As a leadoff hitter, Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners cherishes the perks of the job. "What I like," he says through an interpreter, "is that for my first at bat I can step into the batter's box and it is clean and perfect."
Tidiness aside, the real bonus to the job is that the leadoff man gets more times at bat during a season than any other hitter in the lineup. Each spot in the batting order is worth roughly 20 more plate appearances than the spot below it. For instance, if Suzuki had batted third all last season--as then manager Bob Melvin considered in spring training--he would have had about 40 fewer plate appearances than he had in the leadoff spot and, assuming his same rate of hits, would not have broken the alltime season hit record. Suzuki would have had 248 hits, nine short of George Sisler's former record, instead of his 262. And the pursuit of hits is what Suzuki regards as the leadoff hitter's prime responsibility.
"Hits are important because it is something the fans understand," says Suzuki, who also regards runs and on-base percentage as key barometers for the leadoff hitter. "Some fans are not really paying attention to runs and on-base percentage. As professionals we have a responsibility of providing a good show for the fans. Getting hits and home runs is what they want to see."
So if the leadoff hitter takes more turns at bat than any other hitter, why do managers do such a poor job of selecting them? In 2001, for instance, leadoff hitters reached base at a worse rate (.331) than the average hitter (.332). Former New York Mets manager Art Howe made such misguided choices last year that his leadoff hitters had a worse on-base percentage (.291) than every other spot in the lineup except ninth, the pitcher's place. In other words, he was giving his worst every-day hitters the most turns at bat.
Even Suzuki, despite his major-league-best .418 OBP out of the leadoff spot, was a flawed first hitter because his lack of extra-base hits (no team had fewer out of the top spot than the Mariners' 37) often required two subsequent at bats to drive him home rather than one. Suzuki scored only 32.1% of the time he reached base, far worse than Tampa Bay Devil Rays leadoff man Carl Crawford (47.1%), whose team scored only 16 more runs overall than Seattle did in 2004.
"As an opposing manager I thought it screamed for him to be a number 3 hitter," new Seattle manager Mike Hargrove says of Suzuki, who led American League hitters in batting with runners in scoring position last season (.372). "But being around him, I can just see that he really enjoys [leadoff]."
This year the San Diego Padres have dumped Sean Burroughs (.345 career OBP) out of the leadoff spot in favor of Dave Roberts, who is worse at getting on base (.335) and at age 32 has never batted 450 times in a season. The Chicago Cubs gave the top spot to Corey Patterson despite his awful .303 career OBP and 168 whiffs last season. The Chicago White Sox, after finishing third in runs in the AL last year, traded slugger Carlos Lee to the Milwaukee Brewers to get Scott Podsednik to be their leadoff hitter, though he had the worst OBP (.315) out of the leadoff spot among batters who hit there regularly.
When it comes to leading men, managers often typecast. Suzuki, Roberts, Patterson and Podsednik all fit the preferred leadoff mold from when most of the managers were playing and generations before that: small, speedy players, whether they are adept at getting on base or not. It is as if the job has a height requirement. Of the 15 players with enough at bats out of the leadoff spot to qualify for the batting title, all but Crawford and Johnny Damon of the Boston Red Sox (both 6'2") are listed as six feet or shorter. (Critics howled in 2003 when Cincinnati floated the idea of hitting 6'6" on-base machine Adam Dunn leadoff; the Reds backed off.) The explosion of slugging and run scoring since 1993, however, has reduced the impact of such so-called small-ball players.
Even before '93 the scrappy leadoff hitter was less effective than is fondly remembered. For instance, Roger Maris once claimed that table-setters Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek were as vital a part of the New York Yankees of the early 1960s as the team's fabled sluggers. But in '61, when the Yankees rolled to a World Series win, Richardson and Kubek were much worse than the average AL player at getting on base. Likewise, speedy Omar Moreno (career OBP: .306) often left the table bare for the Pittsburgh Pirates' Lumber Company teams in the late 1970s and early '80s.
"There are maybe only four or five true leadoff hitters in the game now," says Cubs manager Dusty Baker, employing the traditional definition. Besides Ichiro he declines to name the other players whom he thinks best fit the mold.
Indeed small, speedy types are becoming rarein any spot. The owners' proven willingness to pay for power has discouraged players from emulating Richie Ashburn, one of the game's great leadoff hitters who made the Hall of Fame with only 29 home runs but a .396 OBP. "You hit 35 home runs, you'll make more money than the guy who hits 10 and scores 100," Hargrove says. "It's human nature [to go for power]."
With a decline in the number of small-ball players from which to choose, as well as the increased acceptance of statistical analysis to measure player value, the standard definition of the leadoff hitter is bound to change. Just this spring, for instance, newly acquired second baseman Tony Womack walked into Yankees camp and declared, "I've always been a leadoff guy, and that's what I consider myself." He is, after all, short and fast. He also led off for the St. Louis Cardinals last year. He does not, however, get on base often (career OBP: .319) or get many extra-base hits (30 last year).
Manager Joe Torre decided Womack is not a leadoff hitter but rather a number 9 hitter, immediately reducing his potential plate appearances by 160. Sixty of those plate appearances that would have gone to Womack will go to Torre's 1-2-3 hitters, all of whom are vastly superior to Womack: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, respectively. As logical as this may sound, it is a novel concept.
Art Howe made such misguided choices last year that his leadoff hitters had a worse OBP than every other spot in the Mets' lineup except ninth, the pitcher's place. In other words, he was giving his worst every-day hitters the most turns at bat.