Explaining the rise of sluggers as leadoff hitters

Teams increasingly putting best hitters at top of batting order in 2018

September 7th, 2018

A brief history of leadoff hitters to win the Baseball Writers' Association of America's MVP Award:

Phil Rizzuto, 1950 American League

Maury Wills, 1962 National League

Zoilo Versalles, 1965 AL

Pete Rose, 1973 NL

Rickey Henderson, 1990 AL

, 2001 AL

Jimmy Rollins, 2007 NL

Told you it was brief.

But that list might get a bit longer this year.

As of this writing, the AL and NL leaders in FanGraphs-calculated Wins Above Replacement are both leadoff men -- the Red Sox's (8.5) and the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter (5.5). In catch-all offensive stats like OPS, OPS+ and wRC+, Betts is second only to (whose MVP standing could be complicated by his team's standing), while Carpenter leads the NL in all three of those categories.

Certainly, the above tells us a lot about the incredible seasons of Betts and Carpenter. But it also tells us a lot about the state of lineup construction in today's game.

For a while now, the leadoff role has been trending away from the Punch and Judy-type with no pop and toward legitimate, dynamic bats that could just as easily be slotted in the middle of the order. The No. 1 job is, increasingly, for sluggers, not speedsters.

This year, leadoff hitters are accounting for 11.5 percent of all MLB home runs. Take a look at the direction that percentage has taken over the past 30 seasons.

Meanwhile, leadoff hitters are accounting for only 21.4 percent of all stolen bases. Look at the direction that percentage has taken in that same timespan.

In the past three seasons, the state of this evolution is particularly striking. The 2016 campaign saw the highest leadoff slugging percentage (.425) in history. The 2017 season brought us a record number of leadoff home runs (642) and marked the first time that three players (Charlie Blackmon, and ) hit 30 homers from the leadoff spot in the same season.

This year -- a year that appropriately began with a leadoff homer (off the bat of the Cubs' on the very first pitch of the season) -- we're seeing an even higher frequency of leadoff home runs (one every 31.4 at-bats compared to one every 31.7 in 2017), despite an overall decrease in league-wide home runs (from one every 27.1 at-bats to one every 29.5 at-bats). And according to Baseball-Reference, leadoff men this year are tied for their highest OPS+ in over a century.

Once again, three leadoff hitters will finish with 30 homers (Carpenter and have already cleared 30, and Betts enters the weekend with 29). And for the first time in history, three players (Carpenter, Betts and ) are logging a .600 slugging percentage from the leadoff spot (minimum 150 plate appearances) in the same year.

Acuna's 8th leadoff homer sets Braves franchise record

How did we get here? Well, managers are willing to sacrifice RBI opportunities the first time through the order to ensure their best hitters maximize their number of plate appearances. (Over the past three years, the average difference in plate appearances for a team's No. 1 hitter vs. its cleanup hitter is 48.)

"When you turn a lineup over and you've got a guy who can drive in some runs," Indians manager Terry Francona said earlier this year after cementing Lindor in his leadoff spot, "I think it makes a lot of sense."

And anyway, who said a leadoff homer is a waste of a player's power? Our own Tom Tango's win expectancy charts say the away team hitting a leadoff homer in the top of the first has a .599 winning percentage and the home team breaking a scoreless tie with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the first has a .647 winning percentage.

In some measure, the increase in power prominence from the leadoff spot is a natural extension of the sabermetric-influenced emphasis on OBP. Prioritizing players with pure plate discipline over those with pure speed is, logically speaking, likely to lead to more power in that spot.

But in some cases, the power and run-production provided from the No. 1 spot is less a happy byproduct of the OBP emphasis and more the impetus for the assignment in the first place.

Astros manager AJ Hinch's mid-2016 decision to put Springer in the No. 1 spot is a prominent -- and influential -- example of this. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Springer's 11.8-percent walk rate that season was higher than the league average, but so was his 23.9-percent strikeout rate, which was the 24th-highest among 146 qualifiers that year. Springer was, therefore, an atypical choice in leadoff men, but the Astros have been one of the most prolific offenses in baseball since Hinch made the move. They won a championship with Springer starring as World Series MVP, and suffice it to say nobody in Houston is begging for a more orthodox arrangement.

It was Alex Cora's time spent as Hinch's bench coach last season that inspired him to permanently commit to Betts as his leadoff hitter in his first season as Red Sox skipper. Last year, under John Farrell, Betts began the year as Boston's No. 3 hitter, moved up to the leadoff spot in May, shuffled between the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 spots in the final two months, then settled at cleanup for the AL Division Series. This year, Cora has been bullish on keeping Betts at No. 1 even as Betts has erupted with a career-best .626 slugging percentage.

"He's putting pressure on the opposition from pitch one," Cora said.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has been similarly stubborn with regard to Carpenter's spot in the order. St. Louisans aren't exactly mistaking Carpenter for Lou Brock -- Carpenter has just three stolen bases and is tied for 120th among 151 qualifiers in FanGraphs' speed score. When Shildt took over for Mike Matheny just before the All-Star break, he had the opportunity to break from Matheny's top-of-the-order construction, especially with Carpenter steadily improving his power game. But Shildt stuck with what was working there.

"I don't want to spend my energy by taking away a positive," he told reporters last month.

Teams have identified the positives of putting a stud hitter in the No. 1 spot. It has dramatically changed the profile of this position in the batting order. As a result, when BBWAA voters cast their MVP Award ballots this year, leadoff men might play a leading role in both leagues.