MLB full of gamechangers in leadoff spot
Speed at top of order thrills -- and impacts pennant races
Speed chills. It causes as much anxiety on a baseball field as rush-hour traffic or sirens.
The game changes the instant a guy who can fly gets on base -- and even before that. As he enters the batter's box, infielders creep in at the corners, protecting against the bunt and creating more space for a sharp grounder to find a hole. The catcher knows that a bunt or slow roller in front of the plate is trouble. The shortstop and second baseman know they have to field a ball cleanly and get rid of it quickly. Outfielders are aware that the slightest bobble will lead to an extra base.
When he does get on, the speed burner's impact multiplies exponentially. Everyone on the field is suddenly on edge. The pitcher's concentration on the hitter is compromised each time he makes a throw over to first base. The catcher feels compelled to call for fastballs to have a realistic shot at throwing out the runner trying to steal. Middle infielders shade toward second. It's a red security-alert situation.
"The speed guys put so much pressure on a defense," said Rangers manager Ron Washington, a shortstop in his day. "They create a lot of errors. When a guy like [Peter] Bourjos [of the Angels] hits a grounder two, three steps to either side of the shortstop, he knows he has to hurry. With Bourjos and [Mike] Trout hitting one-two, that's speed on speed.
"Back in the day, old-school [managers] like Gene Mauch and Bobby Cox made sure their speed guys hit the ball on the ground. They didn't want to see those guys hitting fly balls. Those guys knew what their job was: put it on the ground and run, cause havoc."
Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, the all-time single season and career steals king, set an impossible gold standard with his .401 lifetime on-base percentage, averaging 16 homers and 74 steals per 162 games. The Man of Steal was to leading off what Babe Ruth was to going deep. Another of the greatest leadoff men ever, Tim Raines, played in Henderson's massive shadow.
Derek Jeter, the best of this generation, has spent more time in the No. 2 spot to take advantage of his set of skills.
As Washington's catalyst in Texas, Ian Kinsler isn't a perfect leadoff man. There was only one of those, and Rickey, as much as he'd like to, isn't coming back. But Kinsler, in his eighth season of activating the Rangers' offense, is among the best of the current crop, bringing into play some of Henderson's best qualities -- including the ability to launch one out of the chute.
Kinsler is an aggressive hitter, but he's also able to stretch counts, creating stress on pitchers' arms and psyches with long at-bats. His career on-base percentage is a solid .350, and he's a threat on the bases, stealing at least 30 bags twice and 20 or more five times.
The game's best leadoff man in 2012, succeeding Jeter, was Trout with his .399 OBP and 129 runs scored in 138 games. To exploit his power, Trout has been moved into the No. 2 spot lately, with Bourjos capably handling the leadoff role.
"I don't follow other leadoff men every day," Kinsler said, "but if you can't appreciate what Trout has done, you don't like baseball."
The Tigers' Austin Jackson, with a .377 OBP and 103 runs scored, was right behind Trout in leadoff production last year. Shin-Soo Choo (.383 OBP in seven years with the Indians) was so effective leading off he was targeted and landed in a trade by the Reds, whose issues in that role have been resolved by Choo's exceptional plate discipline.
The Indians imported free-agent flyer Michael Bourn to fire off sparks. The Nationals acquired Denard Span from the Twins to put a charge in their offense, and he has delivered.
The loss of Jose Reyes atop the order has hurt the Blue Jays. The Orioles' Nate McLouth, the Astros' Jose Altuve, the Rockies' Dexter Fowler, the Dodgers' Carl Crawford, the Athletics' Coco Crisp, the Royals' Alex Gordon, Starling Marte of the Pirates, David DeJesus of the Cubs and Everth Cabrera of the Padres have been setting the table nicely along with Kinsler.
An independent thinker, Kinsler doesn't attach much significance to analytics. He has fundamental views of the game rooted in his belief that "my job as a leadoff man is to score runs. You can skew statistics any way you want, but not runs. That's what it comes down to. Yes, absolutely, it's important getting on base. But what good is it if I get on and don't score? I guess I can have a 10-pitch at-bat and make an out, and the next guy hits a triple and the guy after that hits a home run. But what's important to me is scoring runs. If I'm doing that, I'm doing my job."
Kinsler has scored in triple digits in four of the past five seasons, missing only in 2010 when he was limited to 103 games by groin and ankle injuries.
Looking at the past three World Series champs, exceptional on-base percentages in the leadoff role have not been common.
The 2010 Giants had Andres Torres (.343 OBP) and Aaron Rowand (.281) sharing the leadoff role. In '12, it was Angel Pagan (.338) and Gregor Blanco (.333). The '11 Cards won with Ryan Theriot (.324) as their main leadoff man.
Pagan is an interesting case study. Even though he ranked 21st in OBP among leadoff men last year, he scored 66 runs in 80 games in the role. By Kinsler's definition, Pagan was successful. San Francisco showed its gratitude by bringing him back for four years and $40 million, and he's once again igniting the offense.
"Angel is an aggressive, dynamic presence in the leadoff spot," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "Lineup continuity is so important, and teammates feed off a guy like that. He sets a tone, gets things going."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia values on-base percentage highly but sees other important elements factoring into the role.
"Something you need to look at in evaluating a table-setter is what percentage of times he gets to second, in position to score," Scioscia said. "Adam Kennedy didn't have a great on-base percentage for us [.334], but he hit a lot of doubles and stole bases. That's important, but hard to evaluate. Let's say I get on base six times and get to second three times. Another guy gets on five times and gets to second four times and scores three times. Who's more valuable?"
Those in the statistical community who attach enormous value to on-base percentage might have a hard time explaining how some of the most successful leadoff men in history -- from Maury Wills and Lou Brock to Vince Coleman and Willie Wilson -- were not overly impressive in the OBP category.
Wills revolutionized the sport in the 1960s with his wheels, driving Dodgers teams to three World Series titles and four National League pennants. His career OBP: .330. Davey Lopes, who succeeded Wills as the club's dynamic leadoff man, had a .349 lifetime OPS, bringing power into the equation.
A dominant force, Brock's career OBP was .343. He, along with Lopes, set the template for Henderson, unloading 21 homers for the Cardinals' 1967 World Series champions. His OBP that season of .327 must make the stat guys cringe. He walked only 24 times in 724 plate appearances but produced 325 total bases, with 32 doubles and 12 triples to go with the 21 homers. Sweet Lou was swinging the bat and rocking Busch Stadium.
Wilson's career OBP was .326, but he did enough to propel the Royals to the AL pennant in 1980 and the World Series in '85. His .357 OBP in 1980 came with just 28 walks in 745 plate appearances. In '85, he fashioned a .316 OBP with 29 walks in 642 plate appearances. But he was still a force.
Coleman sported a .324 OBP, but Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog wasn't complaining. The Runnin' Redbirds flew to a pair of NL pennants with Coleman's burning speed setting the fast-break tempo. The man exceeded 100 steals three consecutive seasons and averaged 89 per 162 games in his career, taking it beyond even Brock (58), Wilson (50) and Wills (49).
Speed thrills. It also wins games and influences pennant races.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.