27 January 2017

The Orioles Already Have A Capable Leadoff Option (Or Platoon)

In 2016, Orioles leadoff hitters had a combined wRC+ of 94. That was fourth worst in the American League. O's hitters in the second lineup slot, meanwhile, had a wRC+ of 121. That was good enough for third best.

The majority of leadoff plate appearances went to Adam Jones (488) and Joey Rickard (183). Jones is not a leadoff hitter, but did a competent job there last season (108 wRC+) while not reaching base at a high clip (.320 OBP). Most of the plate appearances in the No. 2 lineup spot went to Hyun Soo Kim (259), Manny Machado (164), and Jonathan Schoop (125). Machado and Kim were two of the O's best hitters last season, so it's not surprising then that the results from that spot in the order would be better than those of the leadoff spot.

It's well-worn territory by now where certain types of hitters should go in a team's lineup (and also that, by and large, the lineup order isn't that important - but it still matters somewhat and is easy/fun to discuss). There's plenty to read on efficient lineup ordering, and I summarized the Orioles' situation last season while arguing that Machado should bat second, not third. Machado should certainly bat second the majority of the time in 2017, while Jones should be placed lower in the order.

The first part of who should bat leadoff, then, is at least clear. Kim should bat first against right-handed pitching. In his first major league season, Kim was nearly 30% better than league average against opposite-handed throwers. Of all batters with at least 300 plate appearances, his .382 on-base percentage was 18th best in the majors. Against right-handers only, his .393 OBP was tied for ninth best overall (minimum 250 plate appearances).

For the Orioles, it's been a while since they had someone with Kim's on-base skills. In the Expansion Era, the longest the Orioles had gone from 1961 to 2008 without a hitter with an on-base percentage of at least .380 was three years. The Orioles went eight years, however, between Markakis's .406 OBP in 2008 and Kim's .382 OBP last season. The Orioles need to do whatever it takes to utilize Kim's skills at reaching base while they have him.

There's a decent argument that Kim should play every game and bat first, despite his struggles in limited duty against left-handed pitchers. I'd have no issue with that. Another option, though, would be to deploy a leadoff platoon: Kim vs. right-handers and Rickard vs. left-handers. I'm far from the only person to believe that platoon would make sense, even if you don't think that Kim (129 wRC+ in 323 PA) and Rickard (131 wRC+ in 90 PA) will be able to replicate their strong showing against opposite-handed throwers going forward.

But, so what? What are the alternatives? It's not Jones and his career 107 wRC+. Seth Smith is similar to Kim as a more proven left-handed platoon bat, so he might work. Kim on-base skills seem superior, however, so Smith could be a nice fit in the middle of the lineup, since Buck Showalter relishes alternating right- and left-handed batters (or at least trying to).

There's no option that sounds more enticing than either batting Kim leadoff full-time (less likely) or using the Kim/Rickard platoon (more likely). Showalter already learned his lesson last season when he benched Kim for most of April. It's time to give him a shot from day one in 2017 and see what he can do.

Stats via FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and the Play Index


Unknown said...

It seems like Kim should probably be given every chance to play every day. There are two problems with platooning both COF spots: 1) It would presumably leave Davis as the only left-handed bat in the lineup against LHP. Even against lefties that's a startling lack of balance for the later innings. 2) It would presumably require Trumbo to play RF. Given those factors, either Kim or Smith is going to have to play against lefties. Kim has little track record against Major League lefties but, to the best of my knowledge, did not come to the US carrying big platoon concerns. Smith has a well-established Major League track record of not being able to hit lefties. It's quite possible Kim could be the best option against lefties and still not a good leadoff option in those games, though.

Anonymous said...

Ideally, your lead off hitter should have some speed?!

Anonymous said...

Wade Boggs didn't have speed, nor did Pete Rose. Tony Gwynn had speed at first, but his knees went fairly early. When he hit .394, he only had 5 stolen bases. I don't know about you, but I'd take any of those players on my team any day.

Unknown said...

With a team constructed the way this one is stealing bases isn't particularly valuable. The Orioles were 6th in baseball last year with an XBH rate of over 37%. That's a lot of hits that score almost as many guys from first as second. Risking getting thrown out just doesn't make a lot of sense unless you have an elite base thief. Showalter is naturally very conservative with his baserunners on any team, especially one built for power. Given that no elite base thieves are available at the moment, nobody who hits leadoff is likely to steal very much. Somebody like Smith would clog the basepaths a little bit, but that really only impacts a handful of plays in a season.

When it comes down to it, baserunning is a very, very small component of the game. There is a stat called UBR (Ultimate Base Running) that attempts to assign a run value to all the baserunning activities such as taking or failing to take an extra base, advancing on flyouts, grounding or not grounding into double plays, etc. Last year's best and worst UBR players were Jose Ramirez and Victor Martinez at +6.9 and -9.2 runs, respectively (0 is average). Moreover, only 8 total players had a UBR outside the range of +/-5. That means 138 out of 146 qualified Major League hitters last year were within 10 runs of one another in terms of what they produced on the basepaths.

Even if you do take base stealing into account baserunning remains small. A separate stat, BsR, takes into account the same factors as UBR but also includes SB and CS situationally. The extremes in this stat last year were Betts at +9.8 and V-Mart again at -11.4. There are still only 29 total players outside of +/-5, so 80% of MLB players are still within 10 runs of one another on the basepaths in this metric.

For reference, in the equivalent metric for batting runs above average baseball spread from Mike Trout at +58.3 to Adeiny Hechavarria at -29.9. 75 players - more than half of baseball - were outside of +/- 10. It shouldn't be surprising that batting is a much bigger differentiator of hitters than baserunning, but for some reason for one or two slots in the lineup people still get hung up on the speed. I'm not calling you out personally because it's incredible the proportion of baseball fans who would rather have Billy Hamilton or Eduardo Nunez leading off for their teams than somebody like Kim or Seth Smith who gets on base and then runs at an average or below-average level.

To be fair, yes, ideally, as you put it, you'd love speed. Ideally you'd like all of your batters to be great hitters who are also great on the basepaths. But there's only one Mike Trout. When push comes to shove the batting aspects are vastly more important than the baserunning aspects.

Roger said...

If we could really play Kim full time and platoon Rickard and Smith then what we really need is a RH Util IF that can play a little OF too. Then we could keep Tavarez as a def/PR replacement in the late innings and backup CF. Kim doesn't have to bat leadoff all the time - just against RH. Rickard can leadoff against LH even if he is in RF and Kim in LF. Someone like Luis Valbuena (gone, I know) or Juan Uribe would make a great choice for Util and provide better value than Flaherty. With Tavarez, you could rest AJ in the late innings.

Unknown said...

How would Juan Uribe represent an improvement over Flaherty? He's going to turn 38 soon, can't hold a candle to Flaherty with the glove at this point, and barely hit at all last year. Got cut in August and nobody signed him. In order to consider signing a new utility infielder I think you'd need him to represent a bigger improvement than that. Valbuena might have qualified, but I don't know if he'd be enough of an improvement to be worth the money. The only remaining FA I see who might represent a significant upgrade over Flaherty is Utley, and he'll want playing time and can't play shortstop.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys! Great article, I agree Kim should be leading off against righties. I expect some regression because of his .345 BABIP, but his OBP should still be among the leaders of the team with Smith, Machado, and hopefully Davis. Smith is also a practically identical version of Kim with probably a little more power, so either wouldn't be bad up front.

I used to follow the Orioles and the MLB religiously but I got away from it because of my intense interest in politics. Unfortunately politics has been a little depressing lately so I've been getting back into the O's. So bare with me here, I haven't done a hypothetical trade in awhile. But what do you guys think about trading for Jurickson Profar? He seems to have fallen out of favor in Texas. They have their long term middle infielders in Andrus and Odor. He's still just 23 with no of success in the MLB, but he's a former #1 prospect so you know the talent is there. There's currently not a spot for him in Baltimore but Hardy is gone next year and Profar only has about 70 games in AAA so he could use a little more grooming. Machado, Schoop, and Profar would give us three capable shortstops and we could basically plug them anywhere we wanted in whatever order (SS, 2B, 3B) lol. What do you guys think? What would Baltimore have to give up?

Roger said...

I dunno, Uribe looked pretty good in Fangraph's projections. Flaherty can't hit a lick and he's not much needed as long as there's no injury. Since Machado covers SS, a 3B who can play second and a little OF and can actually hit makes the most sense at Util. Plus the O's have an excess of lefty hitters if you keep Tavarez and Flaherty is a lefty. I just think the only way to potentially have two platoon OFs is to hire one that can play infield too.

Roger said...

Maybe Tavarez could play IF as Util although he hasn't done so since he was 19. He brings more speed, OBP, youth, and potential than Flaherty.

Anonymous said...

Uribe, in all actuality, is probably nearly as old as me, and I am 54!

Matt Bennett said...

Hey guys! Great Article! I agree that Kim should leadoff against RHP. I expect regression out of him considering his .345 BABIP last year, but his OBP should still rank among the leaders of our team along with Machado and hopefully Smith/Davis. Smith could also leadoff as him and Kim are extremely similar players.

I've been thinking about a hypothetical trade scenario. Jurickson Profar seems to have fallen out of favor in Texas. They have their long-term middle infielders in Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor. He is without a position. He wouldn't have a position here either currently but Hardy is gone after next year. Plus Profar could probably use a little more time in AAA considering he only has about 70 games played there. I think it would be a pretty good fit. He hasn't had much success in the majors yet but he's only 23 and is a former #1 prospect. In my opinion that is worth a risk. In 2018 the Orioles could have Machado play 3B or SS, Schoop play 2B, SS, or 3B, and Profar play 2B or SS. What would it take to get him from Texas?