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What Makes an Ideal Leadoff Hitter?


Ricky Henderson on the Yankees; CC by License 2.0

The leadoff hitter is one of the most important spots in the order as it starts the game off and gets the most at-bats. However, there is a lot of discussion on what it takes to be a leadoff hitter and what kind of qualifications a leadoff hitter should even have. The spot itself has gone through a lot of change recently in the MLB and what people think of it. Before analyzing the spot and finding some current leadoff guys that fit the criteria, it is important to understand the history of the spot.


History of the leadoff hitter

One can argue that the leadoff hitter has been one of the most changed aspects of baseball in the analytical era. Throughout most of the previous history of baseball, the most important thing from a leadoff hitter has been speed and the ability to steal bases. It was thought that having a guy who can steal bases consistently and provide consistent speed, even if the hitter was not exactly the best at getting on base or even hitting, most teams just wanted a guy who could run. An example of this comes from the 1970 Yankees who consistently put one of the worst hitters in baseball that year in the leadoff spot. Horace Clarke hit leadoff in 157 games for the 1970 Yankees and his slash line was .251/.286/.309 for an OPS of .595 and a 68 OPS+. Clarke stole 23 bases this year and it was the 4th consecutive season of 20+ steals but what is the point of that speed if he never gets on base? The Yankees could have benefited from having 1B Danny Carter or RF Curt Blefary from hitting leadoff. Neither of these guys was a threat on the basepaths but posted OBP of .340 and .324 respectively. This Yankees team won 93 games and just missed the playoffs but could have easily won a couple more games by having a guy hitting leadoff who could get on base. However, one team was ahead of its time during this era and that was the Baltimore Orioles whose manager, Earl Weaver, had a more modern approach when it came to platooning, managing a bullpen, and countless other things. During the 1975 season for example, the Orioles' primary leadoff hitter was RF Ken Singleton who stole just 3 bases. However, he had a slash line of .300/.415/.454 for an OPS of .869 and a 153 OPS+. This team had 4 guys with over 14 steals but Weaver knew the value of having a guy in that spot who could get on base. There were lots of guys pre-sabermetrics who stole bases and were great leadoff hitters so it is very possible to do both, however, the method of choosing a leadoff hitter was largely based on speed. During the 2000s and 2010s, there began a shift in the leadoff hitter that was to put high walk and high on-base guys in that slot ahead of guys with speed. This model is better all around and it makes more sense for making a lineup.


Dream leadoff hitter

Now it is time to go through different stats that are very important for an ideal leadoff hitter.


Gets On Base

The single most important thing about my leadoff hitter is that he gets on base a lot. The job of the leadoff hitter needs to be to find a way to get on base for the rest of the order. The run expectancy doubles when the leadoff hitter gets on first base, so to say that it is important is an understatement. Typically your 2-5 is going to be your best hitters so you want someone who is consistently on base for them to drive home. An ideal leadoff hitter should have an OBP of at least .345 or an xwOBA of around the same. This gives the team a chance to consistently score at the top of the lineup. Now it would be better to have a higher OBP but this .345 mark is a good minimum to have to create a lot of runs.


Walks

Walks are the easiest way to get on base because the hitter just has to sit there and look at pitches. The ability for my leadoff hitter to walk goes beyond that though. It is important for a leadoff hitter to see a lot of pitches and to make the pitcher work. The importance of the leadoff hitter to work the count is invaluable. Any manager knows that they want the pitcher to have to work to get the leadoff guy out so he might be tiring down more by the time he gets to the heart of the order. An ideal BB% for my leadoff hitter is 10% or higher. This is roughly the top 30% of the league in walk rate. This is a good number to work the count and help the OBP be higher. Another aspect of walks is not chasing at the pitch aka Chase%. An ideal chase% for a leadoff hitter is around 25% or less. This would again be top 30% in the league and this combination of BB% and Chase% would make for a patient and ideal leadoff hitter.


Hard Contact

The goal every time a hitter goes to the plate is to make hard contact and barrel the ball up. It is a must for a leadoff hitter to at least be able to do this well enough. To reach our first goal of getting on base, hitting the ball hard will result in doing that more. The ideal leadoff hitter should have an average exit velo of around 90 MPH which is in the top 40% of all hitters. A Barrel% of 9% and HardHit% of around 42% are also important. These metrics together should produce a hitter that can consistently hit the ball hard which will lead to getting on base a lot. Along these same lines are extra base hits which are still semi-important for a leadoff hitter. It is typically also important for a leadoff hitter to have around 10 to 25 home runs and 20 to 30 2Bs a year. A leadoff hitter is never a big-time power guy because he would not be a leadoff hitter if he was. However, he still needs to be able to have consistent power to where he can provide solid extra-base hit numbers. All of this put together would lead to a very solid leadoff hitter that can hit the ball hard and get extra base hits.


Strikeouts

An important thing for my leadoff hitter is to avoid strikeouts. Strikeouts can kill an innings and a strikeout means there is no chance to get on base and as mentioned previously getting on base is the most important thing. A K rate of 20% or less would qualify as pretty good for the ideal leadoff hitter. Avoiding strikeouts can lead to getting on base more and more walks. A big part of avoiding strikeouts is not whiffing so a Whiff% of 23% or less would be ideal for a leadoff hitter.


Baserunning

As said earlier, teams used to take speed into account as the primary focus. Now it should not be the primary focus, it should be being competent on the basepaths. Being fast on the basepaths can lead to being put in a scoring position and more runs being scored. A sprint speed of 28.0 Ft/Sec and 10 SB a year would be very valuable at the top of the lineup. These things are not very important but can be a nice touch to a leadoff hitter.


Not being the best hitter

The last component for a leadoff hitter is not being the best hitter on the team. 9/10 the best hitter hits 2-4 in the order and does not hit leadoff. The reason for this is so they can drive in the runs while the leadoff hitter's main job is to get on base for the best hitters.




Dream Leadoff hitter stat line


Best Current Options for Leadoff Hitters:


Lars Nootbaar

Nootbaar is one of the best current options for a modern-day leadoff hitter. He has a .351 OBP across his career and a .376 mark this year. He also walks at a near 15% clip while having a decent 21.5% K%. The K% is a little high but not too dramatic. His XBH numbers are not there as his 2Bs are especially low but he makes up for it with solid hard contact rates. His exit velo is exactly 90 MPH, a Brl% of 9%, and an HH% of 41%. These are all extremely ideal for a leadoff hitter as well. He also Chases at just an 18% clip and whiffs at just a 20% clip. He can also provide decent speed at 27.9 Ft/sec and has 7 SB this year already. Now there are some things that he is missing but all in all, Nootbaar is one of the best current options for the leadoff spot.


Corbin Carroll

Carroll could end up being too good for hitting leadoff however if he could get some power bats behind him he could end up being the best option for hitting leadoff. Caroll has been getting on base at a .365 clip and has an OPS over .900 this year. His walks are a little low as they are at 9.5% but his K% is solid for a leadoff at 20.5%. His XBHs are where he is most valuable as he has already gotten 20 HRs and 2Bs this year. The exit velo mark of 90.5 MPH, Brl% of 9.1%, and HH% of 41.6% are all also very good for any hitter, especially one that can hit leadoff. His Chase and Whiff rates are both high with them being 27.4% and 22.1% respectively. His speed is a huge plus as he has 30 SB and a 30.1 Ft/Sec. Overall, if Caroll can get some solid bats behind him, he could be an elite leadoff hitter.


Riley Greene

Greene is another young guy similar to Carrol. If he gets some bats behind him he could be an elite leadoff hitter. His .379 OBP and OPS nearing .850 are both very much ideal. His walks are about average at 9% but K% are a minor issue as they are nearing 28%. He makes up for this though with very solid hard contact rates: 92 MPH, 9.7 Brl%, and 48.6% HH%. His XBH numbers are not amazing but with those hard contact numbers, they do not matter as much. His chase and whiff rates are both high at 28% for each of them. His speed helps contribute to his value as his 28.4 Ft/Sec and he has 6 SB this year as well. Greene has some stuff to work on but could be an elite leadoff hitter.


These are just a couple of the best leadoff hitter options in today's game. I tried to avoid hitters who are some of the best in baseball that hit leadoff like Mookie, Acuna, or even Ohtani sometimes. Guys like this succeed no matter where they hit and only hit leadoff due to the depth of their respective lineups. These are not exactly the best ones but are easily some of the best.


Best to ever do it

With all this being said, the dream leadoff hitter and by far the best leadoff hitter ever was Rickey Henderson. It should be obvious but if one were to start a team all time; Rickey has to hit leadoff. He checks pretty much all of the boxes listed above and does them to the best degree possible. He was a career .400 OBP and .820 OPS guy. His career walk rate was over 16% and a K% at 12% are both unbelievable and extremely good for what we are looking for. His XBH was no issue as well as he was consistently putting up 15-30 HRs and 20-35 2Bs. It does not need to say anything about his SB except for this: he stole 1406 career SB, and it will never get touched again. Rickey is the golden standard for hitting leadoff hitters and he will likely never get touched.




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