The Oakland A’s are spending the beginning of the 2017 season trying things out and seeing what works. They’ve had a look at Raul Alcantara in the rotation, Adam Rosales in LF, and a closer by committee in the bullpen. They’ve also cycled through three different leadoff hitters in eight games.
The batting order is a bit overrated in its importance, but it’s still worth optimizing it to look for any edge possible. Here are some factors to consider when choosing your leadoff hitter, with a nod to the baseball research book called The Book:
- OBP is the most important trait ... He gets the most plate appearances of anyone on the team, he bats in front of the other best hitters, and he’s more likely to come up with the bases already empty because he hits behind the worst hitters.
- Power is unimportant ... Again, he tends to come up with the bases empty. He’s the table setter, not the slugger.
- Stolen bases are overrated ... He hits in front of your HR hitters, so why risk the out and the lost run? (Speed still a nice bonus though.)
- One of the best three hitters on the team ... Specifically, the one with the best OBP and the least power. Remember, he will lead your team in plate appearances.
So far, the A’s have used three different players — Rajai Davis, Marcus Semien, and Matt Joyce. Let’s take a look at each, plus a couple more potential candidates who might make sense. Of course, all of this can change based on who breaks out and who disappoints and which prospects emerge from the minors over the next couple months. Perhaps the answer will be Franklin Barreto by September!
He’s the classic ideal of a leadoff guy, but times have changed. Even if he gets back up to his .306 OBP from last year or his .314 career mark, that’s still not what you want in the top spot. The lineup should focus on reaching first base before thinking about how to steal second.
Compounding the issue is that Rajai is ice-cold to start the year, and looks every bit the part. But even if/when he returns to his normal form (that is, light-hitting instead of not-hitting), he makes more sense lower in the order.
Verdict: 7th-thru-9th ... Putting him in one of the 7-8-9 spots would give him fewer plate appearances with which to make outs. It would also maximize the value of his stolen bases because he’d be surrounded by weaker hitters more likely to rally via singles and doubles than homers.
If you want to go fully by The Book, then he should bat 6th, as the best steals guy who doesn’t deserve to hit higher. However, that presumes that the players behind him will all be singles hitters, and instead I think at least one of them will usually be a cheap-power guy like Phegley or Semien (so bat the steals guy behind the HR guy).
Rajai got the early nod, but Semien is leading off today (Wed.) for the fourth game in a row. This one is tough to call because it’s unclear exactly who he is as a hitter right now.
Semien’s first two years in Oakland resulted in a combined .305 OBP, which is even worse than Rajai’s. Plus, Semien has been a power hitter whose homers would be relatively wasted as merely solo shots.
But he’s been different so far this season. He’s already walked a team-leading six times, and he’s working deeper counts than ever before — he saw 4.05 pitches per PA in 2015-16, and he’s up to 4.58 this year. If he’s becoming more patient then perhaps he’s worth a look here after all. That’s especially true if the extra OBP ends up coming at the expense of some power.
Verdict: Distinct possibility ... The sustainability of all of this remains to be seen, which makes it impossible to pass judgment on Semien just yet. But if he has indeed added OBP to his game then he’s almost certainly one of the best three hitters on the team, and he’d make a lot of sense at the top of the order.
Joyce led off once, in the third game against the Angels. He passes the OBP test, in theory at least, with his .403 last year and a .341 career mark (which is pretty good for this A’s squad). But is he one of the three best hitters on the team, and demanding of the most plate appearances? That remains to be seen, and he’s off to a rocky start. Either way he might make more sense lower down, unless he 100% repeats last year’s breakout.
Verdict: Only if he’s an OBP monster again ... If he’s only at .340 then drop him down lower. Plus he’s got a bit of power, so maybe 5th or 9th depending on how the overall package turns out?
Bet you weren’t expecting this one! I sure wasn’t. But let’s think about it — he stopped hitting for power in favor of a higher average, and he was doing alright with it last year until he hurt his foot and completely tanked his numbers. As late as mid-June he was batting over .300 with a .350 OBP, and he’s off to a good start this year. He also leads the team in pitches per plate appearance, just ahead of Joyce by a noodle.
However, if I hesitated on Joyce for not being one of the best three hitters, then the same goes for Jed — and there’s less of a chance that Lowrie surprises us with a big breakout year. But he probably makes more sense than a lot of us realize, or would have guessed a month ago.
Verdict: 8th/9th ... He’d be best toward the bottom of the lineup trying to drive in Rajai after the latter notches a single-and-steal.
He’s supposed to be an OBP guy, even though he wasn’t last year. But, like with Semien, it’s tough to know what comes next for Alonso.
You see, against all odds, he’s currently the second-best hitter on the team after Khris Davis. He’s dropping some hits, including extra-bases, and he’s drawing walks. What’s more, this all comes after a massive spring performance, on the tail of a notably revamped swing and approach. There actually could be something to this.
Verdict: Distinct possibility ... If this new Alonso is for real — and let’s make completely clear that he might not be — then he could be the prime candidate. Even if he adds some power due to his new flyball approach, he still seems unlikely to become a true slugger. But if he gets on base like he’s capable of doing, then he’s got a chance to lead the team in the OBP department while also being one of the best all-around bats. Wouldn’t that be a twist.
Bonus: Jaff Decker
Since Decker can opt out on May 1, he seems like a good bet to show up in Oakland before then. His main strength, other than the ability to play CF, is that he can get on base. If he brings that skill with him to MLB then he could be a candidate for that reason, but more in the Joyce/Lowrie mold of “acceptable but not necessarily perfect.”
For now, though, Decker is still in Triple-A. That means Semien, Alonso, and Joyce are probably the best leadoff options at the moment, and I’d like to see Joyce get hot before giving him a serious chance there. That leaves Semien or Alonso, and whichever one turns his hot early OBP into a legit season.
Factor in Semien’s speed as a tiebreaker, plus the fact that he’s already got the job in real life and is doing reasonably well with it, and staying the course with Semien at the head of the attack is as good a bet as any.
What do you think of those options? Who should be the leadoff hitter right now, and who do you think might make sense two months from now?