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Who Should Hit Leadoff For the 2019 Phillies?

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Cesar Hernandez suddenly has multiple competitors for his spot atop the lineup

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

For 336 of the Phillies’ 486 games over the past three seasons, Cesar Hernandez has been the first man to the plate. As so many other hitters have bounced around the lineup since the start of 2016, Hernandez’s presence atop the order has been a relatively stable and reliable thing. And it certainly hasn’t hurt that he’s hit .277/.372/.395 in games where his name was first on the lineup card in those seasons.

But the times have changed and the Phillies are evolving. Now, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen are in the fold, and both have extensive experience leading things off for their former teams. Suddenly, the Phillies’ three-term leadoff incumbent has some serious competition.

With three viable candidates, it’s fair to wonder: Who’s the best leadoff candidate of the bunch, and who can we expect to see setting the table in 2019?

The Case For Cesar Hernandez

Cesar’s most distinct advantage is his switch-handedness, naturally. That wouldn’t necessarily mean anything if Hernandez was vastly inferior on one side of the plate - think along the lines of guys like Randy Winn and late-stage Shane Victorino - but that’s not the case.

Cesar Hernandez Platoon Splits, 2016-18

Year AVG vs LHP OBP vs LHP SLG vs LHP AVG vs RHP OBP vs RHP SLG vs RHP OPS Diff.
Year AVG vs LHP OBP vs LHP SLG vs LHP AVG vs RHP OBP vs RHP SLG vs RHP OPS Diff.
2016 .341 .391 .399 .279 .365 .391 LHP +.034
2017 .281 .353 .458 .299 .381 .405 LHP +.025
2018 .272 .375 .325 .247 .350 .374 RHP +.024

The power numbers have always been, well, modest, but it’s worth noting that, prior to breaking his right foot on a foul ball against the Pirates on July 6, Cesar was slugging .381 on the season. He would hit just .236/.329/.336 from July 7 on.

Ouch.
NBC Sports Phialdelphia

The lack of power is both a feature and a bug of Cesar vis-a-vis his leadoff viability: You don’t necessarily want to burn a powerful hitter’s PAs by frequently hitting them behind the 8-9 hitters, whom you don’t expect to be on base all that much, but you’d also like a bit of pop for some surprise instant offense or scoring position placement without needing to attempt a steal. Cesar, in a down power year even for him, still got on base at a decent clip. And, luckily, he’s expected to be at full strength for Spring Training.

It will be interesting to see if Cesar’s approach at the plate furthers his move toward extreme patience, or if he starts leveraging favorable counts into more swings. For now, his ability to be a duck on the pond for Rhys Hoskins keeps him in the running.

The Case For Jean Segura

The Phillies’ new, presumed shortstop (cough) brings a completely different offensive skillset to the plate. Although he packs only a small increase in power over Hernandez, Segura is an exceptional contact hitter in a game where strikeouts run wild.

Contact Stats, 2018

Stat Segura MLB Avg.
Stat Segura MLB Avg.
Swinging Strike % 9.2 18.3
Contact % 87.4 75.1
K % 10.9 22.3

Those are the kinds of contact numbers the Phillies haven’t really had in their lineup since Placido Polanco patrolled the infield from 2010-12. Segura, unlike Polanco, is probably a better bet for 10-12 (or more) home runs and 30 (or more!) doubles, an extra-base hit punch that could give him an edge over Cesar. It will be interesting to see if Segura’s power numbers play up with a move to Citizens Bank Park for home games; he had a .103-point positive OPS split away from Safeco in 2018, but went in nearly the exact opposite direction in 2017, with a .088-point OPS advantage at home in Seattle.

Segura is also aggressive at the plate, working fewer deep counts and often preferring to swing when the count is in his favor. The traditional baseball archetype might dictate that that sort of approach is more well-suited to a No. 2 or even No. 5 or 6 hitter, as Segura’s approach is tailored more for moving runners, rather than establishing himself as one at the expense of power.

The Case For Andrew McCutchen

Lastly, let’s toss the Phils’ other new import’s name into the mix. In his prime, Cutch was a lock to hit third, and batted there almost exclusively during the 2012-17 seasons with Pittsburgh. As his offensive profile shifted, though, so did the idea that he was a lock to hit anywhere but third (or, on some rare occasions, second).

Cutch began his career seeing a lot of time in the leadoff spot with the Pirates, piling up 236 starts there from 2009 to 2011, and began leading off regularly again late last July while still with the Giants. From July 28 through the end of the season - which includes time with both the Giants and Yankees after being traded in August - McCutchen hit .255/.405/.453, predominantly as a leadoff hitter. That’s not entirely unlike the recently dealt Carlos Santana, who hit .255/.347/.422 over the same date range for the Phillies.

You’ll notice that second number in McCutchen’s slash starts with a 4, and that’s pretty crucial. Do you know how long it’s been since the Phillies had a leadoff guy post an OBP over .400 in more than 200 plate appearances, as McCutchen did in that above split? Well, okay, it’s only been two years; Cesar did it in 2016. But before that? Lenny Dykstra in the strike-shortened 1994 season. It hasn’t happened often.

Although McCutchen’s power numbers have dropped a bit from his peak years, he did finish last season strong (.471 SLG in 114 PA with the Yankees to close out the year), and has slugged at least .424 in every season of his 10-year career, something Segura’s only done twice and Cesar has never done. As was said above, power from a leadoff guy isn’t everything, but if the last two World Series champs are any model to follow, their main No. 1 guys - Mookie Betts and George Springer - don’t really seem to be wasting their impact by leading off games with some pop.

So, Who’s the Guy?

Cesar’s mitigated platoon splits, enhanced plate discipline, and good speed check off some leadoff prototype boxes. He figures to get on base at a good clip again this year. If he doesn’t his lack of power restricts him from being all that effective in the middle of an order, and so he’d likely sit most comfortably in the seventh or eighth spot if he’s overthrown.

Segura has the best bet at posting a good batting average, but probably won’t be on base as much, and could be a bit too aggressive to be an effective table setter. With his pop and a predilection for putting the ball in play, he’s better suited to second, maybe even third, fifth, or sixth, depending on that day’s lineup.

McCutchen is the most intriguing possibility because of his past effectiveness in that role, and his apparent shift in production away from being a middle-of-the-order bat. He, like Segura, would be a good fit at two, three, or five on a given day, but don’t sleep on his chances to assume the leadoff role at some point.

Bottom line: If we figure Hernandez makes a full recovery from his broken foot - and indications are that he did - he’s likely the guy to start the season. Whether he holds on to the job or not beyond that is up to him.

Poll

Which leadoff candidate would you give the most starts to in that position?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Cesar Hernandez
    (488 votes)
  • 11%
    Jean Segura
    (100 votes)
  • 19%
    Andrew McCutchen
    (165 votes)
  • 11%
    Someone else
    (99 votes)
852 votes total Vote Now