Timing in baseball is everything, it comes up again and again in different areas of the game. One area in which it is particularly important is the batting order, and which hitters come to the plate at various points in the game.
The effect of how the lineup is set has been well-documented, like here, here, and here, along with many other articles since then. But after the first inning or two, the order largely gets jumbled, and different players come to the plate at different points in the game with different leverages. With this in mind, which players have been the best this year at leading off an inning for their team(s)?
How to Quantify the Best Players to Start an Inning
To accomplish this, we’ll use Baseball-Reference’s Play Index (a great resource if you’ve never explored it), and check the splits of players leading off an inning for the 2016 season, ranking the players by Runs Created. Runs Created (RC) is an attempt to put a number value on all of the offensive skills a player brings to the table, translating into a run total. Frequently, this is used to extrapolate wins, but in this context, it should work fine.
The main caveat to RC, however, is that it is a counting statistic. This means, the more times you lead off an inning, the more likely you are to rank among the leaders. Because #1 hitters are guaranteed to lead off at least one inning, they disproportionately appear at the top of the list. To counteract this effect, we’ll look at RC per plate appearance, setting the minimum threshold for the season at 50 PAs. This is somewhat of an arbitrary threshold, but at this point in the season it generally represents at least 10% or more of a player’s total PAs.
After making these adjustments, the players that come out at the top are mostly ones that are great all-around hitters, ones that hit for both power and average. This should be of little surprise; if a player is able to lead off an inning with a double or triple, his team is expected to score between 1.1 and 1.35 runs that inning. Thus, to see names like Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, or David Ortiz near the top is to be expected, as they are some of the game’s best hitters.
Let’s break down the list that appears below:
The top five spots are occupied by J.D. Martinez, Christian Yelich, Carlos Beltran, Trea Turner, and Goldschmidt. These guys mostly all got to the top of the list by mixing doubles power with plate patience. As with all the other guys on the list, they likely hit the ball hard too when they put it in play, having BABIPs well-above average (in general, most of the guys on this list also appear on this Statcast list).
Young MLB Stars are All Over This List
Looking at interesting guys outside the top 5, Tyler Naquin makes a great case for more top of the lineup opportunities, as detailed back in March. Jose Altuve appears at #11, and he is having an all-around monster season that should definitely garner him AL MVP attention. In only 88 PAs to lead off the inning, Anthony Rizzo has hit 10 home runs and been hit by 4 pitches in addition to 9 walks, to bring himself to a 1.129 OPS. Rougned Odor punches the ball just as hard at the beginning of innings as he does Jose Bautista, with 10 doubles and 10 homeruns in 140 PAs.
The Best #1 Hitters are About the Best to Leadoff Innings Too
Toward the bottom of the list, a few of the game’s best leadoff hitters appear, such as Dexter Fowler, Jonathan Villar, and Charlie Blackmon. Villar and Blackmon in particular are unsung heros for their less-than-stellar teams. Villar has drawn 23 lead off walks in 185 PAs, which leads to a run being scored 38% of the time. Similarly, Blackmon has hit a lead off homeruns in 190 PAs (and it goes without saying that this leads to a run 100% of the time!).
Power Hitters are Surprisingly Good at Leading Off Innings
Lastly, it’s interesting that a few guys with great power, but big strikeout potential also show up toward the bottom. This includes guys like Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, Evan Gattis, Edwin Encarnacion, and Danny Valencia. The ability to hit a homerun to start the inning off on a good note is enough to propel lesser hitters into great players to lead off an inning! This strategy is less likely to work as their PAs increase, but it’s interesting to note.
Readers, what do you think? Were you surprised to see any of the names appear on the list above? Are there any names you feel should have appeared? What do you think is the key component to their success? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog. Don’t forget to subscribe to SaberBallBlog by clicking the green “Follow” button in the menu, and follow on Twitter for all of the latest updates on the MLB!