The Oakland A’s get as creative as any team when it comes to the leadoff spot in their lineup.
Sure, sometimes there’s a traditional high-contact speedster atop the order, like Coco Crisp or Rajai Davis or Billy Burns. But just as often they use the table-setter position for pure OBP, like Jeremy Giambi or Matt Joyce or Nick Martini. It’s not even uncommon to see them stick their catcher there for various reasons, from Jason Kendall to Kurt Suzuki to John Jaso. Whatever works.
Entering 2021, the leadoff spot was up for grabs. Marcus Semien had held it down for a few seasons, but he was gone as a free agent. There was no shortage of quality hitters to choose from, just a question of who made the most sense.
To figure that out requires knowing what you’re looking for at the top of the lineup. First and foremost you’d like them to be a good hitter, because they will get more plate appearances than anybody else on the team. Next you’d like them to get on base to set up your other best hitters, and if possible it would be nice for them to see a lot of pitches along the way so that everybody can get an early look at the opposing hurler. Finally, some speed wouldn’t hurt, whether to cause havoc stealing bases or simply move well on hits from first to third and second to home.
That paragraph is basically a description of Mark Canha, which is who the A’s have gone with so far. He’s led off all 12 games this season, while moving around on defense between LF, CF, and DH. And he’s thriving.
Canha, 2021: .277/.393/.489, 154 wRC+, 2 HR, 12.5% BB, 19.6% Ks, .408 xwOBA
Forget small sample disclaimers. Canha has been mashing like this for years, including a 147 wRC+ in 500 plate appearances in 2019, so it’s in line with his norm. And with his strikeouts at a career-low so far, and a monster Statcast rating, there’s no reason to doubt anything he’s done. He was the Team MVP last season and he’s only gotten better the last two weeks.
He checks all the boxes. One of the best bats on the team, worthy of maximum plate appearances. Led the team in OBP each of the last two seasons, by a lot, so nobody will get on base more. Part of that OBP is a massive walk rate that’s become his signature, thanks to his ability to work long, patient at-bats and lay off any offering he doesn’t love — his 4.64 pitches per plate appearance are third-highest among all qualified MLB hitters so far, familiar territory after finishing sixth and eight the previous two summers.
That brings us to speed. This is where you might think Canha would come up short, because he mostly plays corner positions on defense and doesn’t rack up stolen bases like MLB leader Ramon Laureano, who currently has more swipes than almost every other team.
But Canha has always been sneaky fast. According to Statcast, he’s only a step behind Laureano, with the same top speed but Laureano can keep it up longer. Canha ranks above-average compared with the league’s wheels overall, and it’s more or less tied between him and Matt Chapman for second-fastest on the team. FanGraphs’ BSR metric rated Canha as the most valuable baserunner on the A’s in 2020.
So why not Canha? He’s got everything you could ever want in a leadoff hitter, no matter what your goal is there, and the early results have been spectacular with no reason to expect it to stop. Ramon would be a great choice too, but Canha has the better OBP skills and Laureano has enough power to easily slot into the second or third spot, where he’s still finding time for plenty of stolen bases.
Oakland’s pitching rotation is in the process of settling in and figuring out who will lead them, but on the other side of the ball Tom Ace is already firmly entrenching himself into the No. 1 spot in the batting order.