My contributions to the message boards at Flushing University are full of threads with twists and turns away from the original topic. Usually, they end up in a spirited defense of the merits of Adam Dunn as a baseball player, but today I ended up talking about speed, stolen bases and ideal leadoff hitters.
I think if you were going into a lab to create the "ideal leadoff hitter," it would be a guy with the speed to steal 50 bases, the patience to walk 100 times and the stick to bat .300 and to crack 65 extra-base hits. Grady Sizemore is a good example of the modern incarnation of that player, although once a guy cracks the 25-homer barrier he probably belongs a little further down in the lineup so he can drive in more runs.
Still, I get the feeling that managers just can't get past the idea of leadoff hitter = base stealer.
Too many managers focus more on a potential leadoff hitter's speed and not enough on his patience or the ability to drive the ball. Conventional wisdom says that your leadoff hitter has to be able to steal bases above all else and that on-base percentage or total bases aren't as important. I disagree.
I love stolen bases, but if I was building a lineup and had to choose between, say Joe Mauer and Juan Pierre in the leadoff spot, Mr. Pierre would be batting eighth. Mauer's typical year looks exactly what a leadoff hitter's should look like in every respect but the stolen base total. When you are talking about two guys with limited skill sets, I'll always take the leadoff hitter who can walk but can't run over the guy who can run but can't walk.
Don't get me wrong. I love steals and the way they change the game in ways that do not show up in a boxscore. You simply cannot quantify the distraction that Jose Reyes creates on the basepaths for opposing pitchers. I think it's critically important to any good lineup to have at least two stolen base threats in the game at any given time.
I am just not wedded to the notion that fast runners must be at the top of the lineup, especially at the expense of players who will have a higher OBP or more total bases. The ideal leadoff hitter combines speed, on-base percentage and total bases. A leadoff hitter who only has speed, but falls short in the other two categories, should be batting at the bottom of the lineup.
Stolen bases should be respected as weapons in whatever part of the lineup they are featured from. A good lineup, however, is built without regard to stolen base totals and with specific attention to the slash stats and extra-base hits. If anything, batting a speedster seventh makes a lot of sense. He can use his legs in an attempt to push himself into scoring position, and it's harder to run yourself out of a "big" inning if the eighth and ninth hitter follow someone who is caught stealing.
It's counter-intuitive, but I would bat Luis Castillo seventh for just that reason. He may run himself into scoring position and even if he doesn't, his presence might distract the pitcher enough to groove a bad pitch to the likes of Brian Schneider, who needs to capitalize on pitcher mistakes to get hits.