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The Oakland A’s New Leadoff Threat

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Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers
Nick Martini has been among baseball’s best leadoff hitters in 2018.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It appears the Oakland A’s have found their leadoff hitter. A little more than a month ago I opined that the A’s were in need of a change at the top of the lineup - a sentiment many in Athletics nation shared. My answer then was Matt Chapman. My answer now is one the A’s seemingly agree with: outfielder Nick Martini.

However, just as Yoda famously revealed in The Empire Strikes Back, there is another. Versus right-handed pitcher Nick Martini has leadoff duty well covered. Against southpaws, though, I think it’s time Ramon Laureano is given a shot.

Leading Off Doesn’t Shake Martini

First, Marcus Semien deserves some credit. In 142 PAs since I suggested Semien be removed from the top of the lineup he responded with a .275/.331/.420 triple-slash line and 106 wRC+. Thanks to some positive regression in the BABIP department Semien now more closely resembles the hitter he has always been with Oakland, which is a league-average one.

As Marcus Semien’s BABIP has increased so has his production.
Fangraphs.com

Martini, however, has done an excellent job setting the table for the rest of the lineup, and has even been at the center of some of Oakland’s biggest moments this season. As a leadoff hitter Martini’s .387 on-base percentage is 7th-best in baseball among hitters with at least 90 PAs batting first.. He has been better than Shin-Soo Choo, Adam Eaton, ben Zobrist, Lorenzo Cain, Francisco Lindor, and the list goes on. By wRC+ Martini is 15th, due to his relatively low .418 slugging percentage.

Martini has been a leadoff threat largely due to his strong plate discipline. He is above average in terms of chase rate and swinging-strike rate. His swing rate is low, but his contact rate is high, especially on pitches outside of the zone.

Martini’s Plate Discipline: 2018

Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2018 Nick Martini 25.4 % 55.1 % 38.4 % 71.6 % 91.1 % 83.8 % 43.6 % 58.0 % 6.2 %
2018 MLB Average 30.8 % 67.3 % 46.5 % 63.1 % 85.7 % 77.2 % 43.1 % 60.6 % 10.6 %
Fangraphs.com

Lastly Martini’s 4.24 pitches/PA are 7th most in baseball among hitters with at least 100 total PAs. Martini patience isn’t simply derived from his ability to take pitches, but also his selectivity. This is a hitter who plays to his strengths, which isn’t necessarily strength. He might not be a power hitter, but he rarely pops up and hits plenty of line drives to all fields. With well-above-average BB/K numbers Martini’s success atop the lineup seems totally legitimate.

His one weakness is that he is likely best used in a platoon, facing only righties. Which is okay, because that’s where Laureano can easily step in.

Is Laureano Part of the Equation?

It was initially, and I think wrongly, assumed that Laureano’s value would come primarily from his defense. Don’t get me wrong, his defense is elite and has produced what may be the top-2 plays in MLB this season. Offensively, however, he possess the tools to be a special threat.

As a minor leaguer Laureano showed much offensive promise as a power-speed threat with the ability to draw walks. In four of his six minor league stops he posted double-digit walk rates as well as wRC+ marks ranging from 114 to 184. Thrice he posted ISO marks of .200 or higher. It was a down year at double-A in 2017 that led to his landing with the A’s organization. He has only thrived with both the Nashville Sounds and Oakland A’s. Laureano has really shined in last week, demonstrating the ability to reach base at a high clip.

In Laureano’s first several games a high AVG/SLG combo led to above-average results, but he didn’t take a walk in his first 36 PAs and he struck out 36% of the time. Since then his plate discipline has stood out as a strength. In his 28 PAs since August 22nd Laureano was walked 5 times and struck out just 6 times. He has 7 hits, including 3 doubles and a home run.

Laureano’s plate discipline has been a driving factor in his success so far in 2018.
Fangraphs.com

In that same period of time Laureano has increased is contact rate, especially on pitches outside of the zone, and he’s decreased his chase rate significantly.

Laureano’s Plate Discipline: 2018

Dates O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Dates O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
All of 2018 28.1 % 61.7 % 42.7 % 35.9 % 83.3 % 65.7 % 43.5 % 59.4 % 14.6 %
Since 8/22 19.1 % 59.2 % 35.9 % 46.2 % 79.3 % 69.1 % 41.9 % 57.1 % 11.1 %
2018 MLB Average 30.8 % 67.3 % 46.5 % 63.1 % 85.7 % 77.2 % 43.1 % 60.6 % 10.6 %
Fangraphs.com

Laureano has held his own against righties, but it is against lefties that he’s really excelled.

Laureano’s Splits: 2018

Handedness BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
Handedness BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
vs L 12.5 % 29.2 % 0.43 0.333 0.417 0.429 0.845 0.095 0.500 0.373 140
vs R 5.0 % 30.0 % 0.17 0.289 0.325 0.553 0.878 0.263 0.348 0.372 139
Fangraphs.com

Lastly, Laureano isn’t the fastest guy on the field, but he is among the fastest. By Statcast’s sprint speed Laureano’s 28.9 ft/second is 44th quickest in baseball among runners with at least 25 opportunities. He is also 4-for-4 on stolen base attempts this season and has a 5.5 Spd score.

Conclusion

Each hitter comes with the small-sample caveat, I’ll admit. Most of all with Laureano. However there is no denying that the tools match up with the results for both Martini and Laureano.

For a while early in 2018 the A’s were badly in need of a jolt from the leadoff spot and now they have it in the form of two outfielders.