The Braves’ Leadoff Situation

I decided to do a little research after watching the Braves lose to the Mets last night in a game in which the Braves’ offense had a) four extra-base hits to the Mets’ two; b) four singles to the Mets’ three; c) four walks to the Mets’ three; and d) five strikeouts to the Mets’ seven.  After grounding into three more double plays, the Braves are now second in the Majors in GIDP with 36 on the year.  One of the culprits was Yunel Escobar, who I seem to recall GIDP-ing an awful lot.  So I looked into it.

I was right.  After I read that Escobar grounded into 21 double plays in 2009 and 24 in 2008, which was the highest total in the N.L. for those two years, I decided to examine the batted ball data on Fangraphs, and my findings were telling (click on the link and then click on GB% to sort by that).  In 2009 Yunel was one of the most prolific groundball hitters in all of baseball.  More than 50% of his balls in play were on the ground, good for 23rd in all of MLB.  And he hit the ball on the ground at an even higher rate in 2008.

Here’s the interesting thing: If you look at the folks ahead of him on this list, every single one of them are top-of-the-order hitters for their teams.  In fact most of them are leadoff men.  It makes sense for Scott PodsednikJacoby Ellsbury, Michael BournElvis AndrusDenard Span, Emilio Bonifacio, or Carl Crawford to hit the ball on the ground because of their speed.  Not only are they attempting to get infield hits, but also if there is a man on base in front of them, there’s very little danger in them grounding into a double play.  Bonifacio, for example, only grounded into 5 DP’s all year last year in 509 plate appearances, despite a high GB%.  But Yunel Escobar is no burner, and he’s also batting with men on base a whole lot more than those guys due to his position in the batting order.

Yunel has been very successful at the plate the last two years (especially last year), and he may yet improve in his age 27 season.  There’s no need to try to change his swing or his approach at the plate just because of the GIDPs.  That kind of tinkering is almost always counter-productive.  OK, so he hits a ton of groundballs and gets on base a lot, without much power.  Perfect, let’s hit him leadoff!  Those are precisely the qualities we look for in a leadoff man.  If he repeats his .377 OBP from last year while grounding into 25 DP’s and hitting in the 6 or 7 hole in the lineup, it’s such a total waste.  The kid has major on-base skills, but not run-producer skills (career slugging%: .416).  So, he should hit at the top of the lineup where he’ll get more plate appearances, where him getting on base is a bigger asset, and where he’s less likely to bat with as many runners on base and thus less likely to GIDP.  It’s a win-win-win.

If that isn’t a strong enough case to move Escobar up in the batting order in Atlanta, then add this: Nate McLouth has hit .237/.342/.386 in 514 plate appearances as a Brave.  And Jordan Schafer, who is the long-term solution in center field for Atlanta barring a major trade, is currently regaining his form in AAA as he comes back from wrist surgery, and isn’t ready to play every day in the big leagues, much less to hit leadoff.  Regardless of what the Braves do with CF as the year goes on, it doesn’t appear that their CF will be their leadoff man.  So based on that and the aforementioned batted ball data, why not try their shortstop?

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10 Responses to “The Braves’ Leadoff Situation”

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  1. Dave Woody says:

    One correction: Miguel Tejada actually led the N.L. GIDPs for composite 08-09. Escobar was 2nd.

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  2. dutchbrowncoat says:

    good stuff man. but as a mets fan i am fine with all of the double plays.

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  3. Jimbo says:

    With his excellent contact rates, and batted ball profile, you’d think he would be a good hit-and-run option. Does Bobby Cox employ that often enough?

    I wonder what Yunel would do hitting 3rd (often over-emphasized spot in the order).

    Oh, and I just got turned down in my offer of Liriano for YE…is that crazy?!

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  4. Dave Woody says:

    It is crazy, Jimbo, unless the guy already has insanely good pitching and no other decent SS.

    I don’t think Bobby Cox employs the hit-and-run very often. Even if he did, the Braves’ only fast baserunner is Nate McLouth, and he’s not going to be leading off anytime soon. So I’m just not sure about hitting YE second because I don’t know who you hit leadoff.

    As for hitting him third, he doesn’t have enough power. Jason Heyward should probably hit third for the Braves, with YE leading off and Chipper hitting second. This maximizes the high OBP guys’ plate appearances, which is always a good thing.

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  5. Tomahawk Mafia says:

    Yunel Escobar is generally considered a good fit in the middle of the order within the Braves organization because of his tremendous success in 2009 with Runners-in-scoring-position. He thrived in the sixth spot in the order in 2009 with the amount of opportunities he encountered with runners in scoring position. He had a line of .373/438/627/1.065 in such situations. Given his success and his relative lack of speed it seemed to work for the Braves in 2009. However at this juncture in 2010, Escobar has struggled to find much consistency at the plate resulting in a putrid line of .200/.292/.250/.542. Although he has struggled most of 2010, his line with runners-in-scoring-position is a respectable .292/.469/.333/.802.

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  6. Dave Woody says:

    Couple of problems with this:1) Hitting with RISP isn’t a repeatable skill; and 2) What the Braves organization thinks is largely irrelevant to this discussion. The point of utilizing sabermetric analysis is to determine the truth about baseball players and their abilities. And the truth is, Escobar is not a middle-of-the-order hitter because he doesn’t hit for any power and also, as I pointed out in the article, he’s one of the more prolific groundball hitters in all of MLB. Whether or not Frank Wren and Bobby Cox know this isn’t really the point. The stats tell you that Escobar is a very poor fit for the middle of a lineup, and the stats don’t lie.

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  7. Melkmizzle says:

    The Yankees actually moved Jeter to leadoff bcuz of the GIDP stuff, worked out fine for them so why not for the Braves and Yunel?

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  8. Dave Woody says:

    That’s a pretty good comparison actually. The only difference is Jeter has much better speed.

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  9. Dave Woody says:

    Well, it’s two months later and we can clearly see that the Braves have found their leadoff hitter, and it’s not Yunel Escobar. It’s his double-play partner, Martin Prado. Prado currently leads the NL in BA, and the Majors in hits and lead-off OBP. I’d say he’s settled into the leadoff spot nicely, and made a mockery of my analysis in the process (since I never even considered him for the role).

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  10. nolan says:

    In your defense, few saw Prado having the all-star season he’s having and he typically fits the No. 2 hitter to a T. Prado won’t steal a lot of bases but he has the OBP to be an effective leadoff guy and it’s not like he’s slow or anything.

    Still, good analysis.

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