Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Leadoff Hitters

This post kicks off a series of posts that I write every year, and therefore struggle to infuse with any sort of new perspective. However, they're a tradition on this blog and hold some general interest, so away we go.

This post looks at the offensive performance of teams' leadoff batters. I will try to make this as clear as possible: the statistics are based on the players that hit in the #1 slot in the batting order, whether they were actually leading off an inning or not. It includes the performance of all players who batted in that spot, including substitutes like pinch-hitters.

Listed in parentheses after a team are all players that appeared in twenty or more games in the leadoff slot--while you may see a listing like "ATL (Bourn)” this does not mean that the statistic is only based solely on Bourns's performance; it is the total of all Atlanta batters in the #1 spot, of which Bourn was the only one to appear in that spot in twenty or more games. I will list the top and bottom three teams in each category (plus the top/bottom team from each league if they don't make the ML top/bottom three); complete data is available in a spreadsheet linked at the end of the article. There are also no park factors applied anywhere in this article.

That's as clear as I can make it, and I hope it will suffice. I always feel obligated to point out that as a sabermetrician, I think 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, and teams pay particular attention to the spot, it is instructive to look at how each team fared there.

The conventional wisdom is that the primary job of the leadoff hitter is to get on base, and most simply, score runs. So let's start by looking at runs scored per 25.5 outs (AB - H + CS):

1. LAA (Trout), 7.7
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 6.6
3. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 6.0
Leadoff average, 4.9
ML average, 4.3
25. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), 4.2
28. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victornio/Gwynn), 3.9
29. MIA (Reyes/Petersen), 3.9
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 3.8

Detroit’s leadoff hitters performed very well in context-neutral measures as you’ll see, but you also are well aware of the biases inherent to runs scored, and having Cabrera and Fielder to drive you in is nice. Likewise, Jose Reyes had a fine season, but Miami didn’t score any runs (also, Reyes was only in the leadoff spot for 95 games).

Speaking of getting on base, the other obvious measure to look at is On Base Average. The figures here exclude HB and SF to be directly comparable to earlier versions of this article, but those categories are available in the spreadsheet if you'd like to include them:

1. LAA (Trout), .382
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), .361
3. NYA (Jeter), .356
4. ATL (Bourn), .341
Leadoff average, .320
ML average, .315
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), .258
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victornio/Gwynn), .278
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .247

The five point margin between the leadoff and overall OBA is in usual range, perhaps a little on the low end (the gap was seven points in 2011 and two points in 2010).

I have been doing this review of leadoff hitters since 2006. The lowest OBA for a team’s leadoff hitters in each of those seasons, the gap between #29 and #30 are listed in the table below, and that team’s adjusted OBA relative to the major league average for leadoff hitters in that season:

The point of this chart--the Reds leadoff hitters were really, really bad. In my last post, I wrote about how bad Cincinnati’s offense was. On paper, it should have been much better, and hemorrhaging outs at the top of the lineup was certainly a contributing factor. Dusty Baker was content to allow Zack Cozart to make an out three out of every four times from the leadoff spot. To be fair, Cozart’s low OBA was a bit of a surprise, but there was nothing in his record that suggested that he would be a good leadoff option.

The next statistic is what I call Runners On Base Average. The genesis of it is from the A factor of Base Runs. It measures the number of times a batter reaches base per PA--excluding homers, since a batter that hits a home run never actually runs the bases. It also subtracts caught stealing here because the BsR version I often use does as well, but BsR versions based on initial baserunners rather than final baserunners do not.

My 2009 leadoff post was linked to a Cardinals message board, and this metric was the cause of a lot of confusion (this was mostly because the poster in question was thick-headed as could be, but it's still worth addressing). ROBA, like several other methods that follow, is not really a quality metric, it is a descriptive metric. A high ROBA is a good thing, but it's not necessarily better than a slightly lower ROBA plus a higher home run rate (which would produce a higher OBA and more runs). Listing ROBA is not in any way, shape or form a statement that hitting home runs is bad for a leadoff hitter. It is simply a recognition of the fact that a batter that hits a home run is not a baserunner. Base Runs is an excellent model of offense and ROBA is one of its components, and thus it holds some interest in describing how a team scored its runs, rather than how many it scored:

1. LAA (Trout), .332
2. NYA (Jeter), .330
3. DET (Jackson/Berry), .327
5. COL (Fowler/Scutaro/Young), .312
Leadoff average, .289
ML average, .282
27. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), .258
28. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), .252
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), .250
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .224

Angels leadoff hitters led the majors with 30 homers (PHI was next with 24), but their advantage in getting on base was large enough that even with home runs removed as times on base, they still led the league in ROBA.

I will also include what I've called Literal OBA here--this is just ROBA with HR subtracted from the denominator so that a homer does not lower LOBA, it simply has no effect. You don't really need ROBA and LOBA (or either, for that matter), but this might save some poor message board out there twenty posts, so here goes. LOBA = (H + W - HR - CS)/(AB + W - HR):

1. LAA (Trout), .347
2. NYA (Jeter), .336
3. DET (Jackson/Berry), .334
5. COL (Fowler/Scutaro/Young), .320
Leadoff average, .294
ML average, .290
27. TOR (Lawrie/Davis/Escobar/Johnson), .263
28. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), .254
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), .254
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .229

There is a high degree of repetition for the various OBA lists, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since they are just minor variations on each other.

The next two categories are most definitely categories of shape, not value. The first is 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 closely as those with high ratios (at least in the way their seasons played out):

1. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 2.2
2. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 2.1
3. ARI (Bloomquist/Parra/Eaton), 2.1
4. KC (Gordon/Dyson), 2.1
Leadoff average, 1.7
27. PHI (Rollins/Pierre), 1.5
28. BAL (Markakis/Chavez/McLouth), 1.4
29. TEX (Kinsler), 1.4
30. BOS (Ellsbury/Aviles/Nava/Podsednik), 1.3
ML average, 1.1

Again, this is not a quality list, as indicated by Cincinnati leading the way. While Cozart and Co. may have been terrible, at least they avoided driving in any runs so as to upset the traditional leadoff profile.

A similar gauge, but one that doesn't rely on the teammate-dependent R and RBI totals, is Bill James' Run Element Ratio. RER was described by James as the ratio between those things that were especially helpful at the beginning of an inning (walks and stolen bases) to those that were especially helpful at the end of an inning (extra bases). It is a ratio of "setup" events to "cleanup" events. Singles aren't included because they often function in both roles.

Of course, there are RBI walks and doubles are a great way to start an inning, but RER classifies events based on when they have the highest relative value, at least from a simple analysis:

1. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), 1.8
2. ATL (Bourn), 1.5
3. STL (Furcal/Jay), 1.5
4. MIN (Span/Revere), 1.3
Leadoff average, 1.0
ML average, .7
27. BAL (Markakis/Chaez/McLouth), .7
28. WAS (Lombardozzi/Desmond/Werth/Espinosa), .7
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), .6
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), .6

What’s interesting here is that Cincinnati’s leadoff hitters did not really fit the traditional profile despite failing to drive in any runs. The Reds had the lowest RER as their leadoff hitters drew the fewest walks (37) and stole the fewest bases (10) of any team. Even so, their RER denominator wasn’t very good, as their isolated power of .119 was still below the leadoff average of .130.

Speaking of stolen bases, last year I started including a measure that considered only base stealing. Obviously there's a lot more that goes into being a leadoff hitter than simply stealing bases, but it is one of the areas that is often cited as important. So I've included the ranking for what some analysts call net steals, SB - 2*CS. I'm not going to worry about the precise breakeven rate, which is probably closer to 75% than 67%, but is also variable based on situation. The ML and leadoff averages in this case are per team lineup slot:

1. LAA (Trout), 40
2. SD (Venable/Denorfia/Cabrera/Amarista), 21
3. OAK (Crisp/Weeks), 18
4. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 18
Leadoff average, 9
ML average, 4
25. NYA (Jeter), 1
28. NYN (Tejada/Torres/ Nieuwenhuis), -4
29. PIT (Presley/Tabata/Marte), -8
30. ARI (Young), -24

While the Reds only stole 10 bases from the leadoff spot, they were only caught once, so their net 8 was essentially average. The Yankees were next with just sixteen attempted steals. If Chris Young’s basestealing attempts are not toned down in Oakland, then the media may get its moment to declare that Moneyball is dead.

Let's shift gears back to quality measures, beginning with one that David Smyth proposed when I first wrote this annual leadoff review. Since the optimal weight for OBA in a x*OBA + SLG metric is generally something like 1.7, David suggested figuring 2*OBA + SLG for leadoff hitters, as a way to give a little extra boost to OBA while not distorting things too much, or even suffering an accuracy decline from standard OPS. Since this is a unitless measure anyway, I multiply it by .7 to approximate the standard OPS scale and call it 2OPS:

1. LAA (Trout), 899
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 821
3. NYA (Jeter), 793
4. COL (Fowler/Scutaro/Young), 768
ML average, 725
Leadoff average, 721
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), 634
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), 600
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 575

Along the same lines, one can also evaluate leadoff hitters in the same way I'd go about evaluating any hitter, and just use Runs Created per Game with standard weights (this will include SB and CS, which are ignored by 2OPS):

1. LAA (Trout), 7.4
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 5.7
3. NYA (Jeter), 5.2
4. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 5.1
ML average, 4.4
Leadoff average, 4.4
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), 3.3
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), 2.9
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), 2.6

It’s not a surprise that 2OPS and RG produce similar results. Finally, allow me to close with a crude theoretical measure of linear weights supposing that the player always led off an inning (that is, batted in the bases empty, no outs state). There are weights out there (see The Book) for the leadoff slot in its average situation, but this variation is much easier to calculate (although also based on a silly and impossible premise).

The weights I used were based on the 2010 run expectancy table from Baseball Prospectus. Ideally I would have used multiple seasons but this is a seat-of-the-pants metric. The 2010 post goes into the detail of how this measure is figured; this year, I’ll just tell you that the out coefficient was -.215, the CS coefficient was -.582, and for other details refer you to that post. I then restate it per the number of PA for an average leadoff spot (737 in 2012):

1. LAA (Trout), 45
2. DET (Jackson/Berry), 21
3. SF (Pagan/Blanco), 13
ML average, 0
Leadoff average, 0
28. SEA (Ackley/Suzuki/Figgins), -18
29. LA (Gordon/Ellis/Victorino/Gwynn), -24
30. CIN (Cozart/Phillips), -32

After reviewing all of these metrics, I reach two major takeaways--namely, there were two teams that got historically notable production out of their leadoff spots. On the plus side were the Angels; fueled by Mike Trout, they swept all of the quality categories--even net steals, which are a plus but not an imperative, even for a leadoff hitter. Sometime if I am bored, I will do a retro version of this post looking at 1985 or 1990--vintage Rickey/Raines seasons, which would probably produce similar dominance to what Trout did in 2012. On the negative sides, Cincinnati’s leadoff hitters were really awful. As Howard Medgal pointed out to me, it’s a good thing they have Billy Hamilton on the horizon.

Follow this link for the spreadsheet with full data.


  1. dusty baker is not a MLB manager. He is brain dead and tied to yesterday's methodology. I can't for the life of me figure out why they resigned him.

  2. but you also are well aware of the biases inherent to runs scored, and having Cabrera and Fielder to drive you in is nice. Carolina


I reserve the right to reject any comment for any reason.