It has, somehow, already been nearly two months since Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL in a rundown, lost for the rest of the season and relegated to (some pretty awesome and funny) updates on his rehab through Instagram. His sudden loss left the Phils without an offensive spark plug, and reopened sealed envelopes of questions about who, exactly, should be taking the most reps at the top of this lineup.
Cutch had been great in the lead-off spot, and the numbers made that plain: .256/.378/.457 with 10 homers in 59 games is about as good a line as any of us would have expected. But the team had to keep playing, and that meant someone else had to fill that role.
Four other Phils have started games in the lead-off spot. To this point, their results have been, well, uninspiring.
With the granting of small sample caveats to everyone except, maybe, Kingery, this is really bad. Harper, unsurprisingly, was fine in his brief stint at the top of the lineup, but it doesn’t make sense to put him there long-term. You want him batting behind Rhys Hoskins, not the pitcher’s spot or a 9-hole swap like Andrew Knapp or Roman Quinn.
Of the group, Cesar Hernandez has been the most successful lead-off hitter in the past. And if you’re building your lineup around the thought of having your top guy be focused on getting on base ahead of a contact-focused guy like Jean Segura or, in a more radical vein, a better all-around hitter like Hoskins, then Hernandez makes the most sense to try long-term. But 2019 Cesar is not the same hitter that 2016-18 Cesar was, and unless he can flip a switch and get back to that type of hitting, he might not be the right call.
A Cesar Comparison
Cesar has swapped an increasingly patient approach for one with an emphasis on aggression and contact, and it hasn’t really done much. He’s taken a step back in the eyes of a league that has seen a huge uptick in offense. He’s chasing more and putting bad balls in play, leading to a big BABIP drop (.353 to .315 to .307 since 2016) while also seeing his HR/FB and AB/HR rates fall in an age where the ball is giving hitters more help than ever. Cesar’s not really alone on the Phils in regressing at the plate year-over-year, but that’s a different conversation.
Segura, for his part, his added a little more pop to his game, but at the cost of his overall offensive game. He’s matched last season’s home run total but, much like Hernandez, has regressed significantly elsewhere. He still doesn’t strike out much, but he’s chasing bad pitches and getting worse overall contact quality, leading in part to another large BABIP drop (.327 to .290) and an ordinary .273 AVG for a player whose on-base ability lives and dies by his ability to get hits.
Kingery, after starting the year white-hot, has crashed back to earth, succumbing to his exorbitant strikeout rates. He’s pull-happy and shiftable, and has also seen his contact quality go into hibernation as his K rate has crept back up.
At the moment, there is no easy answer for: “So, who should hit lead-off?” Right now, the Phillies can’t answer that question. All three of their best options are slumping or hitting noticeably worse than they were last year, and dark horse options like Roman Quinn either don’t play enough, aren’t good enough, or both.
It’s unlikely that the Phillies look to trade for a player in the next week who could satisfy the requirements of a role like this while also fitting in with the Phils’ current lineup, but it’s not impossible. That player would likely have to be a center fielder or third baseman, depending on your confidence in Kingery defensively at either position, and there aren’t a ton of available options for the former while the latter infrequently features guys with a lead-off hitter’s profile.
So, it may be a matter of wait-and-see. Try to snap Kingery or Cesar out of it. Experiment with Segura a little more if both of them fail. No matter the choice, someone needs to step up and be on base for the big boys if this team wants to overcome its current pitching troubles.