Barring a major injury or a complete 180 from Manny Acta, Michael Brantley will be the Cleveland Indians’ leadoff hitter in 2012. Brantley hit out of the No. 1 hole in a majority of the Tribe’s games in 2011, and since he fits the leadoff man stereotype of a speedy contact hitter it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that he’ll be repping the top of the order again this year.
But, as we’ve already established, Brantley isn’t really a good fit for the leadoff spot. He doesn’t have the plate discipline to get on base at much better than the league-average rate, nor is he a good enough overall hitter to merit premium placement in the batting order.
The problem with the idea of moving Brantley down is that there’s no clear alternative to hit leadoff. All of the players in the Indians’ lineup who would hit better than Brantley have (fairly or not) been cast as middle-of-the-order hitters—they’re supposed to clear the table, not set it.
That being said, there is one Cleveland hitter who probably would be a better choice to lead off than Brantley, if we could open our minds to it: Shin-Soo Choo.
The most important trait for a leadoff hitter to possess is the ability to get on base. By definition the No. 1 guy is the first guy out of the dugout at least once every game, meaning he’s responsible for not making the first out. Not to mention that it’s good to have guys on base when the middle-of-the-order sluggers step to the plate.
This is an area in which Choo excels. Not once in Choo’s six-year Indians career has he ever earned an on-base percentage under .344 or a walk rate under 10 percent. Before an uncharacteristically low BABIP sunk his average in 2011 he’d hit .300 or better with an OBP of at least .394 three years in a row. Even the most pessimistic projection system sees Choo getting on base in 36 percent of his plate appearances in 2012.
Choo is also plenty capable of burning rubber on the basepaths. He swiped 43 bags in 2009 and 2010 while getting caught just nine times; even in his injury-impaired 2011 campaign he was on pace to steal 23 bases in 162 games. He’s earned positive BsR ratings five years in a row and he’s well known throughout the league for his wheels. He can’t match Brantley in raw speed, but thanks to his superior on-base skills he could very well steal more bases in 2012.
Choo’s solid power is probably the biggest argument against keeping him out of the leadoff spot, but it isn’t necessarily a convincing one. Being able to hit the ball far isn’t in itself a reason to hit someone lower in the order—just ask Grady Sizemore. Nor would the Indians be hurting for pop in the middle of the order if Choo were to ascend to the top; between Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Sizemore, there will be plenty of power hitters to fill in the gap.
Moreover, Choo’s slugging ability isn’t a given at this point—in fact, it might be the biggest question mark he’s facing this year. Choo’s slugging percentage fell below .400 for the first time in his career in 2011 and his ISO dipped to .131. A bounceback is probably in order, but it’s definitely not a given that he’ll hit 20 home runs in 2012. In a similar vein, Choo might benefit from being moved out of the heart of the order as it could remove some of the pressure to find his power.
The batting order isn’t nearly as important as it’s often made out to be, and it’s doubtful that hitting Choo leadoff instead of Brantley would mean more than an extra win or two over the course of the season. But as an underdog contender the Indians should be looking for every advantage they can get, so it doesn’t make sense for Acta not to allocate his offensive resources as efficiently as possible.