Leading Off

Going into this offseason I identified to key areas in which I felt the Pirates needed to improve. The top priority was and should quite frankly near always be starting pitching depth. The Pirates worked on that this offseason by tendering Morton, resigning Karstens, (allegedly) signing Liriano and adding a few players like Jonathan Sanchez and Vin Mazzaro to serve as depth. The second area I pointed out was their lack of OBP and by extension top of the order and specifically lead off candidates. To address this the Pirate have done … well … nothing. Russell Martin was added and while I have heard some rumblings he might bat 2nd that really shouldn’t be an option except possibly against left handed pitching. So it appears the Pirates are going to try to address this problem internally. Let’s take a close look at the options:

The first thing we need to ask is what exactly does a team want in a leadoff hitter. The typical lead off hitter is viewed as someone who is fast and can steal bases but more importantly it is about getting on base and to a smaller extent making pitchers work. Since the primary goal of a leadoff hitting is getting on base I am going to focus most of this discussion of OBP but as a secondary number I will look at BB and K rates and finally as a third number I am going to look at stolen bases. Looking at those stats and comparing them to the league I get a very rough estimate that a good leadoff hitter should meet at least the following criteria: .330 OBP, 8-10 BB%, 15-20 K% (so 2:1 K:BB), 25 SB at a 75% rate. Those are reasonable estimates of minimum production teams would be expecting out of good leadoff hitters. So to compare the Pirates players to those standards I will use their 2013 ZiPS projections.

Russell Martin: .328 OBP, 10.3 BB%, 16.1 K%, 7 SB, 78 SB%

Michael McKenry: .297 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 24.8 K%, 1 SB, 50 SB%

Garrett Jones: .309 OBP, 7.7 BB%, 21.1 K%, 5 SB, 71 SB%

Gaby Sanchez: .324 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 14.6 K%, 3 SB, 75 SB%

Neil Walker: .328 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 18.5 K%, 8 SB, 62 SB%

Pedro Alvarez: .313 OBP, 10.2 BB%, 31.1 K%, 2 SB, 67 SB%

Clint Barmes: .289 OBP, 5.5 BB%, 18.7 K%, 3 SB, 50 SB%

Josh Harrison: .299 OBP, 3.7 BB%, 12.1 K%, 12 SB, 67 SB%

Jordy Mercer: .286 OBP, 5.4 BB%, 18.2 K%, 5 SB, 56 SB%

Chase d’Arnaud: .285 OBP, 6.4 BB%, 21.6 K%, 24 SB, 83 SB%

Starling Marte: .310 OBP, 4.3 BB%, 22.8 K%, 24 SB, 67 SB%

Andrew McCutchen: .369 OBP, 11.4 BB%, 18.0 K%, 23 SB, 68 SB%

Travis Snider: .310 OBP, 7.4 BB%, 22.7 K%, 9 SB, 69 SB%

Jose Tabata: .329 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 15.0 K%, 19 SB, 61 SB%

Jerry Sands: .304 OBP, 8.5 BB%, 25.0 K%, 4 SB, 80 SB%

Alex Presley: .308 OBP, 6.1 BB%, 18.0 K%, 15 SB, 65 SB%

Well as should have been expected no one met all the criteria listed and in fact no one at all met the 25 SB criteria. Since the Pirates do not have an ideal leadoff hitter (something we already knew) I think it is time to look at the best of the flawed options.

OBP > .330

Only one Pirates player projects to have an OBP over .330 and he is obviously the best choice to bat leadoff but the problem is he is the same guy who is the best choice to bat 3rd, 4th, 5th and well really anywhere in the lineup. With an ideally balanced lineup Andrew McCutchen is the obvious choice to be a leadoff hitter and if he can improve his stolen base efficiency he would be as near perfect a lead off hitter as one could make. However we all know he has more value to the Pirates batting in the middle of the lineup and driving those runs in than he does sitting atop the lineup, getting on base and ultimately staying on base.

OBP > .320

The Pirates have 4 players who have an OBP in the .320s and without an obvious choice to leadoff it would make sense that the player should come from this group. Those players are Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata. Looking at the secondary numbers I posted each of these players BB% and K% look fairly good as well as the BB% are at the very least near 8% and the K% for all of them is less than 20%. Where the divergence happens though is in the SB department, only one of these players, Jose Tabata is any sort of threat on the bases and while he does have the speed to swipe bases he like most other Pirates isn’t good at picking his spots. Still there is little doubt that outside of McCutchen the Pirates player best suited for the leadoff spot is Jose Tabata but there is a problem with that as Tabata’s 2012 struggles has made it very likely that he won’t be in the starting lineup. Gaby Sanchez is in a similar position as he is only expected to get consistent at bats against left handers. That leaves us with martin and Walker. In an ideal world where the leadoff hitter is determined only by the ability to get on base Martin batting lead off against lefties and Walker against righties makes a ton of sense as both players do a really good job getting on base against those particular handedness. In practice Martin is a catcher and catchers no matter how much they are suited for it rarely if ever lead off. I would not dismiss the possibility of Walker doing so however.

OBP > .300, BB% > 7.5%

Next up are 3 players who do not put up the best on base percentages but show a decent knack for working a count as shown by their projected BB%. These 3 players Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Jerry Sands. On the surface none of these 3 look like a leadoff hitter and when you dig a little deeper that becomes even clearer. Alvarez’s strike out rate is projected to be above 30% and his power bat is too valuable to have at the top of the order and he is better suited for a slugger role somewhere in the middle of the lineup. Similar to Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates count on Garrett Jones for his power and middle of the order presence. He doesn’t strike out a ton though and is actually has a fairly high OBP against right handed pitchers so using him at the top of the lineup against them shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. THe other player Sands faces a similar situation to Tabata as there is probably just not a whole lot of playing time to be had by him. Even so with a projected 25% strike out rate and a low OBP the top of the order probably isn’t a good place for him.

OBP > .300, BB% < 7.5%

There are 3 more players with a projected OBP above .300 but all of them do not walk a lot. They are Starling Marte, Alex Presley and Travis Snider. First I’ll deal with Travis Snider, he is a lot like Garrett Jones in that the Pirates are going to be expecting him to provide power but that his OBP is decent enough that using him near the top of the lineup can not be completely dismissed in the right situations. The other two players Starling Marte and Alex Presley fit the look of a traditional leadoff hitter. Both are speedy outfielders that can steal a base fairly well. However both have some OBP problems and Marte has a strike out problem. Presley is in the same boat as Tabata and Sands and in actuality is probably worse off so it is unlikely he gets enough playing time to be a real leadoff hitter candidate. Starling Marte appears likely to be the Pirates first choice as a leadoff hitter but his projected numbers show he really isn’t a good fit for that role. He can steal some bases but he will really work a walk and is projected to have a strike out rate more than 6 times greater than his walk rate.

OBP < .300

I have 5 other players listed above but they have even greater on base problems than the ones I have already discussed. McKenry is a solid backup catcher with a little power but he quite obviously has the OBP nor the speed to handle lead off duties. Clint Barmes is expected to be the everyday starting shortstop but that is more for his defensive prowess than anything with the bat. He quite simply should see nothing but the bottom of the order. All that leaves us with is the 3 primary candidates for the reserve infielder jobs in d’Arnaud, Harrison and Mercer. Each one has his strengths but none of their strengths are really getting on base. d’Arnaud is a decent enough base stealer but can’t hit well enough to get on base at a decent enough clip, Mercer is a solid defensive player but once again is lacking with the bat, and Harrison is a little better with the bat and is a decent base runner but lacks a true position and doesn’t have the plate patience nor the OBP ability to make any sort of leadoff hitter.

So what does all of this tell us? Quite simply that the Pirates are going to have to patchwork their leadoff spot and their top of the order. All things should be on the table. Players like Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, Russell Martin and Gaby Sanchez need to be considered for the top of the order even though they aren’t your prototypical choices. Neil Walker shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a #2 hitter as he has the ability to be a competent lead off hitter at least against left handers. I am going to share my own ideas for lineups below and then discuss my rationale behind them.

vs RHP

Walker, 2B

Jones, 1B

Cutch, CF

Alvarez, 3B

Marte, LF

Snider, RF

Martin, C

Barmes, SS

vs LHP

Tabata, RF

Martin, C

Cutch, CF

Alvarez, 3B

Marte, LF

Sanchez, 1B

Walker, 2B

Barmes, SS

In my lineup against right handers I am having Walker lead off because he is the Pirates best OBP man against right handed pitchers outside of Andrew McCutchen. The second spot in my order came down to Garrett Jones and Travis Snider both of whom can post decent OBPs against right handers while providing a little pop but Jones is more proven in that regard and I want the younger Snider concentrating more on unlocking his power pontential rather than trying to set the table. The middle of the order I kept the same for both lineups as I think Cutch fits well in the 3 hole and that it is time for Pedro to get a real chance to inherit the clean up job. Marte is more of a run producer than a leadoff hitter so batting him 5th gives him a oppurtunity to do and if he develops he could possible move up to the 3rd spot which would allow Cutch to inherit the lead off spot. Rounding out the lineup I have Martin and Barmes who I hope will at least be competent. If Martin sits McKenry can just slide right into the 7th spot.

In my lineup against lefites I start with Tabata as I am not ready to give up on him quite yet and feel it would be for the best to sit Snider against left handed pitching. Outside of McCutchen, Tabata is clearly the player that best profiles as a leadoff hitter so this will give him a chance to audition for that job. The second spot came down to either Martin or Sanchez and I went with Martin because I feel Sanchez brings a little more power lower in the lineup and I feel that Martin’s track record of posting a high OBP against lefties is just a touch better than Sanchez’s. The middle of the order stays the same as I want those guys to try and establish themselves. I dropped Walker the whole way down to the 7th spot because when he is forced to bat right handed he really struggles. I wouldn’t mind seeing him swapped with Sanchez though and batting 6th. And of course Barmes rounds out the lineup. When Martin sits move Sanchez up to the 2 spot and insert McKenry in Sanchez’s spot.

My lineups may be a little unconventional but I feel they make the best use out of what is the poor assortment of top of the order candidates the Pirates currently have in their stable.

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