Looking at the Dodgers roster, one thing is obvious: The Dodgers do not have a “true” leadoff hitter. They are missing that player with the scouting attributes of tremendous speed, the ability to hit the ball to all fields, high batting average, and typically do not have much power. The Dodgers are missing their own Ben Revere, Dee Gordon, Denard Span – all of whom have speed, steal bases, and hit above .300.
Based on his career numbers, the closest player the Dodgers have that fits this definition of a leadoff hitter is Carl Crawford. From 2003-2010, Crawford had 400 stolen bases and averaged 176 hits per season. In three of those years he scored over 100 runs. However, that was the Tampa Bay Rays Carl Crawford. Since leaving the Rays, Crawford has never stolen more than 18 bases or scored more than 65 runs in a season. Crawford’s days of being considered a true leadoff hitter seem to be over.
But do the Dodgers really need a “true” leadoff hitter? The analytics of the game have changed drastically since the definition of a “true” leadoff hitter was created. Instead of focusing on speed, teams are looking at a player’s on base percentage in determining whether they are a good leadoff hitter. The Dodgers have two valuable options with high on base percentages, both with experience as a leadoff batter.
Joc Pederson, the Dodgers leadoff man for most of 2015, turned out to not be much of a threat on the base paths and batted just above .200. At first glance it appears that Revere, Gordon, and Span are far superior leadoff hitters when compared to Pederson. When you compare those same players to Pederson in the OBP category, the divide is not nearly as large. Pederson’s .325 OBP as a leadoff hitter was only .020 behind Revere and only .040 behind Gordon and Span. There is some discrepancy between them, but considering that Pederson had a .364 OBP before the All-Star break and most people believe he can put together a solid second half, he isn’t far off from these “true” leadoff men. The reason for this is that Pederson walks a tremendous amount. Pederson walked in 15.7 percent of his at bats last season. Compare that to Dee Gordon, who only walked in 3.8 percent of his at bats, and you can see why they have comparable OBP’s.
If Pederson doesn’t work out, the Dodgers could look to Yasiel Puig. He will be looking for a way to comeback strong this season and taking pressure off of him by moving him out the 4 or 5 spot could be good for him. Over the last 3 seasons, Puig has had 175 at bats at the top of the lineup. In those at bats, Puig finished with an impressive .286 AVG and .369 OBP. He has also hit 8 home runs and 9 doubles from the leadoff spot. Although he only has 25 career stolen bases, this stat is likely due to his injuries rather than his speed. With the speed Puig has, if he can stay healthy he could match his career total in a single season.
There are plenty of examples of highly successful teams who do not use a true leadoff hitter. The Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros have both used Carlos Gomez as their leadoff hitter. Like Puig, Gomez swings hard and is never looking to slap a ball for a base hit. Yet, Gomez has been very successful as a leadoff man with a .272 AVG and .342 OBP over the last 3 seasons. He has also belted 23 home runs and 70 RBI at the top of the lineup in that time.
The Kansas City Royals used Alcides Escobar as their leadoff man for the majority of last year. Escobar finished the season with a .259 AVG and a .296 OBP while batting in the leadoff spot. He was eventually replaced by Alex Gordon at the top of the lineup where he batted only .186 with a .288 OBP. Yet, the Royals still managed to finish the season with 95 wins, winning their division and eventually the World Series.
The Dodgers can look at their own 2015 performance as proof that a team does not need a true leadoff man to be successful. Despite neither one of the Dodgers main leadoff batters hitting above .230, the Dodgers managed to win 92 games and the NL West.
While having a true leadoff hitter has its advantages, it is not crucial to success. It looks as if the Dodgers will employ that strategy again this season – look for players like Pederson and Puig to redefine what it means to be a leadoff hitter this season.