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Leading Men

(This piece was written by Good Phighter dsc; I'm just the messenger.)

Let's play a very easy game.  Which of the following players would make the better leadoff hitter?  (AVG/OBP/SLG)

Player A:    .281/.320/.407; 3.27 P/PA; 17 SB; 15 BB; 32 K
Player B:    .362/.468/.456; 3.91 P/PA; 9 SB; 35 BB; 20 K

(P/PA is pitches per plate appearance and gives a good measure of how a hitter works the count.  The stat is particularly useful for a leadoff hitter, as more pitches seen in the first at-bat gives the rest of the lineup time to see what the pitcher has.  Even better, since the leadoff hitter will have the most plate appearances in the game for a team, the more pitches he makes the opposing pitchers throw, the more tired the pitchers will be.)

To make this game even easier, for comparison's sake, let's throw in the best leadoff hitters in both leagues right now:

Brian Roberts (AL):    .358/.431/.597; 3.55 P/PA; 16 SB; 31 BB; 38 K
Brady Clark (NL):    .323/.388/.455; 3.55 P/PA; 8 SB; 35 BB; 30 K

So, how do Player A and Player B compare?  Well, quite obviously, Player A is a much inferior hitter for average and power.  But, more importantly for a leadoff hitter, Player A's on-base skills are atrocious, both absolutely and in comparison to Player B.  Player A makes an out 68 percent of the time he comes to the plate; Player B makes an out only 53 percent of the time.  In easy-to-understand numbers, assuming five plate appearances per game for the leadoff hitter, that means Player B will get on base roughly one more time per game than Player A will.  Player A has more speed, but strikes out more and walks much less.  In fact, Player B, if hitting leadoff, would have some of the best numbers for any leadoff hitter in baseball.

Who are these players?  Player A, as you may have guessed, is Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies' leadoff hitter.  Player B is someone you will never met in person but have seen over the course of the season:  Jason Lofton or Kenny Michaels (whichever you prefer).  Yes, Player B is the strict left-right platoon of Jason Michaels and Kenny Lofton.  To their credit, the Phillies have been platooning the two players in center field for much of the season and maximizing their production.

But, to their detriment, the Phillies have not seen the value in putting Jason Lofton (or Kenny Michaels) at the top of the lineup and maximizing their leadoff potential.  Instead, Rollins, getting on base only 32 percent of the time and seeing only 3.27 pitches per plate appearances, hits leadoff day in, day out.  The only possible explanation for Rollins hitting leadoff is that the team values speed in the leadoff position.  But all that means is that Rollins runs back to the dugout faster when he makes an out 15 percent more frequently than Jason Lofton (or Kenny Michaels) does.

Here's the kicker.  With men on base, Rollins is hitting .312/.387/.452, and with runners in scoring position, he's hitting .364/.471/.582.  Shouldn't someone like that be hitting lower in the lineup so he comes to the plate with men on base more often?  Shouldn't the best leadoff hitter in baseball be hitting in the leadoff spot?