Another Way of Looking at the Leadoff Spot

We’ve been having a lot of discussions this year about the batting order, mainly fueled by Dee Gordon‘s failure at the top of the lineup and A.J. Ellis‘ success at the bottom of it. We’ve had these arguments knowing full well that the order doesn’t really matter statistically as much as we might like to think it does, pushed on partly by emotion and partly by Don Mattingly’s somewhat infuriating comments on the matter.

That’s a conversation which has fallen off of late simply due to the injuries that have ravaged the team, making each day’s lineup a patchwork of Isotopes, bench players, Ellis, and Andre Ethier. And to Mattingly’s great credit, he has bounced Gordon down to the eight spot in the lineup since the young shortstop returned from his hiatus. That’s left Tony Gwynn as the primary leadoff man, which is far from ideal, yet given Gwynn’s decent season so far and the mess everywhere else, it’s probably acceptable for now.

Still, before that train of thought disappears completely, I found it interesting to see recently that two other clubs have started using completely non-traditional hitters in the leadoff spot. In Tampa, Joe Maddon moved slow-footed slugger Carlos Pena (9 net stolen bases in parts of 12 seasons) to the top of his lineup for the last three games; in Cleveland, Shin-Soo Choo has been elevated from his usual #3 to the top spot for nearly two weeks now.

Indians manager Manny Acta explained the move of Choo, who had hit leadoff just twice previously in parts of seven years, like this:

This time around, Acta is more interested in Choo’s .361 on base percentage.

“We need somebody to get on base,” said Acta. “Choo has a good on base percentage. The league average is .319.”

Since moving up, Choo has performed well, hitting .372/.471/.651 as the Tribe have gone 8-3. Pena has homered twice in his three leadoff games as the Rays have gone 3-0; he and his manager looked at their move this way:

“It’s about a mindset,” Maddon says. “Just about what you’re thinking and just changing that a little bit.”

“I think it’s kind of cool,” said Pena, who ended an 0-for-19 slump and earned himself another leadoff slot in today’s game against Toronto. “I think it’s a shift of mentality and you really can’t quantify how much of a difference it makes. But Joe’s really smart.”

This isn’t really about any of the decisions Don Mattingly has made with his tattered roster or really even specific to the Dodgers, because obviously not everyone has a Choo or a Pena to move around like that. It’s just another way of looking at lineup construction, that speed isn’t always a prerequisite for starting off the order. There’s absolutely nothing more important in baseball than simply getting on base, and if you have to do something unorthodox at the top of your order to get runners on for the power guys at 3/4/5, so be it.