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The Dodgers Finally Need a True Leadoff Hitter

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 01: Joc Pederson #65 of the Los Angeles Dodgers warms up before his MLB debut at the plate against the Washington Nationals during the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium on September 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In 2019, Joc Pederson found himself as the Dodgers leadoff hitter nearly two-thirds of the time. Yes, he had the pop and in turn, a respectable OPS, but he lacked other key qualities for that batting slot. Wondering if he was the right man for the job was one of burning the questions fans had all year.

Traditionally, the leadoff spot in the batting order is reserved for certain key qualities.

Two of those qualities are on-base percentage and stolen bases. The thought there is having the right batter leading off, improves the odds of getting a baserunner quickly and having them advance into scoring position quickly. Another key quality is having a batter that sees a lot of pitches. Not only does this quality get the pitch count trending in the right direction, but it allows the rest of the team to see what the pitcher is working with.

The Good

Joc Pederson had 441 plate appearances out of the number one spot over the course of 107 games, of those games he started 103 of them with moderate success. Joc drove in 64 of his career-high 74 RBIs from the leadoff spot. Moreover, he also hit 33 of his career-high 36 home runs in the leadoff spot — 9 of which came as the first batter of the game.

That power led him to a solid .894 leadoff OPS, 14th best amongst the other 78 leadoff batters that amassed 70+ plate appearances.  Additionally, out of those other leadoff batters, Joc walked 43 times (good for 9th most) and took one for the team 12 times (good for 12th most).

The “Meh”

Joc’s on-base-plus-slugging out of the leadoff spot top 15, but it was greatly cushioned by his power numbers from that spot. His leadoff OBP was .342 — a “meh”ddle of the pack 38th best — while his slugging sat at .552.

On the season, Joc hit for a career high .250 batting average, however, that same BA landed him 52nd amongst the other leadoff hitters. To dampen his leadoff effectiveness even more he struck out 93 times, 11th most amongst his leadoff cohorts.

It can be argued that baseball has shifted more toward sabermetric based game strategies, I’m still not sure Joc Pederson fits the mold of even that type of leadoff hitter. He has the OPS, but his batting average lacks as does his traditional OBP. He strikes out a lot (especially for a leadoff batter) and even though stealing is not a priority for the Dodgers, you still want somebody that will take a good lead to put pressure on and distract the pitcher. Joc is hardly a threat to steal and therefore doesn’t even draw a real pick off attempt. 

Who Leads Off in 2020?

All this is a long lead in to the fact that the Dodgers are in need of a true leadoff batter for the 2020 season. This topic was discussed on a recent episode of Dodgers Nation’s Blue Heaven Podcast, and it came with a lot of feedback from the audience.

First, let’s look at internal options.

Dugie For Leadoff?

Last May, I wrote about Alex Verdugo being a good candidate as an everyday leadoff hitter.  Even though nagging injuries ended his season early and resulted in a smaller sample size of stats, Verdugo is still my favorite on the current roster for being more of a true leadoff hitter.

He has a contagious energy that could set the tone for a game. I won’t go on another stat rant with Dugie, but I will say he’s patient, hits well, and has one of the lower strikeout percentages on the team. Moreover, his moderate power and ability to hit left and right handed pitching plays up for consistency at the top of the lineup. Finally, that aforementioned energy and the enthusiasm he has for the game coupled with his natural speed at least make him a threat to steal. Still, I’d love to see him improve that element of his game enough to enhance the threat.

Other internal options include Gavin Lux (speed) and Max Muncy (on-base skills), but Verdugo’s bat-to-ball skills make him stand out above the rest.

External Options

Rumors have the Dodgers in talks with the Cleveland Indians on All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor. The 26 year-old has 89 home runs and an .870 OPS out of the leadoff spot in his career. While he’s not a huge stolen base threat (93 total in his career), he is an exceptional baserunner by all accounts.

Closing Thoughts

Joc Pederson may have taken the leadoff job in stride, but the fact is the Dodgers need a true leadoff hitter. Joc wasn’t terrible at it, hell the Dodgers won 106 games utilizing him the way they did.

But he could be utilized even better.

Cody Bellinger hit 47 home runs and drove in 115 runs. Max Muncy hit 35 home runs to accrue 98 RBIs. Joc hit 36 home runs and didn’t even reach 80 RBIs. In fact, of the 35 players in 2019 to hit 34 or more home runs, Joc had the lowest RBI total.  With Joc’s power, he’d be better utilized somewhere a little lower in the order where his home runs could account for more runs rather than seemingly hoping for a solo shot to open the game.

Entering his final year of arbitration, Joc will certainly be hoping to put up some big numbers ahead of his 2020 free agency. The Dodgers should seek to capitalize on Joc’s hopes and ride the returns. Help him, help you. Drop him a little lower, collect more runs, and give Dugie his shot to impact every game from the start.

Besides Vin Scully’s voice, few things sound better to open up a game than Volver, Volver at Dodger Stadium anyway.

Written by Jason McClure

Technically a Dodgers bandwagon fan. At 5 years old, I decided they were my favorite team after hearing they won the World Series on my mom’s car radio in 1988. My father (technically my stepfather) watered that seed, teaching me the game and introducing me to the beauty of Dodger Stadium. We got to know each other and bonded over games. Even when we couldn’t get along during my teenage years, we could come together over Vin Scully’s voice and a game. Dodger baseball is, and will always be, so much more than just a game.

23 Comments

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  1. Verdugo’s OBP last year was only .342, because he is aggressive and doesn’t walk much. You are right he doesn’t K much, but to be an effective lead off hitter, he will need to walk more. At least in the minors, Lux walked a little more, so maybe Lux first and Verdugo second.

    • Hey Gary, thanks for reading! I agree Verdugo does need to walk more, but I see that coming with maturity when he’s confident in his place on the team. Lux and Dugie would be a nice top two as well!

      Jason

  2. IMO, the “analytics-people” the Dodgers employ don’t believe in the lead-off hitter. Get rid of the brainiacs and bring-in people that have actually played the game. If I were to choose an in-house lead-off hitter, I would got with Verdugo or Lux.

    • Hi Robin,

      You’re right the “analytics-people” don’t put a lot of emphasis on the traditional leadoff hitter, but those folks have brought some good success to Los Angeles. I’m not as concerned with having the traditional leadoff hitter as I am utilizing that top spot a bit better and Joc’s power to accumulate more runs. Thank you for reading.

      Jason

      • How many World Series championships have “Moneyball” Analytics teams won?? These idiots have no clue how to manufacture runs, sacrifice runners.. win close games..especially in the playoffs… kinda like Dave Roberts

  3. Above all, far above any questions about the identity of the Dodgers’ habitual leadoff hitter for 2020, are two overriding needs: (1) Get someone to replace Jansen. He’s had it. (2) Kershaw is flagrantly unfit to pitch in the postseason in any sensitive situation. In the postseason, he should never start and never enter a close game. Someone else must take up that slack.

  4. Pederson is more than horrible at leadoff. That’s not where you need a big swing and miss hitter. he can’t run or steal bases or make contact to move runners over. It’s a real problem that championship teams pay attention to. The Dodgers just don’t care. Beefing up defense at short with Lindor and having a real leadoff contact hitter who can be a threat stealing would be a big boost.

    • Hey Nik!
      I don’t think Joc’s been “horrible”. Like I said in the article he some good qualities up there, but the rest are middle of the pack. Outside of Bellinger, who won’t leadoff, nobody really steals much on the Dodgers. I think Verdugo is a good lead off option because if he can rack up a steal every so often I think he’d be viewed as a threat which is what you need. He also hits lefty’s as well as righty’s and can really get the crowd behind him. Thank you for reading!

      Jason

  5. Good article. The Dodgers haven’t had a true leadoff guy who bunts for base hits, steals bases, and advances extra bases on any batted ball (his or someone else’s) for a very long time. In fact the only ones I would call true leadoff guys in the past 50 years are Davey Lopes, Brett Butler, and their current manager, who ought to know a thing or two about the importance of leadoff hitters.

    • Hi “Stopthedraught”
      Thanks for taking the time to read the article.
      We have not had a true leadoff guy in some time and I think its due to the era of sabermetric analysis. While I long for those old school days of playing ball the way I was taught, the game today is evolving year-by-year. I think the reason we don’t see those true leadoff batters more is because teams are trying to react to that evolution. I think we find a happy medium between a Joc Pederson and Davey Lopes leadoff style in the near future.

      Jason

      • Correct about not having a true lead off guy for quite a while and as ya say today’s game is about HR’s and K’s and all that. But other than the lead off situation the Dodgers lack a true RH bat for the middle of the order. With being very LH heavy on offense I cannot forget what Krukow suggested at the end of the regular season about facing the Dodgers:
        Whatever team faces Dodgers in the PS should gather up every LHP they can get a hold of to face this offense.

  6. Some people argue that it’s not important because they may only lead off once in the game but what they overlook is that they ALWAYS come up before the heart of the order regardless so it’s important that they get on base a lot

    • Joc is kind of a question mark as to where he fits in our order. Technically, I would think 6 – 8 is where he belongs. If he walked like he did his first year, he would be perfect with a .250 average for leadoff as his OBP would be .370 or better. But that is not the case. Verdugo is our current best bet like others here have said. But Lux had some good at bats last year. He may force Roberts’ hand.

      • All I remember from Gavin Sux is swinging at the worst pitches possible like his veteran teammates so maybe this is the best team for him he doesn’t have to feel like an out of place rookie because even the veterans choke here

  7. This article is a real failure to understand how the Dodgers operate. They absolutely do not give a shit about stolen bases or pickoff throws. Pederson leads off only vs right handers where his OBP is substantially better than .342. His secondary qualification is seeing a lot of pitches consistently, which the dodgers value throughout their lineup but especially at the top to open the game

    They are never going to acquire an old school, traditional Dee Gordon style leadoff hitter because those players are mostly not very good and highly reliant on batting average. Pederson is a fine choice to lead off vs right handers where he’s consistently a top 40 or so hitter in all of MLB, and this entire article is premised on foolishness. That people can follow the Dodgers daily for years and not understand how they value players and evaluate performance perplexes me.

  8. I agree Verdugo or Lux. Assuming Beaty makes the roster when he is starting he makes great contact and is a tenacious hitter that sees a lot of pitches.

  9. The Dodgers, at their core, are a power hitting team, and an abundance of power at the leadoff spot precludes the need to steal. So some power at the top provides a big edge (Joc with more walks?). We do have the speed to be more aggressive on the basepaths, but dominant pitching is the real priority.

  10. joc should not be the leadoff man since he has home run power it is better than he hits further down the lineup where he can drive runners in

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