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(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Batting Order Revolution Will Be Televised

Baseball’s traditional leadoff hitter isn’t yet extinct, but with on-base percentage and home runs gaining importance and many managers increasingly willing to experiment, the trend toward unconventionality at the top of the lineup is spreading

Baseball has always been a numbers game, but players and teams are getting smarter than ever — and fans are, too. Throughout The Ringer’s 2017 MLB preview, in a series we’re calling "How to Baseball," our experts will explore the developments that stand to change the way the game is played and consumed. We’ve never known more, and while knowledge is power, it’s also a wellspring of questions. We hope to answer some of them — and to remind you all to bunt wisely.

When the Cubs begin their long pursuit of a repeat championship in prime time Sunday night, the fans at Busch Stadium will jeer their divisional rivals during player introductions, the Cardinals defense will take the field, and Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber will step to the plate to take the first swing of the night.

"Kyle Schwarber, leadoff hitter," might seem like a paradoxical arrangement, given that the young slugger’s most visible strength (extra-base hits) and weakness (strikeouts) don’t mesh with the traditional leadoff profile. Schwarber and, say, Dee Gordon don’t appear to have many baseball skills in common. But Cubs skipper Joe Maddon isn’t alone in reimagining the leadoff role. He just won the World Series against a Cleveland team that relied on Carlos Santana as its primary 1-hitter, despite the veteran never having appeared in that spot in the order before 2016. Elsewhere in the majors, similarly power-oriented hitters appeared atop lineup cards: Houston slotted George Springer as its leadoff hitter; Minnesota placed Brian Dozier there during his second-half home run binge; the Cardinals were comfortable with Matt Carpenter taking all his first pitches from the 1-hole; and the Blue Jays whipped together a leadoff mix that included Michael Saunders and José Bautista.

Traditional leadoff hitters haven’t gone extinct: Speedsters Jean Segura, Denard Span, and Jonathan Villar all ranked among the league leaders in plate appearances from that spot in 2016, and Royals manager Ned Yost kept frustrating fans by placing fast, on-base sieves first in the order. But writ large, the trend toward unconventionality at the top of the lineup is spreading.

"Some of the stereotypes that come with ‘Is the leadoff hitter a small, scrappy, on-base machine?’ versus me sending up a 6-foot-3, 225-pound George Springer, it might look different," Astros manager A.J. Hinch says. "But what we’re after is scoring the most runs and putting your most dangerous hitters to get the most at-bats is an effective way to do that."

Hinch wasn’t the only manager thinking that way in 2016. Leadoff hitters had never been more dangerous than they were last season, when they hit 10.3 percent of all MLB home runs and drove in 9.6 percent of runs, both the highest such marks since 1920 (the end of the dead-ball era). Last season’s leadoff hitters also posted a slugging percentage 1.6 percent higher than the overall league average, the best in that span. The 2016 leadoff group enjoyed the following rankings relative to each season’s average over those 96 years:

  • First in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and isolated power
  • Second in OPS
  • Fourth in total bases and batting average
  • Ninth in on-base percentage
  • 55th in stolen bases and 58th in runs scored

They displayed more power than ever and reached near-peak levels in batting average and OBP, while falling below the median in steals and runs scored. And as the 2017 season approaches, the trend seems to be growing, with the likes of Schwarber joining the leadoff ranks and even Yost switching to a less rigid reliance on lineup traditions.

"The more you look at it," says Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who batted 29-homer man Adam Jones first for most of 2016, "the more you realize that the conventional way of looking at leadoff hitters may not be the right way."

The prototypical leadoff hitter is older than batting helmets, Wrigley Field, and the World Series. In his book A Game of Inches, baseball historian Peter Morris cites an 1898 Sporting Life article that explained, "It is customary to have a small, active fellow who can hit, run and steal bases, and also worry a pitcher into a preliminary base on balls, as a leader in the list." For more than a century, that vision of the leadoff hitter persisted; three-quarters of small, active fellow David Eckstein’s career plate appearances came from the 1-hole, for instance, despite him posting a career batting line 8 percent worse than average, by wRC+.

Speed was once the connective tissue between generations of leadoff men: Of the 20 players with the most stolen bases since lineup data has been recorded (since 1913), 15 spent the majority of their careers in the leadoff spot. But as sabermetric analyses revealed about a decade ago, on-base skill, not speed, is the most vital asset for a no. 1 hitter, for a pair of self-affirming reasons.

First, it’s less important that a leadoff man be able to steal a base than that he be able to reach base at all. As Cleveland manager Terry Francona summarizes when explaining his decision to hit Santana, who holds a career .365 OBP, first last season, "On-base percentage for your guys up in the order is important because you’re going to have your best run producers behind them."

Second, the higher a player appears in the order, the more plate appearances he will collect, and those extra chances should distribute to the best hitters in a lineup, not just the fastest ones. "You know, the computer will tell you that your best hitter should hit first, and your second-best hitter should hit second, your third-best hitter should hit third," Showalter says. "The whole idea is to get them to the plate as many times as possible, and … sometimes I think that might be correct. If you led off your best player, hit him first instead of third or fourth, you’d probably get him 40 or 50 more at-bats in a year." Showalter’s math is correct. Analyst Mitchel Lichtman estimates that each jump up the batting order increases total plate appearances by 2.5 percent, which, over the course of a 650-PA season, yields a 49-PA increase between the cleanup and leadoff spots.

Kyle Schwarber (Getty Images)
Kyle Schwarber (Getty Images)

Even before the leadoff convention began to shift, there were occasional adherents to the OBP-first philosophy. Hall of Famer Wade Boggs (24 stolen bases in 18 years, but a .415 career OBP) hit leadoff for a plurality of his plate appearances, and the 2002 A’s dabbled in the practice as they did with all manner of forward-thinking tactics: "I’m the only manager in baseball who has to pinch-run for his leadoff man," then–Oakland manager Art Howe complains in Moneyball, as Jeremy Giambi, who resembled Schwarber in physique, batted first 39 times that year. As teams grew smarter, the strategy spread, and OBP as the primary determinant of lineup placement reached a critical mass in the past couple of seasons; the new model of leadoff man is able, in 19th-century parlance, to "worry a pitcher into a preliminary base on balls."

After the first step in the leadoff revolution centered on increasing the spot’s on-base presence, the second arrived in force last season, in the form of supplementary and historic — even after adjusting for the league’s rising home run rate — power.

Part of the reason behind last season’s power numbers for leadoff hitters is simple cause and effect. Over the past five seasons, the correlation between on-base percentage and isolated power for qualified hitters is 0.35, on a scale in which zero would indicate no connection and 1 a perfect relationship. Meanwhile, the correlation between stolen bases and ISO is minus-0.25 and the correlation between BsR and ISO is minus-0.11, which suggests a low-to-moderate inverse relationship between those variables.

In English: Players who run well tend to hit for less power, while players who reach base well tend to hit for more power. If the calculus for leadoff placement is shifting to value on-base skills rather than speed, it follows that more power would appear in the 1-hole, too.

For some managers whose no. 1 hitters posted impressive power numbers last season, those flashes are just a byproduct of their aim to fill the spot with a lofty on-base percentage. That’s what Francona says about hitting Santana first, and Toronto gave José Bautista time there last year because of his walk rate, a Blue Jays spokesman says.

But other managers actively sought that added power dynamic. "From pitch one of the game, our opponent has to deal with virtually every outcome," the Astros’ Hinch says, as Springer "can drive the ball out of the ballpark or he can work a walk, and that’s a rarity." Similar thinking is influencing Maddon’s decision to give Schwarber the Cubs’ leadoff reins; as he told reporters last month, a lineup with the left-handed masher at the top is "formidable, so it’s uncomfortable from the other side."

Across sports, the contemporary positional revolution is best characterized by a demand for versatility. Big men in basketball shoot 3-pointers and guard the paint; linebackers in the NFL battle offensive linemen and chase receivers; center backs in soccer patrol the defensive third and initiate the attack. The same aim extends to baseball, where young shortstops are built like corner outfielders and the market for one-dimensional sluggers all but vanished this offseason.

Showalter connects this trend to the changing leadoff archetype. Often, he says, the sport will dismiss someone who has conventional leadoff traits at the plate "but can’t defend, or someone that brings that but they steal at a real low percentage. If you’re stealing at a 50–60 percent rate, that’s a really bad trait, so to find a guy that gets on base, walks, steals bases, is a good defender — you can count those guys on about one hand."

As Showalter tells it, this line of thinking extends beyond just the 30 MLB teams, burrowing into their farm systems and further down the baseball ladder. This push for all-around ability comes at the expense of players with a singular skill set, which in turn makes older player models scarce. "A lot of [the changing leadoff profile] is by necessity, not because of some changing norm," he says. "You look around and we may have one person in our system that might fit the old mold of a leadoff hitter. … Those guys [are] getting harder and harder to find, and you have to trace it back to high school and colleges because it’s a different game they’re playing."

Asked for his example of the ideal leadoff hitter, Showalter offers Rickey Henderson — which isn’t a surprise; multiple managers interviewed for this piece named the Hall of Famer as the slot’s prototype. While Henderson’s most famous statistical achievements are his various stolen-base records, he also exemplified offensive versatility, as he’s MLB’s career leader in leadoff home runs (81, which is 50 percent more than anyone else) and total home runs from the 1-spot in the lineup (293, or 49 percent more than anyone else).

"When I was around Rickey in Oakland, I learned quickly that he was an all-around hitter: power, speed, on-base," says Hinch, who played with Henderson as a rookie in 1998. "So I think that definitely impacted me in my beliefs that the leadoff hitter is a real hitter and a real run producer."

A.J. Hinch (Getty Images)
A.J. Hinch (Getty Images)

Throughout his managerial career, Hinch has been ahead of the curve in placing dangerous hitters atop the lineup. When he was in Arizona, where he managed parts of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the Diamondbacks’ no. 1 hitters led the majors in slugging percentage and ranked third in on-base percentage, while the rest of the lineup ranked just 13th in SLG and 24th in OBP. While managing in Houston in 2015 and 2016, Hinch oversaw leadoff men who led the league in OBP (the rest of the lineup ranked 26th) and ranked fourth in SLG.

"I’m only guaranteed him to lead off one time; that’s the top of the first or bottom of the first," Hinch says of his philosophy to ensure that a "dangerous hitter" leads off. "The next at-bat may come in an on-base-type role; it might come in a bases-loaded, two-outs role; it might come in a runner-on-first, put-the-ball-in-play role."

Last season, Hinch wrote Springer’s name atop the lineup most often; after May 22, the right fielder batted first in 115 of Houston’s 117 games. Until 2015, Springer says, he had never hit there regularly in his baseball career — not in youth ball (when he hit second), college (third), or the minor leagues (second again). He hasn’t suffered in the new spot, though, with a career .819 OPS in the leadoff role and an .813 mark elsewhere in the lineup.

"I don’t like to give away any at-bats," Springer says. "Just because I’m hitting first doesn’t mean I have to take a pitch or be your stereotypical leadoff hitter. I have that 3-hitter mentality but I’m just hitting first."

The Astros are well suited for this kind of experimentation, with a deep lineup that affords Springer plenty of opportunities to plate runners from the bottom of the order, and that should prove even more robust this season, thanks to the offseason additions of Carlos Beltrán, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick. "Skip has told me a lot that I’m not just a leadoff hitter, he wants me to be a run producer," Springer says. "Just because you’re hitting seventh, eighth, and ninth in this league doesn’t mean much anymore. The guys that we have hitting at the bottom of our lineup are fast guys, they’re powerful guys, can really get on base."

Houston’s crop of talented bats allows Hinch to embrace a new-age strategy in the leadoff spot while still abiding by traditional tenets of lineup construction, as stars José Altuve and Carlos Correa reside in the middle of the order. Other managers might not be able to maintain such a balance; even Francona, whose team reached the World Series last year, admits he worries about creating an excessively top-heavy lineup. "If you do that, you have to have somebody that can replace. If you take a guy out of the 4-hole and put him in the 1-hole, you’d better have a 4-hole [hitter with power]."

Part of the battle with penciling in an unorthodox lineup is justifying its merits, Hinch says, which can be more difficult if the middle of the order "feels a little more empty" when a top hitter moves to the no. 1 spot. From a public-facing standpoint, "your team has to be set up for that," he says. "I consider it a luxury to have such a good middle of the order that I can play with where I put the likes of George Springer."

Going forward, though, Hinch thinks that even without a guarantee that the middle of the lineup will remain strong, teams should still toy with the idea of moving up a power bat. "It would be hard to conceptually put your one or two run producers in the leadoff spot or the no. 2 hole," he says, but "the reality is that they’re going to get the most at-bats, which is what we always want, so I would still try to push for it."

Despite how prominently batting order factors into fans’ view of a manager, and despite the public angst it inspires, the 1-through-9 carries a dark secret: It doesn’t actually matter all that much. Or, as the writer Jack Moore once began a piece at FanGraphs, "When it comes to sabermetric studies, no single item sees more energy expended with less gain than the analysis of batting orders."

The authors of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, the 2007 sabermetrics tome that contains the authoritative analysis of lineup order optimization, found that the difference between a perfect lineup and any typically constructed lineup, regardless of its philosophical underpinnings, is worth only about 10 to 15 runs over a full season. At the generally accepted exchange rate of 10 runs per win, that’s not much — and it’s the figure for a full lineup. The leadoff spot alone would be worth but a fraction of a fraction of a win, which can make the energy invested in the matter seem unwarranted.

"I think way too much is made out of batting order," says Showalter, who believes the fuss is overblown even though he follows many modern developments when setting his own lineups. "I think it gives people something to talk about. It’s not something we dwell on as a team. As players, they don’t really care where they hit."

Terry Francona and Carlos Santana (Getty Images)
Terry Francona and Carlos Santana (Getty Images)

Moreover, a lineup involves so many moving parts that the effects of shifting a power hitter to first in the order are difficult to isolate. For instance, looking just at the AL Central last season, two teams used unconventional leadoff hitters for about half of their respective games. Cleveland scored 5.3 runs per game when Santana hit first, to just 4.3 per game when others led off. Minnesota, meanwhile, averaged 4.1 runs per game when Dozier led off, versus 4.7 when others did. So the practice of placing a power bat first appears to have produced contradictory results of working for one team but not the other, but it’s far more likely that factors such as platooning (Santana led off mostly against right-handed pitchers) and teammate composition (Dozier hit first mostly after All-Star Eduardo Núñez had been traded away) incited those differences, rather than who the specific leadoff hitter was.

"Almost no matter what you do, as long as you have some kind of a reasonable lineup, it’s just not much of a gain," says Lichtman, one of the coauthors of The Book.

Plus, while placing a power hitter atop the lineup might work for an offense such as Houston’s, it can represent an inefficient allocation of pop in shallower lineups. Unlike with OBP, sabermetricians haven’t identified power as a necessary — or even beneficial — component of the leadoff spot. "It’s definitely the slot where you have the fewest base runners, so the impact of a home run is really de-leveraged by putting your home run hitter in the no. 1 slot," Lichtman says.

Last year, 74 percent of homers from leadoff hitters were solo shots; no other lineup spot saw more than 61 percent of its home runs come with the bases clear. Similarly, leadoff hitters averaged just 0.36 runners on base at the time of their home runs, while every other lineup spot had at least 0.53 runners on base, on average. In other words, a home run from a leadoff man is on average not as valuable as one from a hitter elsewhere in the order, so a slugger like Schwarber might be "wasting" his blasts, relatively speaking, by hitting first.

Showalter says he believes the differing strategies about batting order and other aspects of the game are cyclical. "All of a sudden, something will be the flavor of the month and they think this is the greatest ever, like framing — that’s been shown to be a crock of shit. It’s kind of like Moneyball — that’s been shown to be a complete crock of shit. I understand how some of these things, people run with them, they find them interesting, and some of them have merit, but more times than not, you come back to the basics of the way the game’s been played."

There are both intangible and numerical counters to that nihilistic view. For the former, Hinch says, "On the internal side, George Springer provides a lot of energy for our team. He is a little bit of the heartbeat of what goes on, and I don’t know how to measure that, I don’t know how to gauge that versus other teams, but I know that George’s energy is infectious at the top of the order, so him being first makes more sense than any of the other guys."

Plus, as Lichtman frames the conundrum, the sabermetric viewpoint that the leadoff hitter barely matters should not be confused with it not mattering at all. "If you want to get a two- or three-win edge, it requires getting a very, very, very small edge in probably dozens of different situations," he says. "You may decide one or more are more important than others, but just to not do one because it’s a very small gain, well, then you end up not doing anything, then, and you never get your two or three extra wins."

And despite the trend’s questionable impact on actual run totals, managers — even those who were famous leadoff hitters themselves — are taking notice, as evidenced by the Twins’ Paul Molitor hitting Dozier first and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts using Chase Utley as his primary leadoff man last year and planning to use Logan Forsythe this year. Throughout the game, the trend doesn’t appear to be slowing in 2017. In addition to Schwarber, Corey Dickerson is an unconventional candidate to hit first in Tampa, Kansas City is dropping .297 OBP hitter Alcides Escobar (31 career home runs) in the order in favor of .345 OBP man Alex Gordon (151), and Showalter is replacing the walk-averse Adam Jones for an as-yet-announced leadoff man, who, given the team’s all-power, no-speed roster, is sure to be of the slow and slugging variety.

Even if he’s not convinced that it’s worth dwelling on his lineup decisions, Showalter still realizes that generating high OBP from that lineup spot is "the no. 1 thing," he says. "So if you looked at that, then you would probably lead Chris Davis off because he walked more than anybody else we had last year. That would certainly be unconventional to a lot of people. I’ve actually thought about it."

Although Showalter wouldn’t reveal who he intends to place atop his lineup this year, Davis doesn’t appear a likely choice: Not one of his 4,177 career plate appearances has come from the no. 1 spot, and even as the leadoff revolution spreads, no manager has gone so far as to use a player with Davis’s power potential there. Then again, it’s early yet in the slugger-to-leadoff-man adoptive phase, so maybe a hulking former home run champ striding to the batter’s box to start a game isn’t such a strange concept.

"Things sprinkle into the game, and then it becomes a little bit more accepted and mainstream," Hinch says. "We’ve seen it with shifting, we’ve seen it with matchup relievers, now we’re seeing it with leadoff hitters, when I see Adam Jones leading off or Brian Dozier leading off or Josh Reddick had a couple leadoff spots in Oakland. … The premise is just we’re trying to create the most dynamic offense we can to score the most runs."

This piece contains additional reporting by Michael Baumann.

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