What Makes A Good Leadoff Hitter?

Quality leadoff hitters are hard to come by. Very few teams in the MLB have a proper table-setter at the top of the lineup anymore. But then that begs the question: What makes a good leadoff hitter?

Here's some interesting stats regarding leadoff efficiency, care of the MLB Network:

Percentage of plate appearances with runners on base (by spot in lineup)
Leadoff: 36%
2 spot: 44%
3 spot: 48%
Cleanup: 51%

Percentage of plate appearances with no outs (by spot in the lineup)
Leadoff: 48%
2 spot: 33%
3 spot: 28%
Cleanup: 34%

In other words, leadoff hitters come to the plate with runners on base far less often than any other spot in the lineup. Leadoff hitters also hit with no outs more often than any other lineup spot.

So what does this tell us?

Well, it just confirms statistically what we already knew: A leadoff hitter's job is to get on base. Period. Speed on the base paths is nice of course, but the key metrics are walk rate and OBP.

It also tells us that power is not necessarily a good thing for a leadoff hitter. If a player has any pop at all they should be farther down in the lineup, maximizing their at-bats with runners on base and therefore maximizing the amount of damage they do should they go yard.

Who should hit first for the Giants?

Considering these numbers, let's take a closer look at the Giants' offseason acquisitions and potential leadoff hitters -- Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan.

Cabrera had an excellent season for the Royals last year, posting an impressive .305/.339/.470 slashline while breaking the 200-hit barrier -- one of only five players in all of baseball to do so. However, Cabrera gathered all those hits by being extremely aggressive at the plate -- he posted an abysmal walk rate of 4.5 percent.

Cabrera had a breakout year, but unfortunately his numbers were not that of a leadoff hitter. The 27-year-old certainly looks to be a great addition to the lineup -- the Giants need offense, as we all know -- but he has far too much power and draws far too few walks to make sense as a leadoff hitter. Cabrera's services will be better utilized farther down in the lineup.

Angel Pagan, while with the Mets, posted a slashline of .262/.322/.372 with just a 7.5 percent walk rate.

By comparison, Andres Torres managed to post a slashline of .221/.312/.330. We all know Torres struggled last year, and the numbers bear that out. Nevertheless, Torres' OBP was a mere 10 points under that of Pagan, mainly due to his patience at the plate -- Torres posted a walk rate of 10.5 percent.

Pagan is saying all the right things in the media, and seems truly excited to come to San Francisco and fill that igniter role -- a role that was so dearly lacking last season.

Could be Pagan's the guy for the job. But then one has to wonder, in considering the offensive metrics that really matter for a table setter, have the Giants really upgraded all that much? Have they upgraded enough to offset the fact that Torres is far and away Pagan's superior with the leather? I suppose only time will tell.


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