How Today's MLB Leadoff Hitters Have Evolved Dramatically

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How Today's MLB Leadoff Hitters Have Evolved Dramatically
Al Bello/Getty Images
The Yankees' Brett Gardner is a pretty good example of a modern leadoff man.

Leadoff hitters have an important job. More so than players who occupy any other lineup spot, the guys batting No. 1 must get on, get over and get in.

Leadoff men have never had and still don't have an abundance of control over the "get in" part, but for the longest time they went about the "get on" and "get over" parts a certain way. Leadoff hitters were cut from a certain mold and stuck to a certain protocol.

Now they're cut from a different sort of mold, and they also follow a different sort of protocol. As most species are wont to do sooner or later, leadoff men have evolved.

I'm no expert on evolution, but my understanding is that it's a process that makes sure the vital traits survive while stripping away the less vital traits and replacing them with superior traits. That's probably oversimplifying it, but I'm going to roll with it as a springboard anyway because this is my article, darn it.

First up in this chit-chat is the survival of vital traits. In the case of leadoff men, that pertains to the first of the three primary functions they're meant to abide by: getting on.

This is an area where leadoff men haven't changed that much over the last couple decades. I used Baseball-Reference.com to look up league splits for No. 1 batters since 1980 and found that there's been plenty of fluctuation in their accumulated batting averages and on-base percentages, but no trend in one direction or the other:

Here you've got peaks and valleys all over the place, but the trend lines are both almost exactly level. Today's leadoff hitters aren't drastically better or worse at hitting for average or getting on base than leadoff hitters from a couple decades ago. 

And no, things don't look all that different if we narrow the focus to the numbers produced by the top leadoff men each year.

If we take a look at the average BAs and OBPs of the guys who made at least 450 plate appearances in the leadoff spot each year—350 for 1994 and 300 for 1981 since those were strike years—we get pretty much the same thing.

There's a slightly more notable rise in the trend line for batting average here, but it's minuscule. And if the thought crossed your mind that it's odd that a slight increase in OBP didn't accompany that slight increase in batting average, well, there's a reason for that.

Leadoff guys aren't drawing more walks than they used to. And recently, they've been striking out at an increasing rate, which isn't the least bit surprising given the fact that all hitters are striking out more these days.

Here's a look at the league splits.

This, however, is not the worst thing in the world.

Today's hitters may be whiffing more, but one trade-off is that they've become more consistent at finding the holes in the defense. BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) can vouch.

There's also the reality that strikeouts aren't as terrible as old-timey hitters believed them to be. It's obviously impossible to come up with a productive out on a strikeout, but generally they're no different from a ground ball to short or a pop-up to center. They're all just outs.

Also, strikeouts are hardly the worst possible outcome for leadoff hitters. A good leadoff hitter makes a pitcher work, and a battle that ends in a strikeout can be just as taxing for a pitcher as a battle that ends in a walk.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Pittsburgh's Starling Marte has struck out in roughly 23 percent of his plate appearances in 2013, yet he's still been a productive leadoff hitter.

As such, neither the slight downward trend in walks nor the upward trend in strikeouts among leadoff men is very damaging. Their capacity for getting on base hasn't gotten worse, and the rise in strikeouts has allowed leadoff hitters to remain pesky in their own way.

As for the weeding out of nonessential traits, there's one thing that leadoff hitters don't do quite as well as they used to: steal bases.

Going back to the league splits, here's a look at the number of stolen bases produced from the leadoff spot over the years—excluding the strike years and 2013, which is obviously still very much in progress.

It's worth noting that the league expanded in 1993 and expanded again in 1998. There are more leadoff men in the league now than there were in the 1980s and early portion of the 1990s. That makes this trend even more remarkable, as more leadoff men are stealing fewer bases.

The leadoff spot is still the best spot in the lineup for stolen bases, mind you. Just not to the degree that it once was.

In 1980, a total of 1,187 steals came from the leadoff spot. That was over 200 more than the No. 2 and No. 3 spots produced combined.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Mike Trout was one of only two primary leadoff men to steal over 40 bases in 2012. In 1980, nine leadoff men topped 40 steals.

By comparison, the 2012 season saw the leadoff spot produce 815 stolen bases. The No. 2 spot produced 585, and the No. 3 spot produced 404. Combined, those two spots produced 174 more steals than the leadoff spot.

But again, we're talking about a nonessential trait being stripped away. In this case, we can tell it's a nonessential trait by looking at the total bases produced out of the leadoff spot over the years—again excluding the strike years and 2013.

Lest you think that trend line has everything to do with expansion and nothing to do with the hitters themselves, an upward trend also shows up among the top leadoff hitters.

It seems odd when you consider the decline in stolen bases out of the leadoff spot noted above, but there are other ways for hitters to make their way around the bases besides getting to first and then showing off the wheels. 

Indeed, it's a lot easier to just start things off with an extra-base hit. Today's leadoff guys are much, much better at doing that than the leadoff guys of yesteryear.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Here's where I bust out Isolated Power (ISO), which is basically slugging percentage that only focuses on extra-base hits (no singles allowed). It has some tricky calculations, but FanGraphs notes that it can be easily calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage.

Since I like easy, that's what I did to come up with this graph that shows the ISO produced by the leadoff spot over the years:

You'll notice a gigantic spike in 1987, and my advice to you is to just ignore it. Inexplicably, that was a huge year for offense. Unless you buy into the theory that the ball was juiced, of course, in which case the offensive explosion is quite explicable.

The '87 season aside, leadoff hitters are clearly hitting for more power than they used to. That's a big reason why stolen bases have gone out of style for leadoff hitters, and an equally big reason why total bases have not.

But as you've probably noticed, it's not like leadoff hitters have morphed into power-hitting brutes. Stolen bases may be down among the leadoff breed, but you can still find plenty of players with power and speed hitting out of the leadoff spot.

A lot more than you used to be able to find, in fact.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Jimmy Rollins carved out a nice living for himself as a power/speed leadoff man for the Phillies.

I used Baseball-Reference.com to draw up a list of players in the Integration Era, 1947 to now, who A) logged at least 450 plate appearances in the leadoff spot, B) hit at least 15 home runs and C) stole at least 15 bases.

Here's how many times it happened in each decade.

  • 1947-1949: 1
  • 1950-1959: 0
  • 1960-1969: 2
  • 1970-1979: 13
  • 1980-1989: 10
  • 1990-1999: 27
  • 2000-2012: 41

Bobby Bonds was responsible for four of the 15/15 seasons that occurred in the 1970s, or 31 percent of them. Rickey Henderson took care of three (30 percent) of the 15/15 seasons in the 1980s, and Barry Bonds took care of two (20 percent).

But ever since then, the action has been more spread around. In the 1990s, no primary leadoff guy racked up more than four 15/15 seasons, meaning nobody was responsible for more than 15 percent of the 27 15/15 seasons that took place.

Since 2000, only Jimmy Rollins has racked up as many as five 15/15 seasons, and that's only 12 percent of the 41 seasons that have taken place. In all, those 41 seasons were produced by 18 different leadoff men.

There's going to be more added to the pile this season. None of the primary leadoff men have reached double digits in home runs and stolen bases yet, but Shin-Soo Choo, Brett Gardner, Starling Marte, Alejandro De Aza, Coco Crisp and Desmond Jennings are all locks to do so by the end of the year. A couple of them should be able to get to 15 and 15.

Don't be surprised if and when it happens. Leadoff men are like that now.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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