I have been fairly bored the past few weeks, and have been thinking about several things baseball related. Also, one of my favorite hobbies is listening to sports radio while in the car. Since I reside in the Chicago-land area all I hear all day is radio personalities bitch about how Alfonso Soriano should not be a leadoff hitter. I completely agree with this, but why has Soriano always been considered a leadoff man?
The answer: he used to be fast, and he used to steal bases (at least 30 SBs in 5 seasons from 2001-2006). However, since he has been on the Cubs, he has stolen 19, 19, and has 7 this season. The fact that he was placed as the leadoff batter simply because he was fast is the underlying issue here. In recent history, that is the only thing that has mattered out of a leadoff man. People think that Rickey Henderson was the prototypical leadoff man because he could steal bases so easily. This is not exactly the case. He was the prototypical leadoff man because he got on base at a staggering rate (career average OBP of .400).
This gets into the question of what you need out of a leadoff hitter. 1) You need ability to set the table for the middle of your order guys with high SLUG. 2) You need the ability to see pitches to either increase the pitchers pitch count (starter) or wear down a reliever who is put into get the heart of the order out. A leadoff man is not there to drive in runs, because the people he would be driving in are typically the lower order guys (or a fucking pitcher, stupid NL). Also, why does the leadoff man need to be fast? Ideally, the leadoff man would either get walked or hit a single to start the game. The second batter moves the runner along either by sacrifice, a single, or a walk. This leaves at least 2 outs for the 3, 4, and 5 batters (the guys who are supposed to have the high SLUG) to hit a double or a home run.
How does speed help the leadoff man in the ideal situation? It doesn't. Someone with below average speed can be moved to second with a well placed sacrifice. And someone with average speed can score on a single, double, or home run hit by a middle of the order guy. Where the speed in the lineup needs to be placed is in the 6 and 7 holes, especially in the NL. But the 6 hole is a typical power hitting spot? The lower you are in the order, the more you need to manufacture runs. With the probability of the 8 and 9 batters getting out higher, it is important to move the runners by more unconventional means (steals and hit-and-runs).
So what is the ideal place for Soriano (a guy who possesses speed, strikes out, and power)? The 6 Hole. This way, after the 3, 4, and 5 drive in the guys who actually get on base, the line up can be turned over to a second leadoff man in the 6 spot, and this guy can steal a base or advance to an extra base on a weak single hit by a worse hitter at the end of the order.
Speed at the top of the lineup is horribly overvalued in the NL. Why is that? Because the speed in the line up should be placed at the end of the line up, before the pitcher. This will allow the runners to push the envelope further obtaining extra bases wherever possible. Speed at the top of the order is unnecessary because the middle of the order will be able to drive the ball hard enough to score anyone.
So lets take a look at some leadoff men that are out of place in the top spot:
Soriano (.326 career OBP, 145 K's/season on average)
Cubs Ideal Leadoff man: Theriot (.359 OBP, ~50 K/year)
Jose Reyes (.337 OBP, ~80K/year, many SBs, good power)
Ideal Leadoff: Ryan Church/Daniel Murphy (Both can put up high OBP, medium K's, no speed)
Grady Sizemore (actually, you could bat him anywhere and he would be good. High OBP, High K's, High Sbs, Good Power) He's really good.
Phillies Ideal: Victorino (.350 OBP, ~60 K, good speed, switch hitter)
or Werth (.370 OBP, ~80K, decent speed)
Just Not Rollins (.330 OBP, 80+ K's, great speed)
I think a lot of great 6 batters are currently having their production wasted by being placed in the 1 Hole simply because they are fast.
I'm sure there are more examples, however, I'm lazy and am going to quit on this post.