Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Leadoff Hitters, 2008

Once again, here is a look at the composite performances of the players who batted in the leadoff spot for each team. The data is from baseball-reference.com and again, it includes ALL of the PA out of the leadoff spot. In parentheses I list the players who appeared in twenty or more games in the #1 slot (which is not the same as starting twenty games; they could have been pinch runners, defensive replacements, etc.), but that does not in any way mean that they are the only contributor to the team total.

I always feel obliged to point out that as a sabermetrician, I feel that the importance of the batting order is often overstated, and that the best leadoff hitters would generally be the best cleanup hitters, the best #9 hitters, etc. However, since the leadoff spot gets a lot of attention, it is instructive to look at how each team fared there.

The conventional wisdom would say that the most important function of the leadoff hitter is to get on base and score runs. So a good place to start is looking at runs scored per 25.5 outs (AB - H + CS):

1. FLA (Ramirez), 7.3

2. DET (Granderson), 6.4

3. TEX (Kinsler/Arias), 6.4

Leadoff Average, 5.1

MLB Average, 4.8

28. TOR (Inglett/Eckstein/Scutaro/Rios), 4.4

29. WAS (Lopez/Guzman/Harris/Bonifacio), 4.3

30. OAK (Ellis/Suzuki/Davis/Buck/Hannahan/Sweeney), 3.7

For clarification, “Leadoff Average” is the average for leadoff hitters, and “MLB Average” is the average for all hitters, regardless of lineup slot.

I am not going to insult your intelligence by extensively lecturing about the drawbacks of using actual runs scored figured or any of the other metrics presented here.

Another very basic measure by which to gauge a leadoff hitter is On Base Average. I did not include hit batters or sacrifices, so this is just (H + W)/(AB + W):

1. FLA (Ramirez), .385

2. BAL (Roberts), .373

3. CLE (Sizemore), .364

Leadoff Average, .341

MLB Average, .329

28. COL (Taveras/Barmes/Podsednik), .308

29. HOU (Bourn/Matsui/Erstad), .290

30. OAK (Ellis/Suzuki/Davis/Buck/Hannahan/Sweeney), .277

Last year, leadoff hitters had the same .341 OBA, but the league average was .331, so there was a tiny relative improvement for the leadoff spot this year.

I had an online discussion with an Indians fan some time in May about who, to that point, was the team’s most productive offensive player. He argued for Victor Martinez on the basis of his Batting Average, which was sad and predictable. What was odd about it was that when I pointed out Sizemore’s far-superior OBA, he scoffed that it wasn’t in the top ten in the league and thus was inadequate for a leadoff hitter.

I don’t know if he is representative of the larger group of casual fans or not, but in his case at least, there is a misguided belief that leadoff hitters have superior OBAs. As a group, they don’t, at least not to an extent where a .360 OBA would be subpar.

I am amused by the third and second to last finishes of the Rockies, spearheaded by Willy Taveras, and the Astros, led by Michael Bourn. Houston parted with Taveras in the Jason Jennings trade, then decided they couldn’t live without a speedy center fielder who can’t hit, so they accepted him as the key piece for Brad Lidge.

A slightly modified OBA is what I like to call Runners On Base Average. It is the A component of Base Runs per PA, and it simply removes home runs and caught stealing from the numerator of OBA. Thus, it leaves only times in which the hitter was actually on base, waiting to be driven in by the subsequent batters.

1. BAL (Roberts), .348

2. SEA (Suzuki), .345

3. LAA (Figgins), .338

Leadoff Average, .309

MLB Average, .297

28. MIN (Gomez/Span), .276

29. HOU (Bourn/Matsui/Erstad), .258

30. OAK (Ellis/Suzuki/Davis/Buck/Hannahan/Sweeney), .258

Florida falls to tenth (.324) and Cleveland to seventeenth (.313), mostly because they tied for the ML lead with 34 homers by leadoff hitters.

Now I will look at two statistics which are describe the shape of performance, not the quality (ROBA is sort of in this class--a high ROBA is good, but so are home runs which don’t help you out there). The first is simply the ratio of runs scored to RBI. Leadoff hitters as a group score many more runs than they drive in, partly due to their skills and partly due to lineup dynamics. Those with low ratios don’t fit the traditional leadoff profile as well as those with high ratios:

1. LAA (Figgins), 2.8

2. SEA (Suzuki), 2.5

3. BOS (Ellsbury), 2.2

Leadoff Average, 1.6

28. CIN (Hairston/Patterson/Dickerson/Bruce/Freel), 1.2

29. CHN (Soriano), 1.2

30. CLE (Sizemore), 1.1

MLB Average, 1.0

A similar idea posited by Bill James is the Run Element Ratio, which James intended to balance skills more helpful in setting up an inning (walks and steals) against those more helpful in driving runners in (power, measured by extra bases). RER is simply the ratio (SB + W)/(TB - H):

1. LAA (Figgins), 3.0

2. COL (Taveras/Barmes/Podsednik), 1.8

3. BOS (Ellsbury), 1.8

Leadoff Average, 1.0

MLB Average, .8

28. CHN (Soriano), .6

29. ARI (Drew/Young), .6

30. SD (Gerut/Giles/Hairston), .5

Returning to measures which attempt to measure quality, Bill James used an estimated runs scored to rate leadoff hitters. He assumed that if a leadoff hitter reached first (S + W - SB - CS), he would score 35% of the time; 55% from second (D + SB); 80% from third (T), and of course once for each home run. Expressed per 25.5 outs, I’ll call this Leadoff Efficiency:

1. FLA (Ramirez), 7.3

2. CLE (Sizemore), 7.1

3. BAL (Roberts), 6.6

Leadoff Average, 5.7

MLB Average, 5.5

28. MIN (Gomez/Span), 4.8

29. HOU (Bourn/Matsui/Erstad), 4.4

30. OAK (Ellis/Suzuki/Davis/Buck/Hannahan/Sweeney), 4.3

As Tango Tiger pointed out in the comments last year, James’ weights aren’t optimal. You can see this in the fact that he expects leadoff hitters to score 5.72 runs/“individual game”, whereas they actually average 5.36. Tango suggested alternate scoring percentages of 30/50/65. I stuck with James’ here, but please heed the warnings them.

When I first did a review of leadoff hitters in this vein, David Smyth suggested that I include 2*OBA + SLG. Since the optimal weight for OBA in a x*OBA + SLG construction is somewhere in the vicinity of 1.7, using “2OPS” is closer to the mark than regular OPS, while also providing an extra boost in value for OBA. So here is that list (the actual figure displayed here is .7*(2*OBA + SLG), to bring it in line with the regular OPS scale. OPS and 2OPS are both unitless, so I may as well express 2OPS on the more familiar regular OPS scale):

1. FLA (Ramirez), 906

2. CLE (Sizemore), 860

3. SD (Gerut/Giles/Hairston), 851

Leadoff Average, 768

MLB Average, 753

28. COL (Taveras/Barmes/Podsednik), 675

29. HOU (Bourn/Matsui/Erstad), 640

30. OAK (Ellis/Suzuki/Davis/Buck/Hannahan/Sweeney), 617

Finally, we can evaluate the leadoff men in exactly the same way as I would evaluate anyone else--their RG, based on ERP:

1. FLA (Ramirez), 7.1

2. CLE (Sizemore), 6.7

3. BAL (Roberts), 6.1

Leadoff Average, 5.1

MLB Average, 4.8

28. MIN (Gomez/Span), 4.0

29. HOU (Bourn/Matsui/Erstad), 3.4

30. OAK (Ellis/Suzuki/Davis/Buck/Hannahan/Sweeney), 3.1

Here is a link to the spreadsheet if you want to examine this yourself.

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