Over the weekend, the Toronto Blue Jays decided they needed to change things up. They were in quite a slump, as Adam Piede wrote about on Friday, so they made an attempt to rejuvenate the lineup by placing slugger Jose Bautista in the leadoff spot. The team responded to the change by winning three of four against the Minnesota Twins, with Bautista reaching base multiple times in three of the four games and driving in six runs in the series. It’s only four games against the worst team in baseball, but the move worked.
The prototypical leadoff man is generally a fast guy who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of power and who almost always plays in the middle of the diamond. Quick and scrappy shortstops, second basemen, and center fielders are given nearly exclusive rights to the leadoff position.
Clearly Bautista does not fit this bill. He’s a standard middle-of-the-lineup hitter: tons of power and tons of RBIs. But he also gets on base. Since the start of 2014, Bautista is seventh in the major leagues in OBP, having walked more often than he has struck out. If getting on base and putting the ball in play are high priorities from the top guy in the order, maybe Bautista isn’t such an unusual choice after all.
This isn’t an isolated case, though. The Blue Jays are one of several teams to have employed an abnormal leadoff man this season. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins have all made their own unique decisions as well.
In Pittsburgh, John Jaso has been the leadoff man since Opening Day. Jaso plays first base, a position typically manned by slow-footed sluggers. Jaso fulfills the slow-footed portion, but he only comes out slightly above average in the power department. He doesn’t play in the middle of the diamond, and he doesn’t run quickly, but what Jaso does do is get on base. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has made a clear, conscious decision to re-evaluate what he wants out of the leadoff spot, electing an on-base machine to work at the top of the order, instead of someone who might be a more traditional selection, such as last year’s primary leadoff guys, Josh Harrison and Starling Marte.
Over in Cleveland, Terry Francona has made a similar decision to Hurdle’s, although Francona has yet to fully commit to the principal of on-base percentage over speed. In Cleveland, the leadoff spot has been shared thus far by Rajai Davis and Carlos Santana. Davis represents the old-school: he’s fast and he plays center field. Santana represents the new-school: he gets on and his manager doesn’t give a damn about the rest of what he does. Santana is second on the team in OBP (behind only three-spot hitter Francisco Lindor), while Davis ranks tied for fifth among Indians regulars. While correlation does not mean causation, the team is 11-5 with Santana leading off, while they’re 10-11 with Davis in the same spot. Santana’s ability to get on has led to victory far more often than Davis’ ability to get around the bases quickly.
Finally, the Twins have also tried mixing things up, even if it was only on a temporary basis, slotting Joe Mauer into the leadoff spot for an eight-game span. Coincidentally, the Twins pulled Mauer out of the leadoff position just as the Blue Jays came into town and tried out Bautista in the same place. Mauer had been near the top of the OBP leaderboards before moving to the leadoff spot, but he struggled mightily, losing over 50 points of OPS in the short span, prompting the team to drop him back down in the order.
It certainly can’t be called a trend yet, seeing as how the Pirates are the only team to regularly spurn the leadoff hitter archetype completely, but it is interesting to note. If things continue to go well for teams that prioritize on-base percentage over speed in the leadoff spot, we may see a revolution in lineup construction in the near future.