It's a great time for leadoff hitters around baseball -- except on the Mets

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest weaknesses of the 2013 Mets was their inability to find a suitable hitter at the top of the lineup.

All around baseball, leadoff hitters are getting better. And it's no secret that 2013 was, if not quite the very best, one of the better years for the leadoff hitter in recent memory.

As measured by OPS the first hitter (.719) was actually better than the rest of the lineup (.714) in 2013, an uncommon feat.* In fact, after fourteen straight seasons of inferior production, the leadoff spot has now surpassed league average OPS in five of the past seven years.

Now, it's probably prudent to point out that the hitters atop lineups themselves are likely not actually improving as much as teams are strategically placing better hitters in those spots. Trends point to fewer traditional base-stealers and more "on-base guys." But in any case, the fact remains that leadoff hitters around baseball are indeed getting better.

Except in Queens.

The Mets' leadoff situation in 2013 was dire to say the least.

  • At .293, Mets leadoff hitters posted the third-worst on-base percentage in all of baseball.
  • In comparison to the league average leadoff OPS of .719, Mets leadoff hitters posted a dismal .608 mark, good for 29th in all of baseball.
  • Of the four players with more than ten games at the leadoff position last season, Eric Young Jr. performed best at .255/.318/.346.** Yet Young's .664 OPS ranked 25th out of 26 hitters in baseball with at least 65 games batting first; Young ranked 23rd as measured by on-base percentage.

Obviously the situation was bad last season, and unfortunately it has not improved as the Mets approach 2014. Eric Young Jr. remains the likely de facto option as the club continues its search for a better choice. But what exactly should they be looking for?

It's no secret that on-base percentage is the thing. The virtues of a player who can consistently get on base before the most productive hitters in the lineup are pretty self-evident. As much as color guys continue to wax poetic about the Lou Brock Cardinals, lineups are no longer constructed that way. Speed did not stop being a valuable tool, it's just taken on a lesser position in the pecking order. Therefore, a guy like Young—whose sole distinguishing skill is his ability to steal bases—is not as strong an option as he once appeared.

Further, and sometimes overlooked, the leadoff hitter isn't just a table setter. This is the spot in the order that will inherently get as many appearances at the plate than any other position in the lineup. Therefore, apart from effectively getting on base, it stands to reason that a team would want one of its handful of better offensive options in that position for no other reason than to maximize his own opportunities to do damage.

Hell, the leadoff hitter is really only guaranteed to lead off once a game. While he's always going to appear before the meat of the order, making on-base skills critical, we mustn't forget that his spot can be very productive in its own right and will have myriad opportunities to do so. According to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, the number one spot in the order comes to bat an average of 4.8 times per game, while the number nine spot is almost one full plate appearance behind at 3.9.

Both of these factors—the ability to get on base and overall offensive potency—cause problems for the Mets as they're currently constructed.

Eric Young Jr., the hitter

Once again, Eric Young's overall quality as a hitter is not good, even by Mets standards. As an example, with runners in scoring position, the top spot for the Mets posted a lowly .602 OPS with one measly home run in 149 plate appearances in 2013. Driving in runs is hardly the central tenet of leading off, but that certainly isn't the kind of production that points to one of the club's best offensive options, which, to keep beating this horse, the leadoff hitter should be.

The Mets received a 9.5% worse result from the top of the order than the rest of their lineup in 2013, the worst mark in baseball.

With that in mind, one must question whether or not Terry Collins is maximizing his assets by deploying Young in such a critical position. In this case, a simplistic way to do so is to compare the production of the leadoff hitter to that of the rest of the lineup. For reference, the Reds, deploying Shin-Soo Choo as their primary leadoff hitter, received 23% better output as measured in OPS from the first spot than the rest of the lineup, the top mark in baseball. On the other side of that spectrum, the Mets received a 9.5% worse result from the top of the order than the rest of their lineup in 2013, the worst mark in baseball.

That is, the hitters who the team hand-selected to face the opposition most often—mostly Eric Young Jr.—were drastically worse than the rest of the options at hand. It's fair to play the "paucity of overall talent" card when discussing the lack of an effective leadoff hitter; but this result pretty clearly supports the idea that Collins was miscasting the talent he had.

Getting on base

The problem with measuring by OPS is that an otherwise useful leadoff hitter who can't hit for power might get overlooked. Take Norichika Aoki, who ranks 17th out of 26 qualified leadoff hitters in OPS yet jumps to fourth when measured by on-base percentage. The fact that he got on at a .367 clip makes him a good option regardless of any other factors. Unfortunately, Eric Young Jr. does not look any better in this light.

So the question is: Why would Collins and the rest of Mets management purposely send up a sub-par hitter so very often if he also cannot get on base, effectively handicapping themselves on a daily basis?

In a sign of the Mets' lack of offensive talent, despite his poor hitting skills, Young still represents one of the better on-base options that the Mets have at their disposal. Only four current Mets posted a better on-base percentage than Young's .318 mark in 2013 (minimum 250 plate appearances):

Player 2013 Plate Appearances
2013 OBP
Daniel Murphy
697
.319
David Wright
492
.390
Juan Lagares 421
.281
Eric Young
418
.318
Lucas Duda
384
.352
Ike Davis
377
.326
Chris Young
375
.280
Omar Quintanilla
359
.306

If we wanted to analyze further, Daniel Murphy isn't an obvious upgrade over Young. Ike Davis might be a better option, but his calling card is undoubtedly his power, which is better suited for the middle of the lineup. The same is true for the newly-acquired Curtis Granderson, who only reached 245 plate appearances in 2013 due to injury, though he posted a .317 OBP. He reached .319 in 684 plate appearances in 2012. David Wright most certainly is an upgrade, but his slugging and overall outstanding hitting ability would be wasted in the leadoff spot.

Heck, we could even mention Chris Young or Juan Lagares, both of whom have the tools—and in Young's case, the track record—to enter the discussion but also have enough ground to make up that both are long shots.

Duda/Satin, leadoff platoon?

Finally there's Lucas Duda, and as long as we're having this discussion let's include Josh Satin, who only had 226 plate appearances in 2013 but posted an outstanding .376 on-base percentage. Neither player fits the mold of the traditional leadoff hitter, but it's not really like the Mets possess that player (we miss you, Jose).

There's little question that the pair would certainly raise eyebrows at the top of a lineup. Purists wouldn't like it. Visiting broadcasters would marvel at the unorthodox duo's lack of any semblance of speed. Duda might become the largest player to receive regular leadoff at bats in a long time, maybe ever.

And yet, especially when evaluated as a package deal, it's hard to write off the Duda-Satin tandem. It's not unreasonable—heck, it's downright logical—to presume that they could outproduce Young or any other leadoff option currently on the Mets' roster based on their excellent on-base ability alone. Right off the bat, based on career numbers the Duda/Satin duo would be expected to make 28 fewer outs over the course of 600 plate appearances than Young . That's about 5% of a full season of plate appearances pulled directly out of the trash bin. Then there's the whole "drastically superior slugging" thing.

Critics would look at Duda and complain about a power hitter wasting his power at the front of the lineup, and in principle, they'd be correct. But let's be honest, aside from his size, what makes Lucas Duda a power hitter? Duda's career .424 slugging percentage is only marginally better than the league average of .401 since his rookie season. Of the previously mentioned pool of 26 qualified leadoff hitters, 15 of them sported a higher slugging percentage than did the big lefty in 2013.

Speed...

The one major loss in a move from Young to Duda/Satin is speed and a potential 50 stolen base swing. But is that as big a loss as it seems? For the sake of argument—and again, keeping this analysis relatively simplistic—let's consider that each of Eric Young's stolen bases transformed a single into a double, since that is effectively what happened when he ended up on second base. (Note: For consistency's sake that also means a steal of third base transforms a double into a triple, but also means a caught stealing erases a hit altogether.)

So once we convert Young's stolen bases into OPS terms, his on-base percentage drops from .318 down to .301—again, a result of the caught stealings—and his slugging percentage leaps from .329 up to .406. Total OPS moves from .647 to .707 as a result. Not bad.

Yet if we combined Duda and Satin's platoon splits from 2013, factoring in the small handful of stolen bases/caught stealings as we did for Young, we end up with an OPS around .820 and an on-base percentage of .370, quite a sizable gap even if those platoon splits are somewhat overstated due to some inevitable regression.***

But the idea of speed doesn't just mean stolen bases. I can just hear the broadcasters now, reviling the idea of big, lumbering Lucas Duda clogging the basepaths. And to be fair, the ability to take the extra base is a valuable skill, and so it's a valid concern. But like the stolen bases, just how concerned should we be?

Obviously taking the extra base is something that Eric Young Jr. can be expected to do; the opposite is true for Duda and Satin. And the results bear that out, with Young taking a relatively excellent 56% of extra bases as a Met in 2013 (league average was 40%). Duda and Satin both came in at 39%, surprisingly respectable but obviously far behind Young. And yet if you take the league average opportunities over the course of 600 plate appearances, the difference between 56% and 39% means nine extra bases, not nearly enough to compel a manager to opt for the lesser hitter atop the order.

...is a dangerous thing

In fact, let's just kill wound the whole paradigm of the speedy leadoff hitter right now. Much like the idea of power being maximized in the middle of the lineup conventional baseball wisdom preaches that premium speed is best utilized early in the order. But as we've discussed, on-base ability is generally accepted as the most valuable trait of an effective leadoff hitter. Thus if just being on base is the most important thing for a leadoff hitter then it's fundamentally counterintuitive to attempt to steal bases at all in front of the best hitters in the lineup.

if just being on base is the most important thing for a leadoff hitter then it's fundamentally counterintuitive to attempt to steal bases at all in front of the best hitters in the lineup.

Now if the guys who can get on base also happen to be able to steal bases at an effective clip, then so be it. But what of their speed if these guys cannot get on base effectively, a la Eric Young? Logically, it makes more sense to place those guys in the second half of the lineup, behind the run producers, where the opportunity cost of attempting a stolen base is far lower with lesser hitters on deck. Even old school baseballers know that you're not supposed to take the bat out of the hands of the best hitter, yet we never really stop to examine the underlying logic of that statement.

In fact, such a move is doubly sound thanks to the fact that fewer extra-base hits are generated lower in the order. This means that the marginal value of a stolen base increases with the knowledge that the baserunner is now more likely to score on a single. While still useful, that stolen base is decidedly less valuable when the subsequent hit is for extra bases as it is more likely to be earlier in the lineup.

Frankly, it isn't speed that makes the best leadoff hitters and it rarely has been—that's a secondary trait that has somehow taken over the premier billing in the collective mind of baseball. Granted, the idea of a stolen base providing more value at the start of an inning is undoubtedly true; but the leadoff hitter is only guaranteed to lead off one inning per game, so we should not continue to let the tail wag the dog in that regard.

Conclusion

While it may seem that I'm pushing hard for Lucas Duda, leadoff star the sad truth here is that the Mets don't really have a great option in front of them. Unless they make a surprise move before the 2014 season for a substantially superior player like Stephen Drew or Brett Gardner -- or even a marginal upgrade like Alejandro de Aza -- they're stuck with a number of flawed ones.

For all his patience Lucas Duda still batted .223 in 2013 and spent nearly a month of the season back in the minors. Josh Satin has less than half of one good major league season to his name -- and here's his OPS by month in 2013: 1.000, .811, .728, .629. Additionally, despite his flaws Eric Young still managed to post the highest RER**** among any player in baseball, let alone on the Mets, in 2013.

Again, all mediocre options -- but until they acquire more good hitters, the best the Mets can do is try to remain open to any and all ideas, not matter how unorthodox, to maximize the ones they've got.

-----------------------------------------------------------------

*Leadoff OPS has surpassed the league average OPS 32 times since 1916

**Collin Cowgill, Ruben Tejada, Jordany Valdespin, and Eric Young Jr.

***The notable omission here is that these platoon splits have not been regressed, mainly because as I've said I'm trying to stick to the kiss approach here. But as we know about any smaller sample sizes including platoon splits, regression to the mean will take place. This means that when hitters have less than a stabilizing amount of plate appearances (determined by handedness), we must estimate their platoon skill to be closer to league average than to their observed platoon performance. Therefore, both Duda and Satin's true talent levels are almost certainly not quite as good as their limited splits indicate. However, it's pretty apparent that even after some adjustment the Duda/Satin splits will still greatly surpass Young, even if not by as much as we initially thought.

****RER (Run Element Ratio) is a statistic devised in the 1988 Bill James Abstract that divides a player’s offensive talents into those that are valuable early in an inning, and those talents that are valuable late in an inning.

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