Can Anybody Here Bat Leadoff?

Batting leadoff used to be a symbol of honor. You were the guy that could always find a way to get on base. You were the guy who was always scoring runs and making the other team nervous. Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Lenny Dykstra, Richie Ashburn. Sure, the power hitters got all the glory, but who was the guy waiting for them at home plate, scoring ahead of them on those mammoth homeruns? It was you, Mr.Leadoff Man. Hello? Mr.Leadoff Man, where are you in today's game of baseball?

The Phillies offense is showing some minor signs of life and the Phillies have won four of their last five games. Still, the lack of a leadoff hitter could haunt the Phillies. Placido Polanco has seemingly taken over the role of the leadoff man, but with no results. In 21 at bats hitting first in the order, Polanco is hitting just .048 for the Phillies. In his career though, Polanco has 116 at bats leading off a game and is hitting .310 with a .347 on-base percentage. It seems that keeping Polanco in the leadoff spot is at least worth trying for a while longer, especially since the Phillies are winning. Long term though, Polanco wouldn't seem to be a good fit.

Polanco moved to the top of the order after Jimmy Rollins struggled in the role and Bobby Abreu never found comfort as the Phillies first hitter. Rollins has been a frustrating case of young players not being willing to do what they may best be suited for. With his speed and some natural homerun power, Rollins could be a natural in the leadoff spot. He could make things happen and set a proper table for the power guys behind him. Unfortunately, you don't see many bunts on ESPN, so Rollins has stayed away from learning the one skill that could make him so much more dangerous. The switch-hitting Rollins – another factor that could make him a killer leadoff man – has hit .266 with a .314 OBP this season for the Phillies. In his career, Rollins has only hit .264 with a .323 OBP leading off.

Abreu is also somewhat frustrating, but at least with some better reason. Abreu has been productive hitting lower in the lineup and can play more of the power game than can Rollins. As a leadoff man this season, Abreu hit .250 with an OBP of .348. In his career, Abreu has 72 at bats from the leadoff spot and has hit .347 with a .478 OBP, dazzling numbers, but with not enough at bats to truly say that he is leadoff material. Where Abreu's numbers get frustrating are when you look at how he does leading off an inning, no matter where he's hitting in the order. In his career, Abreu has hit .318 and has a .399 OBP when he leads off an inning. Another interesting stat is that over his career, Abreu has hit one homerun every 23 at bats when he's not leading off an inning and one every 17 at bats when he is leading off an inning. When he hits at the top of the order, he hits one homerun every 15 at bats. This from a guy who prides himself on being somewhat of a power guy who can drive in runs. By the way, Abreu's average with runners in scoring position during his career is .278, under his average as a leadoff man. Actually, Abreu's numbers show that he is productive no matter where in the lineup he hits, although the overwhelming majority of his at bats have come out of the third spot in the order.

In the past, managers have tried some unusual possibilities in the leadoff spot. The Reds' Bob Boone has Adam Dunn, a big-time power hitter as his leadoff man. When Mike Schmidt was mired in a slump, Danny Ozark inserted him into the leadoff spot. With less emphasis on stolen bases and almost no emphasis on bunting, the leadoff spot in the order is changing. Now, it's only about getting on base, with no regard to whether a player is capable of stealing bases. More and more managers are looking at a stat that's growing in popularity; pitches per at bat. The theory being that a leadoff hitter needs to work the count and make the pitcher work, which also gives his teammates a better look at the stuff that he's got on that particular day. Just for the record, Abreu comes out well in that stat too, with 4.18 PPAB, compared to 3.74 for Rollins and 3.23 for Polanco over their careers.

In the spirit of unusual solutions, let's look at a couple on the Phillies. In his career, David Bell has been a leadoff hitter for 189 at bats – zero as a Phillie – and has hit .254 with a .344 OBP. Unfortunately, Bell's most productive spot in the order has been ninth, where he is a career .298 hitter. Mike Lieberthal has been the Phillies most consistent hitter this season. In his career, Lieberthal has never been a leadoff hitter, but he has hit .294 with a .345 OBP when leading off an inning. Interesting. Just for the record, Lieberthal, who seems to always swing early in the count, has a career 3.58 PPAB.

There is another somewhat obvious choice. Marlon Byrd. Byrd's career numbers are too small to get a grasp on what he might do as a leadoff man, since he only has one career at bat as a leadoff man. When leading off an inning though, Byrd is a .324 hitter (11-34). He handled the job in the minors and should be able to handle it in the majors. The concern is that Byrd is finally getting comfortable at the plate and moving him now might shake that delicate balance that he's found.

Yes, Rickey Henderson is out there in the independent Atlantic League and the Pirates are reportedly shopping Kenny Lofton. Truth is though, that as important as a leadoff man is, pushing aside Marlon Byrd for either of those players is probably not worth it. Henderson would have an upside – potentially – in that he is Jimmy Rollins' all-time hero. Maybe Henderson could impact Rollins and mold him in his image – at least the on-field image – and would make Rollins into a potential MVP leadoff man. For that reason, having Henderson and Byrd split some time in center field might be worth the chance if Byrd doesn't come around. The question is how many at bats Henderson would be expecting to get if he were to sign with the Phillies.


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