The most important aspect of this conversation I’ll save until the end. I’d rather start with this:
The most important skill a leadoff hitter needs to possess is an ability to get on base (OBP) at a relatively high rate. Every other skill that you might find desirous in a leadoff hitter comes in a distant second, and I mean a very distant second – like out in the Dagobah System distant. Baserunning ability, the type of hitter (contact or power, pull or opposite), astrological sign, and every other variable are irrelevant if the leadoff hitter doesn’t get on base at a good rate. The team’s best hitters – presumably the batters on your team most likely to do damage – are coming up next in the two, three, and four spots and you do not want them at the plate with no runners on base if you intend to win.
Yet, as much as OBP is necessary, power (SLG) is absolutely wasted in the leadoff spot. You don’t have to read Tom Tango’s book “The Book” or play over 10,000 games of Strat-O-Matic to know this as it’s as self-evident as anything in this discussion. Due to leading off the game then following the (presumably) worst hitters on the team in the lineup thereafter, there isn’t going to be many opportunities to drive in runs, relative to other spots in the order. A batter with a high SLG (SLG is the ability to advance runners) batting first is a misapplication of resources as there aren’t going to be many runners to advance.
A secondary skill that isn’t necessary but is very helpful is the ability to make the opposing pitcher throw as many pitches as possible. Increasing the likelihood of fatigue in the starting pitcher (both in the first inning and cumulatively as the game wears on) and allowing your big guns due up next to see as many pitches in the opponent’s arsenal as they can, both can give your team a competitive advantage.
I can’t imagine you find any of the above controversial in nature. Leadoff batters need to get on base frequently. Power is better utilized in the second, third, and fourth spots when runners are more likely to be on base. Making the opposing pitcher throw many pitches is never a bad thing.
If we agree on that, then dear reader, you agree with me that when Aaron Hicks is in the lineup, he needs to bat leadoff.
Let’s start with the ability to reach base safely consistently. With an OBP of .349 Hicks’ is far above the league average of .311, and among Yankees, only Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have reached base at a higher rate in 2022. This box – the most important one – is checked.
With a walk rate of 15 percent that is not only the highest on the Yankees but ranks in the 98th percentile league-wide, we can assume that Hicks forces the opposing pitcher to throw many pitches. Well, it’s 2022, so we don’t need to assume, we can actually check, and when we do this is what we find: Not only does Hicks see more pitches per plate appearance than any of his teammates, his 4.37 Pit/PA would be fourth-highest in MLB if he had enough PA to qualify.
As far as the question of how does a hitter who hits with so little power draw so many walks, we’ll examine that another time. For today’s purposes, as mentioned above, Hicks’ absurdly low .271 SLG is actually a benefit in the leadoff spot. (OK, maybe not a benefit, but the lack of punch hurts less here than in any other spot.) On the off chance, you think I’m exaggerating when I say “absurdly” low .271 SLG, consider this: Hicks’ SLG is the lowest on the Yankees among players with at least 100 PA. Kyle Higashioka and Isiah Kiner-Falefa have hit for more power in 2022 than Hicks has.
Whether or not Hicks is going to be an everyday player ongoing remains to be seen and is a different discussion anyway. Right now, he is the perfect leadoff hitter for this team and should be in that spot whenever he’s in the lineup.
I prefaced this chat with a teaser that I’d save the most important aspect of all this to the end, so here it is: All of the above comes with the enormous caveat that lineup construction does not matter nearly as much as we think it does. It’s not completely insignificant but it doesn’t move the needle on runs scored that much over the course of 162 games – it’s really just an interesting topic of discussion more than anything else.
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