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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.