The Cleveland Indians 2014 season is in full swing as we have now completed one third for the season. We are at a point where we say with reasonable confidence what the Tribe’s strengths and weakness are, and we know where the Tribe needs to improve. It’s pretty clear that defense is the biggest issue, but an inconsistent offense is right up there as the prime culprit for the Tribe’s slow start. After last night’s crushing loss to the White Sox, the Indians are now just 10th in the AL in runs scored per game at 4.26, and they have had far too many games where they struggle to even score three runs (as we just witnessed yet again). There are several reasons for the offensive struggles, but one big one has been the loss of Jason Kipnis. He was the heart and soul of the offense last year and his ability both at the plate and on the bases has been sorely missed. He came off the DL yesterday and while he went 0-4, was a sight for sore eyes in the lineup. He batted cleanup yesterday but the question in my opinion still remains: where should Kipnis hit in the lineup now that he has returned? For me that answer is quite simple: LEADOFF.
Now I know many will cry foul by that statement, as to many Michael Bourn is a fine leadoff hitter. Calling Bourn a good leadoff guy is like calling Justin Masterson a major league Ace starting pitcher. Sure Masterson was the “Ace” of the Tribe staff last year, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good #1. Similarly the Tribe didn’t have a good leadoff option to start last season so Bourn at the top made sense. But let’s get one thing straight, Bourn has never been that good of a leadoff hitter in his career. Only once has he ever had an on-base percentage over .350 (way back in 2009), and his career mark is merely .335. Since signing the deal with Cleveland he’s posted a .317 OBP. Career walk rate is only 8.4% and even worse since joining the Tribe (just 6.7%). He currently ranks 19th in all of baseball among leadoff men (min 100 PA) with his .323 OBP, which is on the heels of him ranking 23rd out of 25 leadoff men (min 300 PA) last year. In fact, since the beginning of the 2010 season, he ranks just 15th out of 25 leadoff men (min 1000 PA) in on-base percentage at .338. You could do worse than Bourn in the leadoff spot, but really not by a lot. There are at least three guys on the current roster that should hit leadoff over him (and could argue even more)….
This brings us back to Jason Kipnis and why he is the guy to hit leadoff for this club. Last year Kipnis really came into his own, making his first All-Star game and posting a very good .366 OBP, and this after a respectable .335 OBP in 2012 (first full big league season). His walk rate was up over 11% (after being 10% in 2012) and posted the 2nd best OBP, OPS, wRC+, and wOBA among Tribe starters (all behind only Santana). Bottom line here, Kipnis was without a doubt one of the top two hitters on the club last year. Prior to hitting the DL, Kipnis had a .354 OBP this season despite only hitting .234 (.250 BABIP). He is proving that he can get on base at high clips, thanks to a very good walk rate (nearly 11% career mark now). His batting average will come up as well (his xBABIP is over .300) and when it does so too will the on-base percentage. Hell, even if it doesn’t come up at all (doubtful but I suppose possible), that .354 OBP of his was equal to the best mark Bourn has ever put up in his big league career. Bourn’s career on-base percentage is now equal to Kipnis’s worst full-season on-base percentage (.335). Even when Kipnis struggles he’s at worst as good at getting on base Bourn.
There are really only two arguments for Bourn over Kipnis in the leadoff spot, neither of which are good ones. The first being the old “well Bourn’s always been a leadoff guy” argument, to which I have to laugh at. Austin Jackson was a leadoff guy too until the Tigers decided that an on-base percentage in the .330s just wasn’t good enough. Jackson actually has been better out of the leadoff spot than Bourn the last 4+ years, yet the Tigers made a move to upgrade his spot in the lineup (both Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler are outperforming Bourn to this point). The Tribe absolutely needs to follow suit here and make a move.
The second argument for Bourn over Kipnis is the old “you want speed/stolen bases at the top of the lineup”, to which I also kind of chuckle. Sure having speed at the top is a nice thing to have, don’t get me wrong. Then again, speed anywhere in the lineup is a nice thing to have. However, the best leadoff guys in baseball were not the best because they stole a lot if bases. Rather, they were the best because they got on base at very high clips. Speed was/is simply icing on the cake. Not to mention at this stage in both Bourn’s and Kipnis’s careers…is Bourn really a better base runner/bigger base stealing threat than Kipnis? Kipnis has been a 30 stolen base guy each of the previous two season and has as many stolen bases as Bourn to this point this year (despite missing more time). Bourn meanwhile has seen his stolen base total go from 61 to 42 to just 23 last year. Not to mention he’s been caught at least ten times in a season dating back to 2008 and already has been caught in 3 of his 7 attempts this year. So even if the “speed/stolen base” argument was a valid one (it’s not), it really doesn’t apply here as Kipnis is really the better speed/stolen base threat anyways.
Now I’m sure many Tribe fans will be clamoring for Kipnis to return to the lineup in the 3-hole. They still believe that the best hitter should bat 3rd in the lineup because “that’s how it’s always been.” But really why put your best hitter in the 3-hole? There’s a great book out there that some may have heard of called: The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. This book dives into several different aspects of the game, including a chapter on how to optimize your lineup. I won’t go into great lengths explaining everything in this book, but it essentially places value on each spot in the lineup ranking them from the most important spots to the least important. According to “The Book”, the most important spot in the lineup is the leadoff spot, which essentially means that your best hitter should be hitting leadoff, not 3rd like so many want to believe. Now, what “best hitter” means is a bit flexible and there are some exceptions, for example you wouldn’t hit Jose Bautista or Miguel Cabrera leadoff as they’re far too valuable as run producers with their power. However, the main concept with this modern approach is that you want your best on-base percentage guys at the top of the lineup in front of your sluggers. Personally I think this makes perfect sense even if you’re a non-believer in sabermetrics. How is it logical to put a guy with a .317 OBP since the start of the 2013 season in the leadoff spot over the guy that has a .364 OBP in that same time frame? That’s what you’d be doing if you go with Bourn leadoff over Kipnis.
The only real downside to Kipnis in the leadoff spot is he does have some HR power and one could argue that you are wasting that at the top of the lineup. And sure, some of that HR pop of his will be wasted, but the walk-rate/high on-base percentage more than offsets that. Consider Rickey Henderson who is widely regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter to every play. He posted a career OBP of .401. No one complained when he was hitting 20 HRs out of the leadoff spot. A HR to leadoff off a game can get an offense going and who doesn’t like being up 1-0 right out of the gate? Looking at a more recent example, consider Shin-Soo Choo. He’s not your typical speed guy (maxed out at 22 steals) and he has more power than you typically expect to see from a leadoff hitter. However, ever since Acta moved him to the leadoff spot a couple years ago he has taken off and is now the best leadoff man in all of baseball. Kipnis is becoming that type of a hitter and, like Choo, can be a great leadoff hitter while also hitting some homeruns.
One thing I think everyone will agree on is that your leadoff man needs to be a table setter or “spark plug” (as Francona has said). Kipnis is that type of hitter way more than Bourn is at this point in their careers. Sure at one time Bourn was feared on the bases, but as mentioned above, with the stolen base total dropping along with this on-base percentage, not sure there are many teams that really worry about Bourn when he’s at the plate or on base. Francona needs to realize this and drop Bourn down in the lineup, much like he dropped Swisher here recently. Loyalty to a veteran should only go so far. Bourn now has over a full season of games under his belt with the Tribe and has shown that he is a rather poor leadoff man who struggles to get on base and isn’t a big threat on the bases in the rare occurrences he reaches base.
And lastly consider this: The Indians are 15-19 in games that Bourn has started in the leadoff spot (.441 win pct.) this season while averaging 4.47 runs per game; however, they were 8-4 in games that Nyjer Morgan started in the leadoff spot (.667) and averaged 5.17 runs per game. The Indians have scored 3 or fewer runs in 17 of the 34 games Bourn has started (50% of his starts), yet only did that in 4 of the 12 Morgan started (33%). Now before anyone goes crazy, NO, I’m not saying Morgan was “the” reason the team played better offensively. We’re talking about a very small sample size, not to mention the many other factors in those games other than who the leadoff man was. However, the fact is Morgan posted an on-base percentage over .400 out of the leadoff spot, whereas Bourn is barely over .320 this year (with a very favorable BABIP mind you). When your leadoff man gets on a lot it makes life easier for everyone behind him in the lineup. If the Tribe offense is going to find any kind of consistency this year, it needs to start at the top, and the top needs to start with Jason Kipnis.