Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Starting at the Top

The term “leadoff man” usually applies to the number one hitter in the lineup. However, all batters lead off innings. In fact, traditional leadoff men bat first in fewer than 20 percent of their team’s total innings.

When the leadoff batter for an inning reaches first base, his team’s run expectancy becomes .86 runs. If he makes an out, it drops to just .26. That’s a huge swing and teams face this situation nine times each game, 162 games per season.

While number one hitters get the most opportunities in this role, everybody in the lineup receives numerous chances over the course of the season. For example, Michael Bourn led off more innings (282) than any Braves batter by far. But that was just 19.6 percent of the team’s total innings. There were 327 Major League players who led off at least 50 innings in 2012. Most position players – including those currently arbitration eligible impacted their teams in these situations.

So who stood out when leading off innings last season? None of the top five players in on-base percentage resemble prototypical leadoff men, but all shined in this role: Joey Votto (.457 OBP), Travis Hafner (.456), Miguel Cabrera (.456), David Ortiz (.441), and Joe Mauer (.439).

This data also enables us to measure how number one hitters perform in these situations, when getting on base is much more valuable than with one or two outs. The arbitration-eligible Austin Jackson had a .409 on-base percentage when leading off an inning versus .355 in all other plate appearances. So when he could make the greatest impact by reaching base, Jackson excelled.

We can dig deeper in this analysis as well. Reaching second base to start innings carries major value – a 1.07 run expectancy. A slugger topped this group as well. Giancarlo Stanton got to second base (or further) 28 times in 121 inning leadoff plate appearances. His 23.1 percentage blew away everybody with at least 50 plate appearances in these spots. Oakland’s Brandon Moss topped all arbitration-eligible players. He made it to second in 16.4 percent of his leadoff plate appearances, seventh best overall in MLB.

This analysis results from one small shift in thinking. In arbitration and free agency, such approaches can really pay off.

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