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Mets season preview: Who should hit leadoff?

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Juan Lagares is the frontrunner to lead off, but the Mets have other options.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

For nearly a decade, the Mets had a player that they could pencil into the leadoff spot without thinking twice. Since Jose Reyes’s departure, though, the team’s leadoff position atop the lineup has remained in flux. Over the last three years, the Mets auditioned a number of players—Andres Torres, Ruben Tejada, and Eric Young Jr., among others—for the role, but none provided the on-base skills that would make for an ideal candidate.

The Mets now find themselves in a familiar situation. While their lineup has generally taken shape, they don’t have a hitter they're comfortable in putting in the leadoff spot. The plausible options at this point are Juan Lagares, Curtis Granderson, and Daniel Murphy. The rest of the lineup is more or less set. So let's run through each of the options.

Juan Lagares

Lagares is the current frontrunner, perhaps with good reason. He showed tremendous improvement as a hitter from 2013 to 2014. In just one year, Lagares’s batting average and on-base percentage jumped by nearly 40 points each, and his slugging percentage by 30. Overall, he saw a nearly 33% improvement in his wRC+, from a paltry 76 in 2013 to a league-average 101 in 2014.

2013 121 421 .242 .281 .352 76 4 34 35 6
2014 116 452 .281 .321 .382 101 4 47 46 13

While always considered a glove-first player, Lagares was no slouch with the bat in the minors. Below are his minor league numbers for the three years that preceded his major league call-up. They’re surprisingly good. At every advanced minor league level, Lagares showed an offensive ability, for which he probably doesn’t get enough credit, and an ability to adjust to the tougher pitching that he faced at each level.

2011 St. Lucie (A+) 82 335 .338 .380 .494 142 7 49 51 5
2011 Binghamton (AA) 38 170 .370 .391 .512 149 2 22 21 10
2012 Binghamton (AA) 130 547 .283 .334 .389 100 4 48 69 21
2013 Las Vegas (AAA) 17 82 .346 .378 .551 145 3 9 13 2

Lagares added another dimension to his game late last year. After stealing just three bases and getting caught three times from Opening Day through July, Lagares then swiped an impressive 10 bags while getting caught just once in August and September.

Period G SB CS SB%
March-July 69 3 3 50%
August-September 43 10 1 91%

Among the three leadoff candidates, Lagares has by far the most raw foot speed. It’s encouraging that he might have learned to harness it. Last year, he had the most weighted stolen base runs (wSB), the highest Fangraphs speed score (Spd), and the highest extra base taken percentage (XBT%) of the three players.

Player wSB Spd XBT% SB CS SB%
Lagares 0.7 5.5 53% 13 4 76%
Granderson 0.2 4.0 39% 8 2 80%
Murphy 0.1 4.7 52% 13 5 72%

For what it’s worth, he was also the best hitter from the leadoff spot:

Lagares 37 172 .276 .329 .365 101 0 10 17 9
Granderson 52 235 .210 .289 .348 86 7 15 26 3
Murphy 1 6 .200 .333 .200 69 0 0 1 0

In short, Lagares has a strong minor league offensive track record. In the majors, he showed a dramatic improvement from his freshman to his sophomore campaign. Plus, while he’ll never be Jose Reyes, he developed into a legitimate stolen-base threat late in the season. If he continues his development with the bat and on the basepaths, he could become a very serviceable leadoff hitter.

Judging by past performance alone, however, Lagares is probably the weakest of the three options. Lagares had the lowest on-base percentage and swung at the highest rate of pitches outside the strike zone of the three players in each of the last two years. He also had the lowest walk percentage in 2014, and only Murphy’s was lower in 2013. This isn’t the type of approach you want from your leadoff hitter.

Player OBP BB% K% O-Swing%
Lagares .321 4.4% 19.2% 33.7%
Granderson .326 12.1% 21.6% 26.7%
Murphy .332 6.1% 13.4% 32.5%

This year, ZiPS projects Lagares to regress rather than to take the next step in his development. Among the three leadoff options, the projection system is by far the most bearish on Lagares.

Lagares 542 .264 .305 .370 90 6 55 58 13
Granderson 521 .231 .319 .424 109 21 60 71 9
Murphy 643 .286 .323 .404 105 10 70 84 13

Moreover, while he has good raw foot speed, Lagares hasn’t been a very good baserunner overall. His UBR was the lowest of the three players’ in 2014 and the second lowest in 2013. His BsR was the lowest in both years. Baserunning is about more than just stealing bases, and in order to be an effective table setter, it’s an area in which Lagares will need to improve.

Player UBR BsR
Lagares 0.1 0.8
Granderson 0.7 0.9
Murphy 3.6 3.7

Last year, Lagares was one of the best defenders in all of baseball and a league-average hitter. That’s an extremely valuable asset to have. But if 2014 was his ceiling as a hitter, he’s probably better suited to hit eighth than leadoff.

Curtis Granderson

In each of the last two years, Granderson outperformed Lagares in nearly every metric relevant to a leadoff hitter. Granderson’s OBP and BB% were higher, and his O-Swing% was lower. According to the two catchall baserunning statistics—UBR and BsR—Granderson was better at that, too.

In addition to being the most disciplined hitter of the three leadoff candidates, Granderson is also the most established. Granderson’s career OBP and wRC+ are better than Lagares’s and Murphy’s, as are his numbers from the leadoff spot.

Lagares 44 202 .265 .315 .357 94 0 11 20 11
Granderson 619 2541 .265 .339 .472 112 99 284 435 60
Murphy 12 55 .229 .296 .333 77 1 4 8 0

Despite his 20 home runs in 2014, Granderson wasn’t much of a power hitter, evidenced by his .388 SLG. If that’s the hitter he is going forward, Granderson could provide the occasional leadoff home run without producing the kind of power that would be wasted in the leadoff spot.

Over the last two years, Granderson was not a middle-of-the-order power threat. He was, however, a bigger on-base threat and a better baserunner than was Lagares. If that continues into 2015, Granderson would clearly be the better option to lead off for the Mets.

On the other hand, while Lagares is improving and Murphy is probably nearing his peak, Granderson is in his decline phase. Granderson’s batting average has declined in each of the last four seasons, reaching a career low of .227 last year. His slugging percentage has followed the same downward trajectory and dipped to just .388 in his debut season in Flushing. While his .326 OBP was up from where it was in 2012 and 2013, it was still well below his career norm and not a good mark for a leadoff hitter. Speaking of numbers as a leadoff hitter, Granderson’s—.210/.289/.348, 86 wRC+—were not very good last year.

Granderson also seems to have lost his foot speed. In 2014, among the three leadoff candidates, he posted the lowest Spd and XBT%, and a wSB that was only slightly better than Murphy’s.

Overall, Granderson’s offensive skills are trending downward. If Lagares and Murphy continue to develop as he continues to decline, Granderson would probably be the worst option to lead off. Moreover, should he regain some of his power and approach his career .477 SLG, that power shouldn’t be wasted in the leadoff spot, but rather used in the two-through-six holes to drive in runs.

Daniel Murphy

There’s an interesting case to be made for Murphy leading off. He posted a higher batting average and OBP than did Lagares and Granderson in each of the last two years. He is also a surprisingly good baserunner. In both 2013 and 2014, Murphy’s UBR and BsR were by far the best among this group. He also had the best XBT% in 2013, and the second-best in 2014, behind Lagares by just one percentage point.

Murphy’s power profile over the last two years wasn’t much different than Lagares’s or Granderson’s. The only difference was that Murphy got on base more, put more balls in play, and was a better baserunner. While his offensive skill set is probably better suited for the two hole, Murphy might be the Mets’ best leadoff option if Lagares and Granderson don’t substantially improve.

But Murphy is not a patient hitter—evidenced by his less-than-stellar BB% and O-Swing%—and his approach is less suited to the leadoff spot than is Granderson’s. He also lacks great foot speed, as his wSB ranked last among the three players’ last year, while his Spd was in the middle of the pack. In an admittedly small sample size, Murphy’s career numbers from the leadoff spot—.229/.296/.333, 77 wRC+—are not good.

Finally, in each of the last two years, Murphy actually had the best power numbers of the three leadoff candidates. The second baseman has been a doubles machine, posting at least 37 doubles and a .403 slugging percentage in both years. Perhaps that doubles power would be better suited for the two hole in order to drive in the leadoff hitter and put himself in scoring position for the bigger bats. If either Lagares or Granderson can improve on their performance from last year, it would probably make more sense to hit either of them leadoff, with Murphy batting second.

Wild Cards

Should any of the Mets’ outfielders miss time in 2015, the team has two intriguing backup options: Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker. Both players opened some eyes last year and could fit in the leadoff spot.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis: Nieuwenhuis took a big step forward offensively last year. While his contact rate remained low and his strikeout rate high, his OBP and BB% were both higher than Lagares’s, Granderson’s, and Murphy’s. Nieuwenhuis also had a higher Spd than did any of those players, and was tied with Lagares for the highest wSB. His strong power numbers would probably make him better suited for a lower spot in the order, but his improving on-base skills and speed could make him a viable candidate to lead off.

Matt den Dekker: After struggling early on last year, den Dekker really turned things around in the second half. In his final 125 plate appearances of 2014, the outfielder got on base at a .392 clip and hit .290 with 19 runs scored, nine doubles, and five stolen bases. Most encouragingly, den Dekker posted a higher walk rate and a lower strikeout rate at both the major and minor league levels than he had at any point in his minor league career. Like Nieuwenhuis, den Dekker raked at every minor league level, and it would be interesting to see what he could do with a more extended look in the majors.

First half 17 49 .156 .224 .200 25 0 1 4 2
Second half 35 125 .290 .392 .374 127 0 6 19 5

Final Thoughts

The Mets don’t have an ideal candidate to lead off. Neither Lagares, Granderson, nor Murphy has been particularly good at getting on base over the last couple of years. Aside from Lagares’s final two months of 2014, neither have any of them been the threat on the basepaths that Jose Reyes was and is.

A lot will depend on Lagares’s ability to continue improving as a hitter. He will likely get the first shot to lead off and, if he builds on what he did in 2014, could become the long-term solution. Granderson seems to be the team’s fallback option. In a perfect world, Lagares thrives and Granderson reestablishes himself as a middle-of-the-order bat. However, if Granderson improves his contact rate and gets some more base hits, he could be a fine option to lead off if Lagares falters. If all else fails, the Mets have a dark horse leadoff candidate in Daniel Murphy. Over the last two years, Murphy has been the best hitter and, surprisingly, the best baserunner of the three players.

Some will argue that too much attention is paid to lineup construction. And it’s true that in the grand scheme of things, it won’t make much difference if a player hits first or second in the order. But over 162 games, the difference between hitting first, sixth, or eighth does make a difference, in terms of both the number of plate appearances the player gets and the type of hitters hitting around him. In Lagares, Granderson, and Murphy, the Mets have three players who the team has considered hitting in several different spots throughout the lineup. Here’s hoping that one of them—or perhaps one of the wild cards—can establish himself in the role that the Mets have struggled to fill for the last three years.