Is the Mets’ Best Leadoff Hitter Batting Second Right Now?


The New York Mets haven’t had a proper leadoff hitter since Jose Reyes took his talents to Canada (by way of South Beach). Lacking faith in Angel Pagan, they traded him to San Francisco for reliever Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres. Torres posted a respectable 11.9% walk rate last season (which is great for a leadoff hitter), but it wasn’t enough to cover a poor .230 batting average and minimal power. Torres then returned to San Francisco this past offseason.

Ruben Tejada has plenty of experience leading off, having started 84 games in that spot, but his lack of power (.061 isolated power) and speed (12 career stolen bases, 63%) makes him ill-suited for the role.

Through eight games this season, the Mets have had four different players penciled into their leadoff spot (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Jordany Valdespin, Mike Baxter). But is Collins making the right choice here? I was talking to my friend the other day (let’s call him Ed, because his parents do), and he sent me the following text:

“I think Murphy should be batting leadoff”

After putting some thought into it, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable. Murphy doesn’t walk much (6.65 career BB%), but he rarely strikes out as well (12.63 career K%). His career .340 on base percentage is certainly sufficient for the gig, NL leadoff hitters posted a .332 mark from 2008-2012. Similarly, his career .432 slugging percentage is 31 points above the NL leadoff baseline (.401).

But what about speed?

Apr 6, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy (28) hits an RBI triple against the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

An ideal leadoff hitter has speed; he steals bases. Rickey Henderson, one might recall, was arguably the best leadoff hitter of all time, posting a career .401 OBP and averaging 74 steals per 162 games (84.1%). In today’s game, no one is going to do that (Cincinnati prospect Billy Hamilton certainly has the speed, but only has a .365 OBP in the minors.

But why do we want speed? In short, to steal bases. You steal bases to get into scoring position, to make it easier for your #2 and #3 hitters to have less trouble knocking you in.

Daniel Murphy will never be that kind of player. He’s stolen as many as 14 bases as a minor leaguer, but it’s much more likely he’ll end up around the 10 he got last season. However, he ought to make up for this with his relatively superior power. So, that leads us to the question: how much will Daniel Murphy‘s speed cost the Mets relative to a “traditional” leadoff hitter?

It’s a tad rudimentary, perhaps, but we can use a few different statistics to get an idea. We know that Total Bases (SLG% is calculated as Total Bases / At Bats) tells us how many a player gets with his bat. The number doesn’t include bases earned on errors, steals, or extra bases taken (i.e. going first to third on a single). So let’s add to that. I would argue, for example, that a walk and a successful steal of second base is as meaningful as hitting a double. Similarly, getting hit by a pitch, while not a skill (unless you’re Roger Dorn) has the same end result as a single. So let’s call this collective statistic “Bases Earned” – a sum of bases earned at the plate and on the base paths by oneself.

The Leadoff Baseline has averaged 273 bases in 681 at bats over the past five seasons (with a low of 259 in 2012, and a high of 289 in 2008). Daniel Murphy, in his career, has averaged only 239 bases, but in only 554 at bats.

The Leadoff Baseline, over the past five seasons, has averaged just under 70 additional trips on base per season (HBP, BB). Murphy, likewise, has averaged 42 additional trips.

The Leadoff Baseline, over the past five seasons, has averaged a bit over 18 net steals per season (successful steals – times caught). Daniel Murphy has only averaged 2 (though if 2012 is any indication, he could improve some in this category).

The chart below puts this information together; the first two columns correspond directly to the information above. The third column, Murphy’, is Daniel Murphy’s stats above extrapolated to an identical sample size as the leadoff baseline (abbreviated TLB). Here’s what we get:

Daniel Murphy isn’t going to steal nearly as many bases as your prototypical leadoff hitter. He’s also not going to walk as often. What he will do, however, is consistently put balls in play and hit for some power. And that should be more than enough to make up for it. By all intents and purposes, it’s identical. With a slight uptick in power (which, through a week and a half, Murphy’s shown that potential) and stolen bases like last year’s (10/12), he could certainly outpace those numbers.

And the next question, of course, is what the lineup would look like were this to happen. Fortunately, there could be some options here. While the aforementioned players above (Cowgill, Kirk, Valdespin, Baxter, Tejada) each have a flaw that inhibits them from hitting leadoff (be it strikeouts, a lack of speed, or a lack of power), but these players could benefit in the two hole. Hitting with a player on base (and with David Wright batting third), they would likely see better pitches and, potentially, be under less pressure to perform. Murphy, on the flip side, could perhaps increase his value by getting more plate appearances.

March 30, 2013; Sarasota, FL, USA; New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy (28) at bat against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If I were building a lineup with the current 25-man roster right now, I’d consider penciling in the following:

Murphy, 4

Cowgill/Valdespin, 8

Wright, 5

Lucas Duda, 7

John Buck, 2

Ike Davis, 3

Marlon Byrd/Baxter, 9

Tejada, 6

I would also be lobbying for an increase in playing time for Mike Baxter, who could turn out to be a quality corner outfielder, but that’s for another time.

So what do you think? Should Collins continue the carousel of young outfielders until someone sticks, or write in Murphy on top and see what happens?

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