Anyone who's watched the team over the past seven years knows that Jose Reyes is the leadoff hitter for the Mets. Jose is considered a prototypical leadoff hitter by baseball fans and experts alike. He creates havoc on the basepaths with his combination of speed and hitting ability. But, as modern analytics have shown, leadoff shouldn't always and only be about speed.
More and more, the ability to get on base is a primary driver of hitting leadoff. And some interesting work by sabermetric giant Tom Tango suggests that the first spot in the order is one of the three positions in the lineup that should be filled by a team's best hitters. Now, on base is just one factor in making a critical lineup decision such as who should bat leadoff. Factors such as handedness, ego, manager's preference, ability to "handle the bat" and others come in to play.
If we were to wash away the preconception that Jose Reyes is the Mets' leadoff hitter, we can ask ourselves something important.
Should Jose Reyes be the Mets' leadoff hitter?
In the regular starting lineup, the Mets have a number of players who could, theoretically, hit first in the order. Most of them are not good choices as a leadoff hitter, for various reasons. We can eliminate a number of players right away.
David and Ike are great hitters, and get on base at a good clip. While they'd benefit from the additional plate appearances from hitting so early in the order, they provide too much power. These are the types of hitters who should be placed lower in the lineup, in order to drive in runs and make the most of the opportunities provided by the top of the order.
Carlos and Jason don't have the top-end speed that managers love for a leadoff hitter. And while they both get on base at a reasonable clip, neither is a lock to consistently stay in the lineup over a full season. When healthy, these players are run producers with power. But these are players with too many questions to be hitting atop the lineup, and are unsuited for the task anyways.
Both of these players project to offer a high on-base percentage. But neither player offers speed, and both are new to the majors. Josh and Brad are far from finished products, or sure things. One day, these may be the types of players that could lead off a major league lineup. As for right now, they're better suited to other slots.
That leaves the team with two worthwhile options...and these are exactly the options one might suspect. Those options are the incumbent, Jose Reyes, and someone who's filled in admirably in the leadoff spot from time to time: Angel Pagan.
Given the data available to us, which of the two is the best possible option? Let's break it down into component parts. The aspects that seem to be most important when selecting a leadoff hitter include the following: OBP (very important), overall hitting ability (important), speed (less important), and the dreaded "intangibles" (least important). Let's see how things break down.
When Sandy Alderson came on board as Mets GM, one of the first things that the fanbase heard was that Jose Reyes needed to improve his on base percentage to be a more effective leadoff hitter. Sporting a .321 OBP, Reyes could not be considered an elite leadoff man. The more a player gets on base, the more runs can be scored, and the more effective the lineup is. When considering Reyes's sub-par OBP, one could recognize a significant dip in walk rate from his past three seasons. If Reyes can raise his walk rate back near his career percentage (7%), as opposed to the 5% he sported in 2010, then he can raise his OBP and provide more of an offensive spark.
Angel Pagan, however, got on base 34% of the time last season. That's a 2% improvement over Jose Reyes, and as Jonah Keri will tell you, an Extra 2% can be a big improvement. Kidding aside, this is quite a bit better than Jose, but it is still not an elite percentage. Angel also strikes out more than Jose Reyes, and has a very similar career walk rate. So with these peripherals, how does Angel get on base more often? Well, Angel Pagan has a fairly high career BABIP (batting average on balls in play), a good .016 difference. Angel also has a substantially smaller sample size of MLB at bats to work with, so it is very possible that Angel could find his BABIP sliding a bit closer to league average. It is possible that this could lead to a small drop in overall OBP.
So in comparison, Pagan has a slight advantage in OBP, both historically and going forward. But this gap could become smaller in 2011, as Pagan could have worse luck with balls in play and Reyes could get closer to his usual walk rate. ut even if Reyes's OBP improves slightly and Pagan's decreases slightly, Angel Pagan still projects to have a slight edge in OBP between the two. Given the importance of OBP for a leadoff hitter, Angel may be the better leadoff option for the Mets in 2011.
You may not expect this, but Jose Reyes has been a better slugger recently than Angel Pagan. In 2010, Reyes had a higher slugging percentage, and he projects to have a better SLG than Angel in nearly all projection systems for 2011. Over their careers, the two have slugging percentages that are virtuall identical: .433. Each player has had seasons of increased power: Pagan in 2009, and Reyes in 2006 and 2008.
As far as overall hitting performance, there are several tools that can be used, but none are more simple and useful than wOBA. According to most projection systems, Jose Reyes has a higher projected wOBA for 2011 as well as a higher score over his career. And it is important to remember than both players are in their peak years, although Angel is two years older than Jose.
Overall, while Angel Pagan is slightly better at getting on base, Jose Reyes offers a little more power and may be a slightly better overall offensive player. Though the difference is not substantial (Reyes: career .340 wOBA / Pagan: career .337 wOBA), Jose Reyes may be a slightly better hitter, and would benefit from seeing a few more plate appearances over the course of a season.
While Jose stole less bases than Angel last year, and was caught stealing at a higher percentage, speed has always been Jose Reyes's stock in trade. Speed Score is a useful metric to measure an overall contribution on the basepaths, and Jose has an extremely strong career Spd of 8.5, as compared to Angel Pagan's 7.2. Even last year, in a down year, Jose managed 7.6 compared to 6.9. The statistics confirm what the eyes already tell us: that both Pagan and Reyes are tremendously fast, but that Reyes is a more elite speedster. If speed is a concern for a leadoff hitter, Reyes offers the most baserunning ability and speed of any option on the Mets.
The Mets have toyed with moving Jose out of the leadoff spot before, and its never stuck. If the Mets DO want to re-sign Jose this offseason, it probably is best not to tweak his nose. If Jose is uncomfortable moving out of the #1 spot in the lineup right now, and he thinks he is making a concerted effort to get on base with a higher frequency, then nothing positive (in terms of intangibles) will be gained from moving him out of the leadoff position. Only negative psychological effects would come of this, one would presume.
Meanwhile, Angel Pagan has been productive and relatively quiet in every position the Mets have thrust him into. I can assume that there would be no negative effect from moving him into the leadoff position, or conversely moving him down the batting order. With this in mind, sometimes it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, and the potential intangible negatives of moving Reyes down in the order mean that Reyes would probably be a better option in the leadoff spot.
While Angel Pagan offers a slight improvement in on-base percentage, every other factor seems to indicate that the Mets are better served leaving Jose Reyes in the leadoff spot. Sometimes it is nice to see that the conventional wisdom dovetails so nicely with the manager’s decisions on the field.
However, my biggest takeaway from this exercise is the remarkable similarity between these two hitters. Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan are almost identical in what they bring to the table as hitters. If for some unthinkable reason, Jose Reyes is not with this Mets franchise in mid-2011 or beyond, the team has a ready-made replacement for Jose ready to move into the leadoff position. Whether or not the team could find a better option than either Jose or Angel outside the organization is a matter subject to debate, but certainly the Mets have two similar players who could fit in the leadoff position.