Aside from being the first person to step into the box against opposing pitchers, history shows us that having a strong hitter at the top of the order is a common denominator among successful teams. While definitions of the prototypical leadoff man are in many ways individualized, and the top spot in the order tailored to fit the needs and wants of the team manager, countless pundits have found common ground in upholding Rickey Henderson as one of the greatest of all time to lead a lineup.
“People ask, ‘How do you steal all those bases?’” he told USA Today in 2013. “But they never say, ‘What do you do to get on base?’ The first thing is, can you get on base a lot to give you the opportunity to steal so many bases? That’s what the guys are not doing. They’re not finding a way to get on the basepaths. A lot of leadoff hitters, they’re free swingers — they’re not patient enough to take a pitch or two knowing that they can hit with two strikes and get themselves a chance to get on base more.”
Considering that the league has broken and re-broken the all-time single-season strikeout rate every season since 2008 — leading to possible rule changes in an effort to curb the ever-rising rate — a batter’s ability to get on base has perhaps never been more fundamentally imperative than it is now. But does having an elite leadoff hitter help teams generate wins, at least as much as we think it does? And how paramount is it to have an above-average-to-great leadoff man stepping into the batters box? The answer is yes, and the numbers suggest having an above-average leadoff hitter is more crucial than you’d think.
Weighted on-base average is a metric created by Tom Tango that is preferable to simple on-base average because wOBA “combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.” A higher wOBA being a clear and accurate indicator that a player is helping a team score runs. This season’s league average of .333 wOBA among leadoff batters is the fourth-highest since 2002. Using general on-base percentage as a comparison, this season’s .342 average for leadoff hitters is lower than the .345 it was during 1990, the year Henderson was named MVP of the American League.
The value of having a player at the top of a batting order with an elite wOBA is obvious; getting on base puts pressure on opposing pitchers, leads to runs, which, more often than not, breeds offensive success. Of the 30 teams to qualify for the postseason the past three years, 19 (63.2 percent) featured a leadoff hitter that, according to Fangraphs’ categorization, had a wOBA that was at least average, or a mark higher than .320. Of the 12 teams to qualify for the American League and National League championship, eight (66.7 percent) featured a leadoff hitter that was at least average in the metric that season. While leadoff-hitter wOBA was .319 from 2013-2015, for leadoff hitters on playoff-qualifying teams, that average was .332.
The man many assumed would be in a Baltimore Orioles uniform this season has instead returned to the Chicago Cubs and, like the rest of Joe Maddon’s star-studded lineup, is terrorizing opposing pitching. Fowler has the eighth-highest wOBA in baseball (.417) and the top mark among leadoff hitters.
There isn’t an adjective for Fowler’s wOBA; it’s too high.
His knack for striking out is outstripped by career highs in walk rate (14.4 percent), batting average (.316) and hard-contact rate (38.1 percent).
The 30-year-old outfielder not only has perhaps the most giggle-inducing home video of the season, but also worked diligently in the offseason on his patience at the plate. It’s paying off: He’s swinging at a career-low 17.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, a substantive improvement from his 21.9 percent career average.
At this point we must consider whether Ned Yost is trotting out the 29-year-old shortstop just to antagonize the analytics crowd. It appears as though Escobar saves his talent for the postseason, where he has been quite splendid in recent years.
With the Kansas City Royals plummeting in the standings, Escobar has done little to elevate an offense that scores the eighth-fewest runs per game of any team in baseball.
Escobar’s .268 batting average is good for 12th lowest among leadoff hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this year, and his .311 batting average on balls in play suggests there’s little room to be optimistic about that average spiking sometime soon. The Venezuelan’s strikeout rate is the highest it’s been in four years, and he’s making soft contact at his highest rate since 2011.
Yost could consider bumping Jarrod Dyson into the leadoff spot, who has been more proficient at getting on base and has been defter on the base paths this year.