Despite scoring more runs than any team in the National League in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds ranked just 13th in on-base percentage (OBP) out of the #1 spot in the batting order. Reds leadoff hitters got on base in front of Joey Votto and Scott Rolen at a very low .306 clip.
The average National League OBP out of the #1 spot was .328 last year. Arizona led the league with a .368 OBP, while Washington posted the worst leadoff OBP at .300 even. Of the primary Reds leadoff hitters last year, only Drew Stubbs OBP came close to league average. Brandon Phillips OBP was a poor .302 from the leadoff position, though he did have a .332 OBP overall for the season.
Looking at total runs scored by team compared to their leadoff hitter’s on-base percentage, we see that leadoff position OBP alone is not directly correlated to runs scored. Arizona, for example, was about league average offensively, while Cincinnati finished the year with the most runs scored. However, most projections expect that the Reds run production will regress this season, and the leadoff spot seems to be the most obvious area that the club can improve with internal options.
ZiPS projections shown here in February estimate that the Reds would score 18 fewer runs this year than they did in 2010. All other things being equal, that is approximately equivalent to a loss of two wins. One way to counterbalance that expected loss in production would be to optimize run scoring opportunities with more runners on base in front of Votto, Rolen, and Jay Bruce.
Looking around Major League Baseball in 2010, there were 26 players with at least 300 plate appearances in the leadoff spot.
— The top 10 players ranged from .370-.341
— The next 11-22 were grouped tightly together from .330-.340
— 4 players were worse than .330
I used the baseballmusings.com lineup analysis tool to estimate the impact that better leadoff production could have provided the Reds 2010 lineup.
–At the league average OBP (.328), the Reds could have scored 11 more runs
–A .340 OBP would gain approximately 17 more runs, making up the ZiPS projected loss in runs scored
–A .360 OBP is estimated to gain as many as 27 runs
Which individual players on the Reds would best fill that role and improve upon the production out of the leadoff spot?
The allure of putting Drew Stubbs in the leadoff spot is not just his speed, but that he has shown the ability to get on base at the minor league (and upper minor league) level. His career minor league on-base percentage is .364 in 1847 plate appearances, including a .353 OBP in 556 PA’s at Louisville. If Stubbs could meet or exceed a .350 OBP clip in the majors, he would easily be one of the top leadoff players in baseball this year. Stubbs is an interesting case, in that he showed high OBP in the minors with very little power (just 28 homeruns) but has already hit more major league homeruns (30) in less than 700 at-bats. If the Reds were to go with an everyday/non-platoon player in the leadoff spot, Stubbs would be the best option for that role.
Brandon Phillips OBP in a limited role batting leadoff last year was .302. This ranked Phillips OBP as 26th on the list of 26 above. There is room to suggest Phillips could match league average on-base production in the leadoff spot, but not much evidence to suggest that he would be much better than that. Phillips has a .326 OBP in a Cincinnati uniform (3229 plate appearances.)
Fred Lewis is on the above list of 26 players at #16 with a .337 leadoff OBP in 2010. His overall OBP last year was .332, which was a career low. In his previous 2 years with the Giants, Lewis got on-base at a .348 and .351 clip. In 2671 minor league plate appearances, Lewis compiled a .383 OBP. One problem with suggesting Lewis be the leadoff hitter is Dusty Baker’s comments that Lewis has to “make the team first”, effectively throwing a wet towel on the idea of a LF platoon with Jonny Gomes.
I’m not really sure I understand the appeal for batting Jay Bruce leadoff, but it has been talked about and even attempted in spring training this year. Bruce did post his first major league OBP north of .314 last year, but I don’t see how you waste that power production in the leadoff role. If anything, he should move up a spot to bat 4th behind Votto. Plus, Bruce isn’t creating much HAVOC by getting caught stealing 13 times in 25 career attempts.
Dave Sappelt is having a great camp, but the odds of him making the team and cracking the starting lineup are pretty slim, at least early in the season. He hits enough, but needs to work on his baserunning and base stealing. I could see Sappelt playing himself into a starting role by the start of the 2012 season.
Chris Heisey has a .367 minor league OBP in 2019 plate appearances, but he suffers from depth chart syndrome as much or more than Fred Lewis. His OBP at Louisville (.319) and Cincinnati (.324) has not yet matched what he had done at AA and lower, but he has been much more proficient at swiping bases (85% of his 104 attempts) than Sappelt has thus far in his career.