St. Louis Cardinals' Search for a Leadoff Man

For the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals, the question is not "who's on first?" but "who bats first?" The chances of nine leading candidates are evaluated in detail.

Almost all baseball fans have at least heard of the old Abbott and Costello skit –"Who's on First?" Well, the 2008 edition of the St. Louis Cardinals know the answer to that question; it is perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols. But heading into this season, the question for the Cardinals is who is going to bat first. David Eckstein, who served as the Cardinals for the past three seasons, left for the Toronto Blue Jays after the 2007 campaign.

As I considered possible leadoff candidates, I began to wonder how important a leadoff hitter really is. So I decided to look back at all World Series winners since the 1995 season using simple statistics.

Team  Leadoff Man G ABs BA OBP SLG BB SO
'95 Braves Marquis Grissom 125 509 0.240 0.299 0.350 42 59
'96 Yankees Wade Boggs 79 309 0.294 0.384 0.372 47 18
  Derek Jeter 40 174 0.328 0.379 0.437 14 22
  Tim Raines 38 154 0.286 0.376 0.474 22 25
'97 Marlins Luis Castillo 52 210 0.238 0.304 0.267 20 42
  Devon White 47 217 0.237 0.313 0.368 18 53
'98 Yankees Chuck Knoblauch 150 603 0.265 0.361 0.405 76 70
'99 Yankees Chuck Knoblauch 148 596 0.292 0.393 0.456 81 57
'00 Yankees Chuck Knoblauch 101 456 0.283 0.367 0.386 46 45
'01 D'backs Tony Womack 73 323 0.254 0.297 0.341 15 34
'02 Angels David Eckstein 150 606 0.294 0.364 0.389 45 44
'03 Marlins Juan Pierre 148 616 0.302 0.359 0.370 51 32
'04 Red Sox Johnny Damon 143 608 0.308 0.385 0.480 76 68
'05 White Sox Scott Podsednik 125 503 0.290 0.351 0.350 47 75
'06 Cardinals David Eckstein 119 496 0.294 0.351 0.347 30 41
'07 Red Sox  Julio Lugo 82 352 0.224 0.286 0.315 32 52
  Rookies 42 178 0.314 0.378 0.461 18 17

The first thing that I noticed is that for the most part, the eventual champs' first spot in the batting order was quite stable. Only two teams, the ‘95 Braves and the ‘01 Diamondbacks, had leadoff men with an on base percentage below .300. I guess with pitchers such as Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Schilling, and Johnson, a team doesn't need much production out of the leadoff spot. Yes, I know Julio Lugo only posted an on base percentage of .286, but we will cover that later. The 2003 Marlins is the only other team without a leadoff man that posted an on base percentage of .351 or better.

The next thing you notice is how well the leadoff man controlled the strike zone. Wade Boggs posted a 2.6-to-1 walk to strikeout ratio which is one of the reasons he is in the Hall of Fame. The ‘97 Marlins and the ‘01 Diamondbacks were the only two teams whose leadoff man posted more than twice as many strikeouts as walks. Excluding Boggs, everyone on this list has above-average speed (By this point, White's may have been average).

Looking at the only two seasons the Cardinals did not make the playoffs during this decade, the production at the leadoff spot was much poorer compared to that of the World Series winner. In 2007, the Cardinals' leadoff man produced a line of .283/.323/.346 with 34 walks and 52 strikeouts. For the season, the 2007 Boston Red Sox got a line of .266/.329/.384 with 66 walks and 94 strikeouts, which is not much different from the Cardinals. But if you look at the table, the Red Sox really started getting things on track when rookies Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were moved to the top of the lineup.

During the 2003 season, Fernando Vina went into the season as the leadoff man. But injuries sidelined the second baseman and the Cardinals caught lightning in a bottle, at least temporarily, with rookie Bo Hart. For the season, the two combined to hit .261/.311/.377 with 33 walks and 95 strikeouts. Compare that to the 2003 Florida Marlins who accured a line of .296/.355/.363 with 58 walks and 39 strikeouts.

So in very simple terms, the Cardinals should be looking for a player that can post an on-base percentage of .350 or above, controls the strike zone, and provides good speed on the bases. Looking at Pecota, Zips, Chone and Bill James projections, here is how the sabermetricians predict the candidates will look in 2008.

Leadoff Candidate Pecota Pecota Zips Zips
  OBP BB/K OBP BB/K
Brian Barton 0.329 45/123 * *
Jarrett Hoffpauir 0.339 46/50 0.314 38/38
Cesar Izturis 0.304 17/19 0.296 19/24
D'Angelo Jimenez 0.368 43/42 0.346 44/48
Adam Kennedy 0.313 19/32 0.310 27/49
Aaron Miles 0.307 17/31 0.311 23/43
Colby Rasmus 0.327 62/130 0.329 14/90
Brendan Ryan 0.325 36/57 0.315 27/44
Skip Schumaker 0.322 25/51 0.314 23/57
* No Projection        
Leadoff Candidate Chone Chone  James James
  OBP BB/K OBP BB/K
Brian Barton 0.336 40/124 * *
Jarrett Hoffpauir 0.325 41/50 * *
Cesar Izturis 0.315 26/34 0.306 21/28
D'Angelo Jimenez 0.376 53/50 0.370 26/26
Adam Kennedy 0.335 33/54 0.333 25/48
Aaron Miles 0.323 29/47 0.323 26/43
Colby Rasmus 0.320 48/113 0.345 64/102
Brendan Ryan 0.321 33/56 0.319 16/24
Skip Schumaker 0.323 30/60 0.331 9/16
* No Projection        

Using the criteria of OBP above .350 and a good walk to strikeout ratio, the candidate that stands out the most is probably one of the guys most likely to start the year at Memphis. D'Angelo Jimenez' OBP averages .365 with an almost one-to-one walk to strikeout ratio. The player with the next highest projected OBP is the .345 that Bill James projects Colby Rasmus to display. Yet again, he is a player that most likely will start the year at Triple-A. Also, the average ratio of 47 walks to 109 strikeouts does not meet our criteria, but Rasmus is projected to add much more power than the other candidates. Jarrett Hoffpauir is another player that projects well but most likely starts at Memphis.

Rule 5 pick Brian Barton must stay on the Cardinals' roster all season or the team must return him to the Cleveland Indians. The former Miami Hurricane, if healthy, provides the most speed of the remaining candidates. His OBP averages out at .333 but his projected strikeout totals would seem to eliminate him.

Skip Schumaker (right) projects at .323 while posting a respectable walk to strikeout ratio. But with the other two projected outfielders being left-handed, the Cardinals most likely will want a right-handed bat in right field. This leaves four middle infield candidates.

Brendan Ryan broke onto the scene with a very productive 2007. The experts project him with a .320 OBP with a decent 28-to-45 walk to strikeout ratio. Of note, Bill James does not project Ryan with very many at bats. Most Cardinals followers sense the same and see Ryan starting the year at Memphis.

Early reports have Izturis with the inside track on the starting shortstop job. We can eliminate him, as his projected on-base percentage is just slightly above .300.

So this leaves us with two guys battling it out for the second base job. The switch-hitting Aaron Miles is projected to post a .316 OBP on average to go along with a 24-to-41 walk to strikeout ratio. Adam Kennedy is the incumbent, coming off an injury-shortened 2007. The experts' projections average out to have Kennedy posting a .323 OBP along with a walk to strikeout ratio of 26-to-46.

Using the simple criteria as stated above, Adam Kennedy should be the leadoff man, at least according to these experts.



Dustin Mattison can be reached via email at dustin@whiteyball.com.

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