Kinsler, Henderson, and the “Ideal Leadoff Man”

A few nights ago I flipped over to a Ranger-Blue Jays game just in time to catch a plate appearance by Rangers’ second baseman Ian Kinsler. Toronto’s announcers were talking about how Kinsler, despite doing well this season as the Rangers leadoff hitter, is not ideal for the spot. Whenever the phrase “ideal leadoff man” comes up, you know that Rickey Henderson‘s name is about to come up, and indeed, it did. So even while complimenting Kinsler’s good season, the announcers somehow thought he wasn’t quite right for the leadoff job despite being a good baserunner and getting on base at a good clip. What are they talking about? What exactly is the “ideal leadoff hitter” if a guy who gets on base and runs well isn’t?

Comparing a player to Rickey Henderson to suggest there is a problem is prima facie ridiculous, of course. As Bill James once said in response to the question of whether Rickey Henderson is a Hall of Famer: “cut him in half and he’s two Hall of Famers” (something I hope to explore another time soon). I can’t wait for an announce team to say, “Yeah, Chase Utley is doing a nice job at second for the Phillies, but he’s not ideal, he’s not Joe Morgan or anything like that. Hopefully the Phillies have some guys in the minors they think can fill that role.”

What are people thinking about when they say “ideal leadoff hitter?” What isn’t Kinsler doing that doesn’t match up to that Henderson-based picture? Traditionally, one of the main elements people thought of for a leadoff man was speed, which Henderson obviously had in spades. This is one place where the notion of an “ideal” number one hitter falls apart, as where players should hit is relative to the skills of the other hitters in the order. Given that the Rangers have a number of power hitters in their lineup (such as Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre), like the Yankees, they don’t really need a speedy guy stealing loads of bases (and potentially making pointless outs) in front of their power hitters. Leaving those sorts of issues aside, well, no, Kinsler isn’t Rickey Henderson when it comes to speed. However, Kinsler does steal his share of bases (19 steals this season) and he’s remarkably efficient in doing so (he’s only been caught twice). He has similar numbers in previous seasons. Moreover, he’s good at taking the extra base: over 3183 career plate appearances (about five full seasons), hes added about 18 runs doing so. No, he’s “no Rickey Henderson” out there, but he’s adding value, especially by not extra outs on the bases.

Most people now acknowledge that getting on base is more important for the leadoff man (and everyone else, for that matter) than stealing bases. Here again, I suppose than Kinsler pales in comparison to Henderson, who had a .401 on-base percentage for his career. However, Kinsler isn’t doing so bad at .357 so far this season, and that’s with a relatively low BABIP. Yet that also points to something that Kinsler is doing well: he’s getting on-base without relying on batting average too much. Again, he doesn’t have the walk rate that Henderson did in his prime, but a 12.8% walk rate is very good. Moreover, if one wants to be picky about “ideals,” you don’t want “too many” hits versus walks for your leadoff man, since he doesn’t see as many runners on base as other spots; walks are pretty much as good as singles without baserunners on. That’s getting into minutia, of course. These sorts of batting order issues that really can’t be worked out without plugging in projections into a simulation, but again, that foregrounds the emptiness of taking about an ideal leadoff hitter in the abstract.

But perhaps this leads to a “real” concern with Kinsler in the leadoff spot. Just as singles might be “wasted” in the leadoff spot since fewer baserunners are on to for the number one hitter relative to other spots, maybe Kinsler has “too much power” for the first spot: he does have a .203 ISO this season. Leaving aside the issue of Kisler’s “true talent” (he’s shown good power before), there might be something to that, since his extra-base hits might be better utilized lower in the order. Of course, this again shows the emptiness of abstract theorizing about an “ideal” leadoff man without reference to particular lineups: who on the Rangers would be better? I honestly don’t know, I haven’t run a simulation for it, my only point is that if that is admitted, the notion of a singular ideal leadoff-type also goes by the wayside.

I’ll bet Rickey Henderson never “wasted his power” from the leadoff spot:

While Kinsler has a higher career ISO than Henderson (Kinsler is in a a more power-friendly environment, and those numbers include Rickey’s decline years), Henderson did have several seasons with isolated power over .200. So much for that aspect of the ideal.

Ian Kinsler has been the Ranger most valuable player according to WAR so far this season. He’s also been an excellent leadoff man, and Rangers manager Ron Washington is to be commended for hitting him there most of the season after last season’s curious Elvis Andrus obsession. Kinsler may not be Rickey Henderson, but very few people are. The notion of an “ideal” leadoff man, like that of an “ideal number three hitter” and stuff like that is either a useless abstraction or based on a reality that never was. Kinsler runs well and gets on base. Are there people concerned that he hits for “too much power” to lead off? I don’t know. But hitters should be put at or near the top of the batting order because of what they can do, not because of what they (or their teammates) can’t… even if they aren’t Rickey Henderson.




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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.


29 Responses to “Kinsler, Henderson, and the “Ideal Leadoff Man””

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  1. cs3 says:

    Seems like an interesting article but please PROOF READ.
    The first paragraph is a trainwreck despite the fact the first article is despite that the rest of the content despite being solid

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    • DavidB says:

      What the hell is your second sentence supposed to say cs3?

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      • cs3 says:

        Before the article was edited the first paragraph was pretty much unreadableā€¦ I was just copying a few of the stylistic disasters from the first few sentences of Mr. Klaasens opening paragraph. Thankfully it appears he went back over it and corrected all the incomplete sentences, run-ons, and other assorted grammatical errors.
        You must have read the article after it was edited, because when I read shortly after it was posted, it made zero sense.

        Interesting read though. Pretty much confirms that there will never be another Rickey.

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    • Nick T says:

      Oh, the irony.

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    • There aren’t any mistakes that I saw in the first paragraph. If you’re going to criticize Matt, you could at least cite the mistakes he made.

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      • cs3 says:

        Well he oviously edited already (within minutes after I posted) and there is not a a quote function anyway, so i cant give an exact citation now.
        but believe me when I say it was entirely unreadable. There were at least 3 sentences that were incomprehensible. perhaps he mistakenly posted it before he was finished proof reading?

        Doesnt really matter now because its fixed

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    • Shawn says:

      cs3,

      I just have one quick suggestion. If you understood the article, no need to be an ass. If you are that interested in grammar, perhaps you should start a sister site called grammargraphs, and you can write all the articles you want about what the “ideal first word” should be.

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  2. baty says:

    No one might ever be as ideal a leadoff hitter as Ricky Henderson, so in that respect they are right, but these “nutsos” continue to measure lead off hitters to an unattainable level. Kinsler is an ideal leadoff hitter, and to be able to get a guy of his standards up to the plate maybe a few more times a week than he would hitting in the 4-6 slot, is pretty important. I can’t think of a single Kinsler leadoff spot flaw.

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  3. CircleChange11 says:

    You could also point out how many more PA’s per year that Kinsler gets leading off versus say hitting 3rd, 4th, or 5th.

    Rickey Henderson as “ideal leadoff man” is akin to the “Willie Mays Hall of Fame”.

    There’s only one Rickey, and if you don’t believe me, then just ask Rickey.

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  4. RMR says:

    The question is based on a flawed premise — that there is a position called leadoff hitter which requires a certain, unique combination of skills that don’t work as well elsewhere in the lineup. It’s just not true. The impact of being able to get on base and slug so outpace the other things a hitter can do so as to make them mere marginal considerations in a conversation about the best hitters.

    Fast guys who get on base but don’t hit for a ton of power aren’t leadoff hitters because that’s what a leadoff hitter should be. Rather, it’s that once you put your best hitters in the 3rd and 4th spots, that’s the next best way to use somebody like that. Traditional lineups and the corresponding roles are what they are because the distribution of hitting talent is what it is.

    This matters because it’s not a two way street. In imagining an ideal scenario, you either have to restrict each spot in the lineup to a certain skill set, which is silly, because you can bat anybody anywhere or you have expand the pool of available players who you allow to hit in that spot. And once you do the latter, the best leadoff hitter of all time is Babe Ruth. Best #2 hitter? Babe Ruth. Best #9 hitter? Babe Ruth. You get the idea. Put another way, which team scores more runs? One with 9 Babe Ruths or one with 8 Babe Ruths and a Rickey Henderson leading off?

    The spots in the lineup are not like defensive positions in football and we shouldn’t treat them as such.

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  5. siggian says:

    The problem is that Buck and Pat love baseball cliches and can’t help spouting them out. When you realize this, you can safely ignore what they say and just enjoy the game.

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  6. cs3 says:

    David B -
    Before the article was edited the first paragraph of this article was pretty much unreadable… I was just copying a few of the stylistic disasters in the first few sentences of Mr. Klaasens first paragraph. Thankfully it appears he went back over it and corrected all the incomplete sentences, run-ons, and other assorted grammatical errors.

    Interesting read though. Pretty much confirms that there will never be another Rickey

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  7. tanarus says:

    he has the kind of plate discipline that everyone on the team should emulate, but his swing is horrendous. it’s mind-boggling that someone with such eye-hand coordination doesn’t make a simple adjustment in order to become an offensive powerhouse.

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    • Clifford says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Tanarus. I look at Ian and, to me–if not to other observers–he gets less mileage out of his innate offensive talent than some of his counterparts–notably Dustin Pedroia. To illustrate, Both Ian and Dustin are comparatively short players who uppercut pitches aimed around the letters. But the difference is that Dustin usually hits them, whereas Ian will pop up or strike out–especially in clutch situations. And with runners in scoring position Dustin is a far superior hitter. But I’ve always thought that the difference in performance between these two second baseman shouldn’t be that dramatic given Kinsler’s hand-eye coordination and natural talent. As for the field and the base paths, Ian makes too many careless errors for my tastes.–and then he gets rewarded for it by Ron Washington. Ian makes enough difficult plays at second base to persuade me that the chances he screws up can be attributed to momentary lapses in focus. Maybe he’ll outgrow that. Then again, he’s 29 and now and he might not…

      Clifford
      Santa Monica

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      • YP says:

        Ian hasn’t been particularly error prone since 2008 (he started taking his ADD meds) and has been one of the best defensive 2b since then. And aside from this year, he usually hits better with RISP. Pedroia is a better hitter (avg wise) but kinsler has better power and speed and comparable defense.

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      • BoSoxFanA says:

        from 09-11(cutting out Pedoria’s MVP season)
        wOBA Pedoria .376 Kinsler .355
        wRC+ Pedroia .132 Kinsler .116
        UZR Pedoria 27.8 Kinsler 22.1
        GP Pedoria 335 Kinsler 352

        I think it is fair to say from these numbers Pedoria is not only a better hitter OVERALL(not just avg) than Kinsler, and a better defender(almost 3 year of total UZR should be accurate enough). All this despite Pedoria is much less talented physically except for FAR superior hand-eye coordination.

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      • BoSoxFanA says:

        Correction: Pedoria’s WRC+ is 129, but my point still stands.

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  8. I love articles that remind me how great some of the historically great players have been. Rickey’s stat page always makes me happy when I am sad.

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    Any potential Rickey is now playing running back or strong safety.

    The landscape has changed.

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  10. BigTex71 says:

    The lead off hitter is only guaranteed to lead off an inning in the first inning of the game. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter – they could be batting 3rd in the inning the next time up.

    So quote only stats for the first at-bat of an inning for Kinsler. And compare THAT to Henderson. I have a feeling that may be too difficult a stat to get quickly.

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