It’s the winter now, and for MLB fans and front offices alike that means speculation abounds on various roster shuffles and mix-ups. From now until April, we will be seeing endless fantastical roster constructions from every team from media sources ranging from blogs to the mainstream media to everybody’s new favorite hangout, Twitter. For many teams heading into the market, the question of who will lead off is one of great concern. Not every team has an Ichiro Suzuki or a Grady Sizemore to set the table. What kind of player should these other teams look for?
Here is a simple list of qualities that the ideal leadoff hitter possesses:
1. Productive hitter
That’s the easiest way to put it. It certainly is better, if you have two similarly talented (in terms of overall production) hitters, to leverage the leadoff spot with a player with a higher OBP. Still, what I think is often forgotten by managers (and GMs, to a certain extent), is that the leadoff hitter bats the most times through the order. To best leverage the spot, you want somebody that first of all is a productive hitter, and second of all is an on-base threat.
Does it really matter, though? As analysts and students of the game, this is the exact sort of thing we like to know. Delving deeper, from The Book we see the leadoff hitter receives roughly 4.80 PAs per game and the 5th hitter only receives 4.34. Over 150 games, that means that the leadoff hitter receives roughly 70 more plate appearances. Over these 70 plate appearances, the amount of runs gained by switching a player from the #5 spot to the #1 spot who is 20 points of wOBA better is roughly one run. This may be erased by properly leveraging an on-base threat at the top of the lineup, but it certainly will not end up being significant to the point of a win or likely not even half a win.
GMs entering the offseason looking for hitters need not concern themselves with what lineup slot they set their players in. Defensive alignment and batter handedness factor into lineup construction more than leveraging a player’s specific OBP or SLG skills. If your team needs a 3B and “needs” a leadoff hitter, it may seem that Chone Figgins and his .363 career OBP is a great fit and Adrian Beltre and his .325 career OBP doesn’t work at all, but it’s just not true. Beltre’s a great fielder and an average hitter, and Figgins is a great (but probably not as good) fielder and an average hitter, and that’s what matters.