If Not Francisco Lindor in the Leadoff Spot, Then Who? A Handy Guide
For the past two years, Francisco Lindor has occupied 89 percent of the Indians plate appearances in the leadoff spot, his name appearing first more often than uninvited tweets about "The Bachelor" pop into your timeline on a Monday night.
And why not? Lindor has long indicated a love of leading off, and if your star embraces hitting first and has an ability to do it, why not let him have that rose?
The answer, at least from the naysayers, would center on his power, noting it might be better suited for a lineup slot that more frequently hits with runners on base. But a reasonable counter argument is the reality that the lead off hitter is assured to collect the most plate appearances, which, in the interest of simplification, is a big benefit when talking about one of a team's biggest run-creators.
Last year, Indians leadoff hitters earned 14 more plate appearances than their No. 2 hitters. The No. 2 hitters saw 20 more plate appearances than the No. 3 hitter. And the No. 3 hitter walked to the plate 18 more times than the cleanup hitter.
Each drop in the batting order results in fewer opportunities to impact the game over the course of the season. It also meant that nearly 66 percent of Lindor's plate appearances, following the No. 9 hitter, came with nobody on base. For comparison, just a shade over half of Jose Ramirez's trips to the plate came with the bases empty -- probably because he had Lindor hitting in front of him.
Who is right? With most of lineup construction coming down to fractions of runs -- just make sure some combination of your best three hitters bat in the top 3-4 spots in your batting order, OK? -- really, it comes down to preference.
So, why bring this up now? Well, for the first time in a couple of seasons, it doesn't appear certain that Lindor will *gasp* occupy the club's leadoff spot.
"I love Frankie leading off,” manager Terry Francona told reporters in Goodyear, Az. “I know Frankie loves leading off. ... At some point -- it’s not urgent now -- I’ll sit down with him as our team starts to look like it’s coming together. (I'll) sit down with a few guys and figure out where they have a comfort level and where I think they’re most productive and also where they think they’re most productive.”
Lindor ... possibly not leading off? Next you'll say reality TV isn't based in reality.
Before completely destroying everything you thought you knew about the universe, let's pretend it is urgent to figure out which player will hit first. What sort of things will Francona weigh? What do you think is most vital in a leadoff hitter?
Let's talk this through.
Maybe your biggest concern is inserting a guy that just gets on base. A lot. Then you'd probably be in favor of ...
Ahh, remember when this seemed like the end result of taking crazy pills? Since the early days of Francona inserting Santana into the leadoff spot in 2016 and 2017, focusing on guys that command a hefty on-base percentage doesn't seem so wild.
Santana has started 132 games in the leadoff spot over his career, so we know it checks the comfort box. His 15.4 percent career walk and .367 career OBP also guarantee you, at the very least, that he's going to reach base at a high rate and likely create more run-producing chances for the guys behind him.
Most recently, his .397 OBP in 2019 would look tremendous at the top of the order, and for those concerned about clogging up the bases, he managed to be an above-average base-runner in his age-33 season, according to FanGraphs. But he also generated the highest isolated power of his career last year (.234), tying a career-best with 34 homers, so in some ways, you're running into the same power predicament as the Tribe's star shortstop.
That said, there's no guarantee that continues, and if nothing else, the odds suggest he'll do a better job of getting on base than Lindor (.347 career OBP), so if you're seeking a replacement, he might present the most well-rounded case.
But perhaps you're an old school fan that just likes to see a fast guy at the top of the lineup. That would lead you to ...
Shaddup, nerds! It's all about speed.
Mercado is the fastest of the Indians' projected regulars. His average sprint speed in his rookie season ranked in the 97th percentile in baseball, per Statcast. He also managed to swipe 15 bases in his first full season in the bigs and was MLB's 40th-most valuable base-running last year, according to FanGraphs.
Also to his credit, he managed to elevate to the two-hole in Francona's lineup, providing some needed production when Ramirez wasn't hitting like Ramirez and the outfield picture looked bleak, hitting 15 homers and slugging .443.
Buuuuuut, Mercado got on base slightly under 32 percent of the time, and overall, he finished 5 percent below average in run-creation (wRC+). Perhaps there's some room for growth in year two -- projection models like ZiPS have their doubts, projecting a 79 wRC+ in 2020 -- but for now, the 25-year-old is probably better equipped to hit somewhere lower in the order.
So, maybe you'd prefer to not completely ignore speed at the top of the lineup but you also recognize the importance of on-base percentage. Well, then perhaps your man is ...
The Indians' new second baseman brings nearly the same speed -- he finished in the 88th percentile in sprint speed last season -- but Hernandez also brings a career .352 on-base percentage to the table, offering an appetizing combination.
He's also a switch-hitter, which makes him a candidate to hit almost anywhere in a lineup without the fear of becoming unbalanced from a platoon perspective. However, despite a near 10 percent career walk rate, Hernandez's rate of free passes dropped more than any hitter from 2018 to 2019, posting a 6.7 percent clip and .333 OBP prior to being non-tendered by the Phillies this offseason.
If the 29-year-old is able to reclaim the profile that made him more of a dynamic threat in previous years, he could present a solid case for knocking Lindor out of the top spot. But if he's closer to the semi below league average bat he's been over the past two seasons -- he posted a 92 wRC+ in 2019 (100 is average) -- then he'd likely be a better fit in the six- or seven-hole, breaking up the plethora of righties.
But lineup construction can change based on who is in the lineup, and perhaps you'd like to maximize your best hitter against the southpaws. That seems like some outside the box thinking that would lead to ...
The mere mention of Luplow's name is enough to make every southpaw at your local chapter of the left-hander's association sweat. So, hear me out.
Last year, the right-handed hitting outfielder slashed .320/.439/.742 against lefties, which may have even earned him an opportunity to prove himself more regularly against righties in 2020. Fourteen of his 15 homers were also off left-handers.
Now, Luplow rocking an 11 percent career walk rate shouldn't immediately put him into consideration to be the everyday leadoff hitter, but if you wanted to get the most out of his ability to slay his platoon advantage, why not get him to the plate as often as possible when the opposition starts a lefty?
It might not solve who hits first against the righties, but perhaps by getting him up near the top, it could force opposing teams into a difficult pitching decision earlier in games or, maybe, increase the odds that Luplow gets an extra plate appearance against the left-hander, one he might not have gotten if batting lower.
Or maybe this is all just a bunch of overthinking, and the biggest key should be to get the Indians' best overall hitter to the plate as often as possible. BAH GAWD, that music belongs to ...
Even when factoring in a slump that lasted almost an entire calendar year, Ramirez has been the Tribe's most productive hitter over the past three seasons (134 wRC+), besting Lindor (121), Santana (125) and anyone else worth considering.
Bada bing bada boom.
Get that guy as many trips to the plate as his unique stride can handle.
OK, again, you run into the empty-base issue, which could limit how meaningful his extra-base hits and homers will be. And unlike Lindor and Santana, he doesn't have a long history of hitting leadoff. While it's easy for us to say where a player hits shouldn't have an impact, these things can drive someone out of a comfort zone.
Which is why the clear choice for the Indians' leadoff spot is ...
Ultimately, Francona's final choice may not be final at all. Lineups shift and change year to year, and perhaps someone we haven't even considered -- maybe the speedy Delino DeShields taps into his father's .353 career on-base percentage? -- emerges as a good candidate to serve as the Indians' offensive catalyst.
At the very least, Cleveland has some solid in-house options. None may be the prototypical leadoff man, but really, what even is prototypical anymore?
Certainly not a Monday night on Twitter, that's for sure.