Willie Bloomquist, Leadoff Hitter

Willie Bloomquist has been playing baseball for a long time. This will be his 10th full year in the Majors, and in the previous nine, he has never been even an average hitter. Despite this, Bloomquist has started the season as the D-backs’ leadoff hitter, a role he filled nearly half of the time last season. He has started the season hot, but history tells us that will not last, and when he reverts back to form, the D-backs may have trouble scoring runs.

Prior to 2011, Bloomquist had started in the leadoff spot 23 times, and had totaled 115 plate appearances there over eight seasons. In those 115 PA, he had hit .226/.287/.274. Despite this ineptitude — albeit in a limited sample — D-backs manager Kirk Gibson decided to slot Bloomquist in at leadoff to start last season. Bloomquist started 13 of the first 16 games, and hit leadoff in all of them. For his part, he hit well during that stretch — .306/.323/.419, playing both shortstop and left field. He homered, drove in seven runs, and stole seven bases in eight tries. If you had a utility guy who could do that all season, that would be pretty valuable, right?

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. A strained right hamstring shelved him for the better part of a month, and when he came back, he was the Bloomquist of old. He hit .257/.315/.323, and didn’t post a wRC+ better than 85 in any month after April. Nevertheless, Gibson kept hitting him leadoff. For the season, he started in 83 games, and hit leadoff in 78 of them. Through it all, little changed in his hitting profile from his performance in previous years. His BB/K increased over what it had been in 2009 and 2010, but his .45 mark was essentially the same as his career mark of .43. His 6.0 BB% was 13th out of the 16 D-back hitters who accumulated at least 100 PA.

Despite this, the Arizona offense kept on chugging. While they were a below-average unit overall (wRC+ of 96), they finished ninth in the Majors in runs scored, and fourth in the National League. Oh, did I mention the team also made the playoffs? Yeah, they did that too, for the first time since 2007. As a result, no red flags have been raised with Gibson’s lineup construction, and Bloomquist has kicked off the 2012 season in the leadoff role once again. Gibson has earned accolades for his tactics, and has stated that his goal this season is to do better and become world champions, and that he is not afraid to tinker with his lineup in order to achieve that goal. His tinkering should start at the top.

In The Book, the authors state that the leadoff hitter should be one of the team’s three best hitters overall, and that it should also be one of the players who takes the most walks. Bloomquist qualifies as neither. So who does? By plugging in the 13 hitters on the D-backs active roster plus Drew into our custom teams function and running through the five projection systems under our projections tab, a clear pattern emerges:

wOBA Rank Marcel ZiPS Fans RotoChamp Steamer
1st Upton (.373) Upton (.376) Upton (.387) Upton (.378) Upton (.387)
2nd Goldschmidt (.344) Kubel (.356) Goldschmidt (.351) Goldschmidt (.363) Goldschmidt (.373)
3rd Montero (.338) Goldschmidt (.352) Kubel (.344) Montero (.347) Kubel (.343)

We find that there is unanimous agreement that Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt are two of the team’s three best hitters, with Jason Kubel and Miguel Montero jockeying for third-best. From there, we want the player who walks the most frequently batting leadoff, with the other two hitting third and fourth. And that player is Goldschmidt. Whether using his small sample in the Majors, or factoring in his Minor League numbers, Goldschmidt is the player that walks the most frequently among the team’s best hitters, and along with Lyle Overbay and Ryan Roberts, walks the most among the team period.

Goldschmidt also strikes out quite a bit, but that shouldn’t be a detriment. Going back to The Book, we are reminded that strikeouts shouldn’t be a factor in setting your starting lineup, only later in games when you may find an advantage using a pinch hitter. But since Goldschmidt is one of the team’s best hitters, and is always a threat to swat a big fly, it’s unlikely he’ll be pinch-hit for too frequently. Furthermore, players who strike out a lot generally see a lot of pitches, and Goldschmidt is no exception. Last season, he saw 4.43 pitches per plate appearance, which was third-best in the Majors among players who accumulated at least 100 PA. At 4.67 per PA, he is seeing a similarly high rate so far this April. Whether or not Goldschmidt can cut down on his strikeouts remains to be seen, but either way, he is going to give his teammates a good look at the starting pitcher. Bloomquist, well, doesn’t — he averaged 3.77 pitches per PA last season, and his 3.26 mark in this young season is tied for 192nd out of 207 qualified hitters.

It is not news that Willie Bloomquist is a bad hitter, nor is it news that he is a bad leadoff hitter. We knew these things before 2011, and we know them now. Stephen Drew is still not all the way back, so Gibson may not have any choice but to play Bloomquist. But while Bloomquist is fleet of foot, he walks less frequently than just about every other regular on the team, and he certainly isn’t one of the team’s best hitters. As a result, he shouldn’t be hitting first. Paul Goldschmidt may not seem like a traditional candidate, but batting him leadoff and dropping Bloomquist to the bottom of the order would improve the D-backs lineup. Bloomquist may be a favorite of Kirk Gibson’s, and he has started this season hot, just as he did last season, but if he keeps hitting him leadoff, it will eventually cost the D-backs dearly.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

34 Responses to “Willie Bloomquist, Leadoff Hitter”

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  1. max says:

    I don’t have The Book in front of me, but don’t differences like these not matter *that* much? I understand the point and realize that having Bloomquist bat first is not optimal, but I doubt that something like this will “cost the D-Backs dearly.”

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    • MGL says:

      Correct. Especially if he plays only until Drew returns. My guess is that re-arranging the lineup might add another 5 runs per 162 game, or around .03 rpg. You will never “see” that kind of difference. It is not like the D-Backs offense will sputter with him batting leadoff and flourish with someone else.

      That being said, unless Gibson has some other good reason to bat him leadoff, other than the fact that he is still fast, he should probably not do so.

      I’ll play around with my sim and see how many extra runs can be squeezed out using a different lineup.

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      • RC says:

        I’ve seen rearanged lineups (in lineup simulators) vary by as much as 50 runs over 162 games. Thats serious.

        Batting your worst hitter leadoff will have a lot more of an impact than 5 runs.

        Forgetting even the lineup construction issues, just swapping 100 or so ABs of bloomquist for Goldschmidt/upton is worth a lot more than 5 runs.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      Yeah, “dearly” was a poor word choice, I should have gone with something less strong. Having said that, Bloomquist did get plenty of starts last season in the OF when Drew was in the lineup, and he hit leadoff then too. Kubel may be a more formidable roadblock to that happening again this year than Parra was last year, but between playing matchups in the OF and being cautious with Drew, Bloomquist may start 2-3 days a week even after Drew returns.

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  2. Tung Yin says:

    Interesting article, and very reminiscent of how the Angels in the mid- to late-1980s used their slow-footed DH (and former catcher) Brian Downing as the leadoff hitter. In his best years, Downing posted OBA > .380 on the strength of 80-100 walks and a dozen+ HBPs.

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  3. J Hall says:

    Why all the hate? Bloomquist is a gamer and plays with more heart than anyone. ANYONE Every coach will tell you that a guy that leads the team in perseverance and guts is more valuable than a few percentage points. Baseball is far more than batting average and you seem to have a very shallow understanding of strategy. Take a look at the suicide squeeze bunt for a base hit that Bloomquist put down in the playoff last season and you may begin to understand a little more about his value.

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  4. Jason says:

    A very similar article was written last year when drew went down, yet the dbacks outplayed the giants by 10 games down the stretch. I think this article is overkill. Goldschmidt as a leadoff hitter is a waste of his power, imo. I’d choose CY over anyone but willie.

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    • Johnny Come Lately says:

      Goldschmidt is a waste of power but Chris Young isn’t? I’m not sure how you define power, but if it’s number of home runs, CY is going to have more.

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      • imstillhungry95 says:

        I’m not so sure about that. I think that by the end of the season, CY will have about 20, and Goldschmidt will be very, very close to that, if not past that

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    • mhad says:

      A team’s performance relative to another team is not justification for bad lineup decisions.

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    • jerbear1985 says:

      The issue is you want your best offensive players to have more at-bats than worse ones. If Goldschmidt or Upton or whoever are your best players, put them in a spot where they’ll get the most at-bats. Bloomquist is a poor on-base guy and a poor hitter overall, so he should never see more at-bats than his much better teammates.

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  5. MGL says:

    I ran some sims versus a RHP.

    With Willie batting lead off and Goldy batting 6th, they score 4.716 rpg in 100,000 sims.

    If I switch them, it is 4.726 rpg, or 1.6 extra runs over 162 games. That is probably not even outside of a 2 SD margin of error for 100,000 games.

    I also ran Overbay in place of Goldy versus a RHP.

    With Willie leading off and Overbay in the 6 hole, they score 4.749 rpg, a 5.4 run improvement over Goldy per 162 games. So I assume they should be platooned, which is I think what Gibson is doing.

    If I switch Willie and Overbay in the lineup, I get 4.791, which is a 6.8 run improvement over having Willie lead off and Overbay bat 6.

    I’ll re-run the Willie, Goldie lineups again to get a larger sample size…

    Willie lead off and Goldy 6th: 4.713 rpg in another 200,000 games. Combine that with the original 4.716 in 100,000 games, and we have 4.714 in 300,000 games.

    Switch them and we get 4.723 in another 200,000. That is 4.724 in 300,000 games.

    The difference is still 1.6 runs per 162 games.

    So it doesn’t make much difference.

    Maybe Upton batting lead off might work, with his speed.

    BTW, the another change we can get by re-arranging Gibson’s lineup is to switch Hill and Blum. I don’t know if he does this all the time, but he had Blum batting 7th and Hill 8th. According to my projections, Hill is way the better batter. Blum is terrible – replacement level.

    If I switch those two batters and leave Goldy 1 and Willie 6th, the rpg is 4.737, whic is 2.2 runs per 162 better.

    Anyway, back to Upton batting first. If we put him first, Goldy 3rd, and Willie 6th (and leave Blum and Hill as in the original lineup), we get 4.698. OK, scrap that idea!

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  6. Jack says:

    The title of this article should probably read “Willie Bloomquist, Leadoff Player”

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  7. FredMertz65 says:

    With a .221 team ave, and Parra sitting on the bench you got to question why

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  8. mcrubrub says:

    “We find that there is unanimous agreement that Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt are two of the team’s three best hitters, with Jason Kubel and Miguel Montero jockeying for third-best.”

    interesting there is no mention of chris young, who is at least the 2nd best hitter on the team.

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    • imstillhungry95 says:

      Well, that might be because the stats don’t back up your assertion that Young is the 2nd best hitter on the team. Maybe right this second, but over his career, hardly

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  9. Kem says:

    IMO, you want someone who plays smart. Someone who GETS ON BASE! Willie is one of the smartest, grittiest players in baseball, and having him leadoff is another reason why this team is winning! Gibby knows something about his players that no “book” could ever tell him. I say leave Willie as the leadoff, but I’d you are going to put someone else there to give Willie a break, make it CY or Kubel. Gotta get that runner on base.

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    • Chiding Gently says:

      I don’t know what is funnier, the scare quotes around the word “book” or that you said he’s one of the “grittiest” players in baseball. Just how did you wind up here?

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      • Kem says:

        In sorry, I didn’t know I had to har a personal invite to read an article and have an opinion.

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      • kingoriole says:

        Everyone’s welcome here, and I don’t think he’s implying that you shouldn’t be here. He’s just wondering how you got to this site, thee advanced statistic baseball site on the internet, when you think grit is a major reason to bat someone leadoff.
        Also you claim it’s important to get on base, yet you ignore the fact that bloomquist has THE WORST ON BASE PERCENTAGE as anyone who’s had at least 300 at bats with the Diamondbacks in the last 3 years.

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    • Preston says:

      KEM, the point of the article is that Willie does not GET ON BASE particularly well. His OBPs the last 4 years are .308, .299, .317, and .321. His career OBP is .317. That makes him somewhere between below average and average at getting on base. He may be brilliant and gritty and a fantastic teammate, but that does not translate into GETTING ON BASE at a desirable rate for a leadoff hitter.

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  10. Tim Wing says:

    Last year on Stephen Drews stats page I posted a message saying that I wanted Fangraphs to make an article about Stephen Drew and how much of a better hitter he was in his career when batting leadoff. As a leadoff hitter Stephen Drew is one of the best hitting Shortstops in the league. But when he hits anywhere else he’s just an average player.

    in 2008 Drew was moved to leadoff permanently after all-star break. had total of 335 AB’s batting 1st. .313 AVG .361 OBP .528 SLG .889 OPS

    2009 183 AB’s batting 1st. .301 AVG .352 OBP .541 SLG .893 OPS
    2010 184 AB’s batting 1st. .310 AVG .374 OBP .538 SLG .912 OPS

    Most of these at bats batting leadoff were in the 2nd halfs of seasons. It’s too bad that the coach can’t decide to put him there to start the season and let him have a great full season! Looking at all his seasons so far, his best one was 2008, which just happens to be the year he had the most AT BATS LEADOFF!! That year after moved to leadoff around all star break, he had an amazing second half. I hope when he comes back from this injury he is immediately put into the leadoff spot and kept there. Im not even a Diamondbacks fan! but this has been bothering me since 2009!

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  11. Brian says:

    I’d probably just bat Upton first. Almost anyone is defensible as the leadoff man in that lineup other than Bloomquist, really.

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  12. SKob says:

    I like the post about Drew. Assuming we are only talking about the lineup until he gets back anyway, I will defend Bloomquist in this way – he’s fast! Yeah, yeah, I know the author talked about that already, but let’s be honest here, when does the best player bat leadoff if he’s not fast or has lots of power? And if Goldshmidt is so special, why does he bat sixth? Oh right, becasue Gibson’s not that smart, I remember.

    Even though there are planty of big bats in this lineup, this is still the NL and it’s still a small ball mentality. If the leadoff guy gets on, you want him distracting pitchers with movement and you want him to have the chance to get to second without another hit. Just 1 more hit from the 2-4 guys gets a run on the board. That’s why fast guys bat first – if they get on, 1 hit can score a run. That might not be a big deal to stat geeks, but a manager should give a shit! Everybody is worried about getting to 7 or 8 runs, but 1 or 2 is good enough sometimes. It’s 1 or 2 that win you games. You think Goldschmidt taking an extra walk every forth game gets you somewhere special? I’m not buying that!

    I know what this site is about, but analyzing substitute leadoff hitters is a bit odd and everybody posting about how the stats should be driving the decision on where to hit who in the lineup is really nerdy! I like stats as much as the next geek, but speed leading off wasn’t my idea and using stats to defy that mentality seems like a waste of time.

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  13. willie bloomquist says:

    I see the argument from both sides, however, the one unaccounted for and hard to accurately materialize stat is clutch performance. I think clutch is more qualitative than quantitative, that being said, Hill and Bloomquist are the top two on this club. This is why I would advicate for Willie and Hill being 1-2.

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