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Griff says...How Important is Our Lead-off Hitter?

Just so you don’t have to wait for the answer, my view is that it is critical to top success. In fact I believe it is the second most important position in the lineup after the number three hitter. I know many of you probably think number four is more important but no.

What makes a great number 1 guy in the lineup? He needs a high on base percentage, good to high average, he’s a spray hitter, has a little pop, mostly ground ball or line drive hitter, has great patience, good understanding of the strike zone, selective at the plate, takes a lot of walks, high number of pitches per plate appearance, good speed, bunting skills, base-stealing ability, and aggressive, knowledgeable base-running. The great ones have all of these – Rickey Henderson, Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Maury Wills, Tim Raines and now Ichiro. But a good one usually at least has the high OBP, average and base-stealing ability.

An aggressive, fast and dangerous base-stealer on first or second is one of the most feared things a pitcher faces during a game. They either get nervous and it affects their pitching to the 2 and 3 guys, or they ignore the base-runner and now they’ve got a guy on second or even third with the power coming up. Remember what Rickey Henderson used to do to pitchers? He changed the whole dynamic of the game. I realize there aren’t a lot of Rickey’s to go around but I predict the speed guys are going to make a comeback and the game will shift again over the next few years. But that’s another blog.

A so-so lead-off man puts tremendous pressure on the 2-4 batters. The 2 guy now feels the pressure to not make the second out or you waste your number 3 hitter’s main talent. The 2 guy is no longer able to leverage his best skill, bat control via bunting and hit and run or taking pitches to give the runner a chance to steal, and hitting to the right side or through the hole wherever it may be. The 3 guy’s role of rbi producer and line driver hitter/power hitter is minimized to advancing the runner even if the 2 guy gets on. But now he is also more susceptible to a double play grounder. The 4 guy has fewer options to produce an rbi because he may come up with 2 outs more frequently, which takes the sacrifice fly out of play. No doubt most 4 hitters are mainly fly ball hitters.

Does the ability of the lead-off hitter affect championship caliber teams and their playoff chances? Absolutely. Let’s look at the lead-off hitters for the playoff teams last year along with a couple other examples. You have to start with Jeter – 39% career OBP. That’s fantastic. Span with the Twins – 39% OBP. Coughlan with the Marlins – 39%. By the way, it is no mere coincidence that the Marlins went on a run in the second half of the year as Coughlan became a dominant on-base machine which resulted in his selection as Rookie of the Year. Shumaker with the Cardinals – 37%. Furcal – career 35% OBP and even worse last year. He’s usually been inconsistent and doesn’t perform well in the playoffs; hence the Dodgers have not either. Fowler with the Rockies – career 35% OBP and perhaps why they are inconsistent and have to sneak in via Wild Card. Figgins with the Angels – career 36% OBP, almost 40% last year which helped their weak power hitting team to merely drive him in from second and third instead. Jimmy Rollins –his 33% career OBP is an exception to the rule but explains the Phillies inconsistencies along with their reliance on sheer power. Last year they never really went on a run until he closed out the year strong. Jose Reyes – 34% career OBP but you saw what happened without him last year. He has also been inconsistent but when he gets on base a couple times in a game they usually win because he will steal.

Of course I’m describing the ideal scenario of what 1-4 are supposed to accomplish. But that’s why the strategy of where you place people in the lineup and who you place there is so important. The reason I’m making a big deal out of this is because the Braves have a real problem with our lead-off hitter. Not only is he not prototypical for a lead-off hitter, he is actually the antithesis of what we need not only in terms of his stats and skills, but also style.

Let’s look at the Braves lead-off man, Nate McLouth, and see how he stacks up against my ideal description earlier. Yccch! Career 34% OBP and career .260 average! That just doesn’t cut it. He does have a little pop. But he is mainly a fly ball hitter, likes to swing at high strikes (hence more popups and fly balls), doesn’t bunt often and has not proven he can bunt well, does not take a lot of walks, he’s a pull hitter, and although he has speed and is a great base-stealer, he rarely uses it. I’d rather see him run more and be successful only 70% of the time than rarely attempt to steal and be successful 90% of the time as he basically is now. He only stole 19 bases last year. In all fairness to McLouth, he’s a decent player but is misplaced at lead-off. He should be in the 7 slot behind Escobar.

He is also not an aggressive base runner and his overall style is that he does not like to take chances. I sense that he lacks confidence but that is just a personal insight. So, although McLouth has the record for highest base-stealing success, he rarely uses his ability. I’m not really sure whether it is because he is incredibly selective as to when he steals, or if Bobby doesn’t put the sign on. In either case, his speed is often wasted.

A quick sidebar on him as a fielder is appropriate. After watching every Braves game last year I can say now that I know why he was a Gold Glove fielder. He does not take chances. That includes diving for balls and throwing out runners. How many times did you see him get a ball hit to center with a guy on second and just lob it into the second baseman without even an attempt at the throw to the plate or to third? Sure you will have a high fielding percentage if you never try to throw anyone out and never dive for the line drives. I’m not trying to compare his fielding prowess to Andruw Jones but he is not an aggressive player defensively or offensively. However, your center fielder and lead-off guy needs to be aggressive, not conservative. Nate is better suited as a left fielder from my perspective. Schaefer is still our centerfielder of the future in my opinion. But that’s another blog.

I’m not just blowing smoke at you. McLouth’s career UZR is -22.4. For those of you not familiar with the Ultimate Zone Rating, it is the contemporary way of measuring fielding ability because it tells much more than fielding percentage. The definition of UZR is the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined. -22.4 is not attractive. Without taking this much farther, let’s just compare with Mike Cameron who is considered a very good fielder. Cameron’s career UZR is 39.9. I rest my case. Cameron has three Gold Gloves. But I digress too long.

Add all those ingredients and you have a recipe for a bad meal. This is nothing personal. Nate seems like a great guy. But he is in the wrong role and it is not fair to him and hurts the team. If that is the role we planned for him, then Wren overpaid and seems to understand lead-off hitter significance on a par with Bobby Cox. That was not a compliment by the way. When I first heard about the McLouth trade in the Wren interview I was excited right up to the point where he said he would be the answer for lead-off. I cringed at the thought of yet another year or more without a true lead-off hitter. I tried to keep an open mind but now my mind is closed. He is not the answer. Kelly Johnson was also obviously not the answer at lead-off but Cox only finally pulled the trigger on that after over a year.

If there is one worry I have this year more than our health it is our lead-off hitter. In order for the Braves to excel this year, we need to get the lead early so our tremendous pitching can control the game. The lead-off hitter is a crucial piece to make that happen. Part of the problem is that Cox does not know how to, or chooses not to, play small ball/abc ball and has been quoted as downplaying the importance of the lead-off hitter’s role. He doesn’t seem to appreciate or use speed at all. He rarely steals and he rarely calls for a hit and run. I remember only once or twice last year but it had to be more than that. Don’t get me started on Bobby. I love him but he also makes me crazy. But that’s another blog.

I hate to make a bunch of criticisms without providing a recommendation. So my recommendation is to sign Damon. Unfortunately that is a pipe dream because it does not appear that we have the money. It caused me some excitement for a few days when I read the rumors that the Braves were pursuing him. But I think they were just rumors. My second pick would be Schaefer. But he is probably not ready yet and even if he blows it out in the spring, he’s probably at best next year’s answer. So we are back where we started.

Mark my words, if McLouth somehow turns it around and has a great year from the lead-off position, the Braves will have a good chance to advance to the World Series. If he has a so-so year we will be struggling to make the playoffs.

My next blog will be on Thursday. The topic will be Bobby Cox. Griff says…later.

8 comments:

  1. Very nice article. I couln't agree more. Bobby drives me crazy with his sluggishness on the bases even when we play against a team with a bad-armed catcher and/or slow-to-the-plate pitcher. Why with speed at first he won't try to steal 2nd and bunt to 3rd for a sac fly I just don't know. I wasn't for Damon to begin with but the more I think of it the more I feel it's a good idea if we can afford him. Anyway, maybe someone in the Braves org will read your article and do things a bit different.

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  2. That's a thought. Not sure the Braves pay attention to this stuff but it would be nice. It seems like Wren just tries to do what Bobby wants. But Bobby is not a great GM. He is old school and has a way of doing things and doesn't like to adjust.

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  3. I'm new to this site.........who is Grif?

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  4. Griff is me. I'm a Braves blog writer. I interact with the comments when I have time.

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  5. "Otis Nixon batted lead-off for the Braves when we won the World Series in 1995.."

    Thats wrong. Marquis Grissom was the lead off hitter. He had a whooping .317 OBP and stole a whole 29 bases.

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  6. Also just like with their Closers during the run in the 90's the braves had different leadoff hitters.

    Nixon, Sanders, Roberto Kelly, Marquis Grissom, Lofton, Walt Weiss, Gerald Williams, and then Furcal.

    The only one's that are REAL leadoff hitters where Nixon, Sanders, Lofton and Furcal.

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  7. Thanks for the correction Sig. Should have looked that one up instead of going from memory. But Grissom performed a very solid leadoff during the regular season that year.

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  8. i think bobby's style would work fine in a "money ball" situation. I am not a fan of waiting for the 3run hr. but some teams have been successful doing it. if this is your offensive plan,speed is not necessary. but, you MUST have a team full of guys with high OBP. we do not. therefore, i agree with putting pressure on the defense with the speed guys we do have.

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