Elvis Andrus and the Leadoff Spot

Congratulations on the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants on their upcoming World Series matchup. While part of me regrets the lost opportunity for obnoxious snark during a Bruce Bochy/Joe Girardi intentional walk-fest (preferably set to “Dueling Banjos”), I’m sure that Bochy will find Ron Washington a worthy foe. However, while I had originally thought I would “go off” a bit on the topic of the Rangers’ lead-off spot, the more I thought about it the less vehement I felt.

I agree that Elvis Andrus is a talented young player who is at worst a good defensive shortstop, and given his age (Andrus just turned 22 in August) he can be expected to get better with the bat. However, while Andrus’s defensive abilities make him a good player overall, he’s not a good hitter a the moment. Yes, his .342 on-base percentage during the past regular season is above-average, but with wOBA now easily available we don’t have to go through any sort of gymnastics in terms of weighing OBP and SLG. Andrus’s wOBA this season was .298 (81 wRC+). To put that into perspective, Yuniesky Betancourt‘s 2010 wOBA was .300 (84 wRC+). ‘Nuff said? Yes, Andrus has a .357 wOBA in 57 plate appearances this post-season, but I assume that FanGraphs readers don’t need to be lectured about the “usefulness” of a 57 PA sample or about the predictive “power” of hot streaks.

Of course, 2010 is not all there is to Andrus. He was better in 2009 with a .322 wOBA, and given his age, his minor league performances, and the other factors that go into making an estimate of his current true talent (a ‘projection’), CHONE’s August update sees him as a .321 wOBA (my rough wOBA calculation based on CHONE’s projected stat line) hitter in his run environment — just below average before adjusting for the hitter-friendly park. That’s a good number for a defensively-skilled shortstop, and promising given his age.

However, when setting a batting order, a player’s defensive skill-set is irrelevant. The issue isn’t whether Andrus should start, but whether he should be hitting first. Despite talk of “true lead-off hitters” and “ideal number 3 hitters” and so on, the implicit lesson of The Book’s chapter on lineup optimization (summarized here) is that where a player should hit in the batting order is relative to the other players on the team. The best hitters on the team should get the most PA, and thus should hit in the top half of the order. Ideally, the best three hitters should hit in the first, second, and fourth spots (sometimes adjustments need to be made for platoon issues, e.g., trying to avoid two lefties in a row), the next best two should hit third and fifth, and from the sixth spot on down simply go in order of projected ability.

Is Andrus one of Texas’ five best hitters? According to CHONE’s update, not only Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Vladimir Guerrero, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, but also Mitch Moreland, Jorge Cantu and David Murphy are all better hitters than Andrus. Without revising the entire lineup, the simplest move would be to put Ian Kinsler into the first spot and put Andrus further down in the order. Kinsler not only has a better on-base percentage, but also more extra-base power. He probably doesn’t have as much speed as Andrus at this point, but speed at the top of the order is overrated when hitting in front of Michael Young (still a good hitter) and especially Josh Hamilton. Those guys don’t need much help from runner who can steal second for them. Andrus’s ability to steal (although it’s worth noting that he wasn’t as successful in 2010 as 2009) would be better leveraged in front of bad hitters more likely to need help from a guy who can move himself over. All those particular issues aside, the Rangers would simply be better off giving more chances at the plate to a hitter with a projected wOBA of .357 (Kinsler) than one projected at .321 (Andrus).

It’s worth remembering that over a full season, the difference between a typical lineup and an optimized lineup is probably only between 5 and 15 runs. Even the worst single move imaginable, like hitting the pitcher cleanup the whole season, only costs about 15 runs worse. That’s why I can’t get too worked about the issue. However, a team needs to get every edge it can, even in a short series of games, especially this Series.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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I would of agreed with you completely at the beginning of the post season. But after watching the entire post season for the Rangers and seeing Elvis come up big time and time again, there’s no chance I move him. This post season reminds me of what Jamey Newberg wrote about Elvis after seeing him as a young prospect:
“It’s not really a swagger that Andrus has.  It’s more of a comfortable magnetism.  He reminds me of a feature tailback, or a really good cover corner, with that smile that says he knows he’s going to beat you more often than not.  He’s going to be a leader.”

He’s earned the right to bat 1st and I don’t do anything to mess with the comfortable-ness the Rangers have going. May not be the right moves based on the numbers, but it’s a small enough difference to not be worth the risk of a major disruption.