This week, Terry Collins said that Eric Young Junior is the top candidate to be the Mets’ lead-off hitter in 2014. This sparked quite a debate among the fan base. Some said that the idea that a player needs to be “fast” to lead off is an archaic concept, espoused by people who have rotary telephones and Radio Shack Tandy computers. The innovative thinking is to use on-base percentage to determine who should bat atop the order, because the idea is to get on base, and the lead-off hitter actually leads off once per game. Let’s take a look at this thinking.
First, what is the role of the lead-off hitter? His job is to be on base for the hitters in the middle of the order. This applies throughout the game, not only in the first inning. Going a step further, the lead-off hitter would ideally be in scoring position for the guys in the middle of the order. Why is this important? It’s simple math. Baseball players hit more singles than other types of hits. David Wright had 132 hits last year, 85 of them were singles. Since the single is the most common hit, ideally the lead-off hitter would be able to score on a single. Here’s more math. David Wright reached base via a hit in about 31% of his official at-bats. So, a good hitter like Wright gets a lot of singles, and does so roughly 1/3 of the time. It makes sense to be able to capitalize on those singles when they occur, this is achieved by being in scoring position when Wright is at the plate.
The “innovative” ideas I heard this week suggested that, using advanced statistics, Lucas Duda should be the Mets’ lead off hitter. Duda had 71 hits last year, 40 of which were singles. Duda does get on base about 35% of the time, but more than half of his hits are singles. So, with Duda’s lack of speed, it will take 2, or more likely 3, singles to score him. Again, hitters deliver more singles than extra-base hits, and they get on base via a hit roughly 28-30% of the time (on average). With Duda on first, you’re then hoping for 3 hits, statistically likely to be singles (that occur less than a third of the time), from multiple players to score him.
So why has the game gone on for 150 years with this silly notion that speed matters in the lead-off spot? Here’s why. A fast runner can steal second base, then score on one hit (likely to be a single), as opposed to 3 hits. It makes mathematical sense to rely on one hit, rather than three, when hits come in the frequency and “type” percentages they do. This concept applies throughout the game, not just in the first inning.
Another reason why speed matters is more subtle. Pitchers, such as Bob Ojeda, often talk about the impact of a fast runner on first base. According to many pitchers, the hurler changes his pitching style when there’s the threat of a stolen base. Hitters receive more fastballs, pitchers pitch out, putting them behind in the count, and pitchers are less likely to throw splitters (or curves) that may be tough for the catcher to handle. All of these factors impact subsequent at-bats in the favor of the hitter. Would these factors be present if, say, Lucas Duda were on first base?
This article isn’t meant to deride the newer advanced statistics. The point is that they have to be considered in the context of the game. It’s not as simple as looking at a sheet of OBPs when filling out a lineup. The game is bigger than that. There is plenty of room for innovative thinking in baseball, and the newer statistics are very helpful in that endeavor. However, establish your lead-off hitter purely on the basis of OBP? Call me old school, but I’ll pass on that one.