Fourteen seasons ago, Ichiro Suzuki took America and Major League Baseball by storm in his rookie season. He led the league in hits, stolen bases, and batting average and won the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. Ichiro batted .350, collected 242 hits, stole 56 bases, and struck out only 53 times. Basically, he was the prototypical pre-analytics leadoff hitter.
My, how things have changed.
Last season, Ben Revere led the National League with 184 hits, batted .306, and stole 49 bases, which, coincidentally enough, is the exact number of times he struck out. In another era, Revere would have been widely lauded as one of the great leadoff men of the game, right up there with an early 2000’s Juan Pierre. In 2015, however, we have fancy tools like oWAR and OPS+ to tell us that Revere is actually worth less than a league average player in terms of wins and runs added to his team.
Analytics have shown us that getting on base by any means necessary and hitting the ball hard more frequently rather than hitting 162 singles like Revere did last season is actually more valuable to a team’s success, even if it means sacrificing contact. The role of leadoff hitter is being redefined, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joc Pederson is the perfect player to carry the torch for the new breed of leadoff hitter.
In his first full season in the Major Leagues, Pederson has already struck out 63 times. But that’s okay with the Dodgers, because Pederson has also walked 34 times. For context, Revere walked a grand total of 13 times last season. Pederson is batting only .260, but thanks to his ability to draw a walk, has reached base at a .383 clip. Revere may have batted .306 last season, but his on base percentage fell nearly 60 points short of Pederson’s.
Enough about Ben Revere, though. Let’s get back to Ichiro, a player viewed by most as a future Hall of Famer. In Suzuki’s 2001 MVP season, he had an oWAR of 6.1. In only 52 games this season, Pederson has an oWAR of 2.3. On a per-game basis, Pederson has actually been more valuable than Suzuki was in an MVP season. Where Pederson derives his value is in his ability to hit the ball out of the park. Already this season, he has 16 home runs. In roughly a quarter of a season, he has doubled the eight homers Ichiro hit in 2001. Pederson has also already passed Suzuki’s walk total of 30 from that MVP season. To further illustrate how valuable Pederson has been to the Dodgers this season, he is slashing .288/.424/.631 in wins with 10 home runs. In losses, his slash line falls off spectacularly to .212/.307/.515. When Pederson hits, the Dodgers win.
Less a decade ago, a manager would have been seen as crazy for putting a strikeout-prone rookie like Pederson at the top of his batting order. Analytics, however, have helped us to see the bigger picture. Ichiro Suzuki is no more valuable than Joc Pederson in the leadoff role simply because he gets more singles and strikes out less. Both get the job done in different ways, and at the end of the day, a player’s true value comes from one thing: his ability to create runs. Balls leaving the park and landing in the gaps create runs. Groundballs up the middle, for the most part, do not. And if Pederson ever gets back to stealing bases like he did in the minors, watch out!
There are obviously still some flaws in Pederson’s game, and he slumped a bit in the month of May, striking out 37 times in 28 games. He probably needs to cut back on his strikeouts, but he did hit nine home runs in the month. Despite the kinks in his game to work out, Pederson should be entrenched at the top of the Dodgers’ batting order the rest of this season and beyond. The days of the contact-hitting base-stealer in the leadoff hole are numbered, and the Dodgers have themselves the perfect candidate for the next era of leadoff hitter in Joc Pederson.