The Indians have done a fairly decent job of beefing up the heart of their order so far this offseason. The additions of Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher to go along with Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and even Lonnie Chisenhall should make for an intimidating lineup. After all, there’s is a lot of power potential contained within those bats.
Unfortunately, one pivotal question still remains. With the recent trade of Shin-Soo Choo there is a glaring hole at the top of the lineup that the team has yet to address. Who is going to bat lead-off for this team?
There are any number of candidates to choose from that are already on the roster, so that much is good. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that any of them are acceptable options. Unless Willie Mays Hayes or Kenny Lofton comes walking through the door in Spring Training it’s going to be a struggle to find an internal option who can be the table setter that every competitive team needs.
You could make the case that the role of a leadoff hitter is an outdated idea. There is only one guaranteed at-bat per game in which a leadoff hitter is guaranteed to lead off, so why waste everyone’s time and effort trying to fill the position? Couldn’t a balanced lineup achieve the same overall effectiveness? Shin-Soo Choo was a more than capable leadoff hitter and yet the Indians struggled to score runs and the offense essentially fell apart by mid-July. All are valid points, but the fact remains that every team needs that one guy hitting before the heart of the order that can get on base, wreak some havoc, and guarantee that the power bats in the lineup get opportunities to drive in runs. You know, the job that they’re being paid to do.
So who bats leadoff? Here are the contenders for the title and their qualifications, or lack thereof.
- 1. Michael Brantley: Let’s just put this out there. If we’re being honest with ourselves, there is a very stereotypical reason why Brantley is constantly mentioned as the lead-off hitter: he has some speed, he’s the center fielder, and he’s African-American. Basically, Brantley fits the stereotype of any leadoff hitter in any movie ever made. The problem is he hasn’t been very good in that role. When penciled in as the first hitter in the order, Brantley is batting .267 with an OBP of .314. Not exactly awful. However, when you break it down further Brantley is only batting .234/.280 leading off an inning regardless of where he hits in the lineup and .213/.251 when leading off the game. In all honesty, batting leadoff is not something he’s particularly good at. It also doesn’t make much sense considering how he flourished in the middle of the order last season.
- 2. Drew Stubbs: As far as popular opinion goes, Stubbs would seem to be the front runner to bat leadoff this season. Many believe he was acquired solely for that purpose thanks in large part to his abundance of speed and basestealing prowess. The problem lies in Stubbs’ inability to get on base at an above-average rate, especially in 2012 when he batted a lowly .213 with an OBP of .277. However, he does appear to be a better option than Brantley based on the OBP of his career splits. As the first batter in the lineup, Stubbs is a career .243/.320. When leading of an inning, regardless of his spot in the order, Stubbs bats .255/.307. When leading off the game, Stubbs is at .218/.291 for his career. Again, these numbers aren’t mind boggling, but they are better than Brantley in terms of purely getting on base.
3. Jason Kipnis: Kipnis is an intriguing option for whom my collegue Steve Kinsella has been petitioning for some time. On the surface, his career OBP of .335 exceeds Brantley’s .329 and Stubbs’ .312. However, as I have mentioned previously, he flourishes in situations with runners on base and flounders in situations with no one on. He bats .273/.364 and .251/.314, respectively, in those situations. With the Indians looking for ways to drive in runs is it worth removing Kipnis’ bat from the middle of the order. Kipnis’ numbers are better than either Brantley or Stubbs when it comes to his position in the batting order. When leading off a game, albeit with a limited sample size, Kipnis is batting .471/.571. When leading off an inning, regardless of his position in the order, he is batting .263/.356. Unfortunately, as the first batter in the lineup Kipnis’ career numbers are an abysmal .202/.281.
- 4. Mike Aviles: Many may not consider Aviles to be a candidate to bat leadoff, but he spent a considerable amount of time doing so for the Red Sox in 2012. He started off well, but as the season wore on Aviles’ numbers crashed down to earth along with the Red Sox’ playoff aspirations. Aviles would be a justifiable option with a .277 career batting average and .307 OBP. He’s about on prr with Brantely and Stubbs in regards to his situational stats. When penciled in at the top of the order, Aviles has batted a solid .292/.320. When leading off an inning, regardless of where he bats in the order, Aviles has done about the same with a .288/.317 clip. Finally, when leading off the game, Aviles’ number dip a bit more drastically. In that situation, Aviles is .260/.296 for his career.
- 5. Michael Bourn: Bourn is the lone remaining contender for this spot from outside of the organization. While the Indians have made no indication of having an interest in Bourn, he is widely regarded as the top leadoff hitter left on the market. His combination of speed and ability to make contact has made him a legit threat at the top of the lineup. But would he be worth the investment? For his career, Michael Bourn is batting .272 with an OBP of .339. Hitting out of the top spot in the lineup, Bourn has hit .270/.339. When leading off an inning, regardless of where he may be hitting in the lineup, Bourn is even better with a .296/.359 clip. When leading off the game, Bourn is even better than that, hitting .294/.367.
Here’s a chart to help sum that all up.
So what does this all mean? For now, it looks as if the Indians’ best option for the leadoff spot as of today is Jason Kipnis. He has the best combination of speed, average, and on-base ability out of anyone on the current roster. Also, his previous success batting in the top spot in the order gives him the edge, at least in my book, until he proves otherwise. The additions of Reynolds and Swisher to the middle of the order also make it easier to move Kipnis up into the top spot without losing much in terms of power potential.
Is it an absolute perfect match made in baseball heaven? No, but unless the Indians decide to get really bold and ink Michael Bourn to a one-year deal Kipnis is probably the best they have. The only question is whether Terry Francona will be willing to ignore the typical leadoff hitter stereotypes and put the right player in the position to succeed. That, folks, remains to be seen.