look on some of the oldest arguments in baseball and it would probably caution that Rizzo at leadoff isn’t optimized, because the Cubs are leaving hypothetical runs on the table that could score if he hit with more runners on base. After all, there is a reason that Soriano’s .500 SLG is a pretty significant outlier in our earlier chart.

The Prognosis

Rizzo is an unlikely leadoff man, but for now it appears to be working. It’s also highly unlikely that Joe is going to mess around with a lineup tweak that finally appears to have jump started the Cubs anemic offense. It may not be statistically optimal, but with Rizzo batting first they’ve outscored their opponents 46-25 and they hold a 5-3 record in those games. They’re finally back over .500 (again) and look like they might be going on a bit of a run.

At least for now, it looks like Rizzo has a new job as the leadoff man, speaking of which, our hometown hero could use some help with that aforementioned All Star Game.

*As of this writing, Rizzo is second in first base voting behind Ryan Zimmerman. If you want to see Rizzo leadoff in Miami, you’ve got to #VoteRizzo.