For most of my life, there's been a stereotypical notion that baseball's leadoff hitters must possess game-altering speed, adding a layer of offensive prowess at the top of the order that wreaks havoc on the basepaths and puts a runner in scoring position for the thunder later in the lineup. Guys like Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines begat that notion, and the likes of Steve Sax, Lance Johnson, Brett Butler, and Vince Coleman perpetuated it, as the ability to steal a base became almost synonymous with the ability to bat leadoff.
John Larue took a close look at a statement made by St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter - often the leadoff hitter for the filthy birds - about the continual evolution of the leadoff position, one that came from an interview between Carpenter and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel just two months ago:
"More teams are leaning to putting a guy who gets on base in the leadoff spot. The days putting your fastest guy in the leadoff spot are over. The key is, ‘Can you get on base?’ That’s something that’s being valued more."
The assertion that on-base ability is being valued more and more at the top of orders across the league isn't one that's wholly foreign, as the concept itself has been kicked around in analytics circles for years. That a player who possesses that skill in spades readily acknowledges that it's becoming more prevalent, however, isn't exactly something we've been able to observe on the regular. Larue's deep dive to discover whether the statistics backed up Carpenter's statement was quite telling, too, with at least preliminary evidence suggesting that OBP is being slightly more aggrandized while speed has been largely de-emphasized.
What's most interesting about those conclusions, at least in the realm of the Cincinnati Reds, is that they've largely chosen to buck those trends, whether on purpose or independently. Overall, their MLB ranks from the leadoff spot don't show a huge deviation from those trends - their .171 ISO ranks 10th on all baseball, their 7.9% walk rate ranks 16th - but a recent change at the top of their order does a bit to suggest that's more happenstance than deliberate. Zack Cozart's hot and powerful start to the 2016 season while initially batting leadoff did a lot to impact the overall power numbers the team has seen there, though that came largely as the club was still trying to groom speedster Billy Hamilton for an ultimate return to the top of their order, something that materialized again recently.
Hamilton, of course, is the embodiment of great speed and little OBP at the top of the order, and Larue's conclusion that ISO from the leadoff spot was on the rise as well makes Hamilton almost the complete 180 from the way in which teams are using the position. Hamilton, for what it's worth, has caught fire since returning to the leadoff spot, and his small sample size numbers from the position suggest that he's not as ill-equipped for the growing trend as we otherwise would have thought. His 10.4% walk rate at the top of the order would rank 7th in MLB were it a full-season team mark, though the .081 ISO he's put up in that admittedly small sample size would rank 29th. His career 6.0% walk rate and .093 ISO marks from all positions, however, suggest that his skills to date are the exact ones being phased out by the general trends in baseball, something the Reds' front office has been ridiculed with on multiple fronts as the team's successful start to this decade gets further in the rear-view mirror.
Hamilton, to his credit, may well be evolving from his previous self in rapid order, something that ESPN's Buster Olney looked at this morning in his Insider column (that's behind a paywall, largely). Perhaps his improved play of late - play that has featured a .344 OBP at the top of the order and sustained elite success while stealing bases - is more indicative of who the Reds want him to be, and if he truly is on a different offensive maturation curve than we initially imagined, perhaps he's got exactly the mix of skills to fill into what much of baseball considers to be the new quintessential leadoff hitter.
Judging hot streaks as valid samples is dangerous, especially in players who are still quite young, so it's tough to know whether Hamilton's strengths are becoming more well-rounded, or if he's beginning to be more a square peg than a prototype.
In other news, Homer Bailey spoke with MLB.com about the rustiness he displayed in his 2nd start of the year since coming off the DL post Tommy John surgery. As encouraging as his 1st start was against San Diego, it was inevitable that the guy would experience some hiccups after such an extended absence, and that certainly happened in Pittsburgh.
Over at The Enquirer, Zach Buchanan opined that the Reds have brought in enough near-majors, high-floor guys throughout their rebuild that targeting more high-upside lottery tickets should now become their norm. He argues that since the team has built a glut of guys they can reasonably project, the time has come to add younger, toolsy, currently-flawed players to the farm in hopes they can blossom under a blanket of patience. There are certainly a few of those currently in the system - Aristides Aquino, Tyler Stephenson, Tony Santillan, and Max Wotell, for instance - but with a few potential trade chips still on the MLB roster, the chance to swing for the fences and add a few more still exists.
Finally, Buchanan also relayed this morning that Dilson Herrera, who joined the Reds along with Wotell in last week's Jay Bruce trade, has been a bit sore and therefore out of the regular lineup with AAA Louisville. He's expected back as the regular 2B any day now, though.