Sluggardly Leadoff Hitters

May 3, 2009
 
In 1986, Dwight Evans hit the first pitch of the 1986 season into the bleachers of the old Detroit Stadium. It was an auspicious start to a season that would close on an auspicious, and far more cynical, note.
 
It wasn’t surprising that Dwight Evans hit a homerun. After all, by 1986 Dewey had established himself as one of the better sluggers in baseball, having hit twenty-nine homers in 1985, and thirty-one in 1984. And it wasn’t a surprise that he hit it off Jack Morris: in 103 career plate appearances Evans posted a .276/.388/.552 line against the Tiger righty.
 
What is surprising is the fact that Dwight Evans was the leadoff hitter for the Red Sox. After all, he didn’t fit the conventional mold for a leadoff hitter: Evans was anything but fast, and he wasn’t much of a contact hitter, averaging around 100 strikeouts a year. He did walk a lot, but only a few loopy outsiders back then noticed any connection between walks and scoring runs.
 
A Brief, Incomplete History of Sluggardly Leadoff Hitters
 
Jack Cust is a slow-moving, high on-base slugger, the kind of player managers traditionally bat in the thick of the lineup. Recently I suggested that Cust, who has the best on-base percentage on the A’s, should bat leadoff.
 
Which got me thinking: how have Cust-like players fared from the #1 spot? Are there any trends for the hitters? Does their on-base average increase or decrease? How about power? What about the teams? How do they fare when they start with power?
 
With the help of a few BJOL readers, I found six seasons of middle-of-the-order power-hitters who were given a shot at the leadoff spot.
 
Jimmy Wynn, 1973
 
The 1963 Houston Colt .45’s had three rookies come up who went on to notch 1175 Win Shares between them. I don’t know if that’s a record, but it’s damned remarkable.
 
The three players were Joe Morgan (512 Win Shares), Rusty Staub (358) and Jimmy Wynn (305). In one year the Colt .45’s came up with: one of the three best second basemen of all-time and a top-ten centerfielder and a top-twenty first baseman. Pretty good scouting.
 
Jimmy Wynn is something of a litmus test among baseball fans, sort of the polar opposite of Jim Rice. A look at his Triple Crown numbers reveal little of note: Wynn missed 300 homeruns, fell short of 1000 RBI’s, and had a career batting average of .250. Not too shabby, but nothing of real note, either.
 
Make no mistake, though: Wynn was a HOF-level player. He was a fast runner, an excellent basestealer in his youth. He drew walks (148 in 1969) and hit for tremendous power. I don’t know what kind of outfielder he was, in part because there is little information about him, but he was good enough to play centerfield.
 
The contexts of his career did him no favors. Wynn came along just as baseball was reaching its offensive nadir. He spent the vast entire career in lousy parks for hitters, playing on teams that received little media attention. Remove the contexts and it’s clear that Wynn was a centerfielder on par with Kirby Puckett, Dale Murphy or Fred Lynn.
 
Anyway: the Toy Cannon was a sluggardly slugger and an established veteran when the ‘Stros manager Leo Durocher decided to bat him in the leadoff spot in 1973. For the first few weeks of the season Wynn hit from the leadoff spot, only to get bumped down in mid April. From then on, Wynn’s spot in the order fluctuated a great deal: he’d have a five-game stretch where Leo would hit him 3rd or 5th or 6th, and then Wynn would be back at the top of the order for a week.
 
His numbers show an interesting split:
 
 
G
BA
OBP
SLG
As Leadoff
86
0.225
0.342
0.411
Other
73
0.223
0.351
0.358
 
Wynn he got on base a little more often when he batted elsewhere. But he slugged far better from the leadoff spot.

How about his team? How’d they do?
 
 
Games
W
L
W. Pct.
As Leadoff
86
50
36
.582
Other
53
21
32
.396
 
The Astros did much better when Wynn hit from the leadoff spot. But the experiment didn’t last. In 1974 Wynn moved to the Dodgers, where he was slotted in the traditional #3 spot for all of the 161 games he played that year.  
 
Ken Singleton, 1975
 
Singleton wasn’t quite the established slugger that Wynn was in 1975, but he had managed to hit 23 homeruns in 1973. Like Wynn, he drew a lot of walks, but he wasn’t much of a base-stealer. 
 
Singleton was traded to the Orioles in 1975, where another well-known manager, Earl Weaver, decided to slot him in the leadoff spot. Weaver’s usage of Singleton echoes Durocher’s use of Wynn: Singleton would play a week or two batting leadoff, and then have a couple days hitting seventh or second or third.
 
 
G
BA
OBP
SLG
As Leadoff
104
.290
.413
.455
Other
51
.324
.419
.451
 
The big difference was in batting average: as a leadoff hitter, Singleton hit 34 points lower than he did in other spots in the order, but the OBP and SLG were about the same.
 
 
G
W
L
W. Pct.
As Leadoff
104
59
45
.567
Other
51
28
23
.549
 
The Orioles did a few ticks better with Singleton batting leadoff, though the difference is slight.
 
Dwight Evans, 1985 & 1986
 
For much of the 1980’s, the Red Sox had two high on-base players: Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans. Neither one was particularly fast, but both players drew a high number of walks.
 
Boggs was adamant that he felt more comfortable batting in the #2 or #3 spot in the order, so in 1985 Red Sox manager John McNamara decided to try Evans in the leadoff spot.
 
1985
 
BA
OBP
SLG
As Leadoff
73
.289
.380
.510
Other
85
.236
.376
.399
 
In 1985, Evans did a terrific job in the leadoff spot, battering pitchers from the #1 slot in the lineup. He was especially good in the slugging department, where his numbers improved 111 points.
 
Despite his success, the Red Sox did worse when Dewey was leading off:
 
1985
G
W
L
W-Pct.
As Leadoff
73
33
38
.452
Other
85
43
42
.506
 
A year later, McNamara repeated the experiment. This time, Dewey’s slugging numbers switched: he was a better slugger when he was dropped in the batting order.
 
1986
 
BA
OBP
SLG
As Leadoff
 
0.252
0.378
0.430
Other
 
0.261
0.376
0.492
 
And once again, the better Evans did, the worse the Red Sox did.
 
1986
G
W
L
W-Pct.
As Leadoff
35
22
13
..629
Other
117
66
51
..564
 
Brian Downing, 1987
 
Downing, the late-blooming slugger for the Angels, was asked by Gene Mauch to bat leadoff.
 
Just a quick aside: it’s interesting that most of the managers who tried to experiment with slow sluggers batting lead-off were, for their careers, extremely successful managers. Weaver and Durocher are the Hall of Fame, and Gene Mauch was widely recognized as a fine manager. Ozzie’s a good manager. McNamara, well, he had his moments of staggering insight.
 
It takes a lot of guts to tell someone like Jimmy Wynn, “Hey, we’d like to try you out at the top of the order.” It takes guts to ignore conventional wisdom, to try something that might fail. I like that these managers were willing to take a risk.
 
Anyway: Brian Downing was similar to Evans in a few ways. Both were late bloomers as hitters, guys who had their best seasons in their thirties. Like Evans, Downing started the season in the leadoff spot, and was shifted around as the year progressed. Mauch was committed to the strategy: Downing played more games as a leadoff hitter than any of the other players listed.
 
 
G
BA
OBP
SLG
As Leadoff (1987)
110
0.291
0.421
0.507
After
45
0.219
0.337
0.431
 
Like Evans in 1985, Downing was much more productive from the leadoff spot, posting huge increase across the boards. From the #1 slot he was an MVP-level player. Anywhere else and he wasn’t.
 
Not surprisingly, the Angels did much better with the MVP-version of Downing, posting a far better record when Downing led them into battle.
 
Brian Downing
G
W
L
W. Pct.
As Leadoff
110
56
54
..509
After
45
17
28
..378
 
Nick Swisher, 2008
 
So we come to Swisher, who was given the leadoff spot after the White Sox acquired him at the start of 2008. It didn’t work:
 
 
 
BA
OBP
SLG
As Leadoff
 
0.208
0.351
0.321
Other
 
0.223
0.327
0.435
 
Though damned if Swisher didn’t try. Asked to bat leadoff, presumably because of his on-base skills, Swisher tried to draw walks, an effort that dampened his other abilities.
 
There are some people who thrive in change. You know who I’m talking about, and can probably identify a few in your circle of friends. These are people whose lives are in a constant state of chaos; people who jump from job to job or city to city.
 
These are interesting people: they’re fun to spend a weekend with. But spend enough time with them and that excitement turns quickly to annoyance. It’s fun to live life to the fullest, but it’s a difficult thing to sustain. 
 
Most of us can’t be like that: most of us get bogged down by the pressure to be responsible. Most of us know that some parts of life are, by definition, boring. No one likes to do the dishes, but they have to be done. And most of us like consistency: we might envy our free-spirited friends, but we’re not about to give up a steady paycheck. We might like the idea of moving to an unknown city, but when pushed we’d rather stick to what we know.
 
Ballplayers are like that, too. There are a few guys who thrive in ever-changing climates. Chone Figgins comes to mind. Bert Campanaris. But most ballplayers prefer consistency. They’re comfortable with the familiar, just like we are. Alfonso Soriano’s been hitting leadoff forever: asked to bat third for a couple of games when Ramirez was out and he turned into a different hitter, chasing pitches he doesn’t ordinarily chase. It was so obvious that even the T.V. announcers noticed it: Soriano, asked to do something out of his routine, was a different player.
 
I think Nick Swisher failed in 2008 because he was asked to go too far out of his comfort zone. He was asked to be a multi-purpose player, and he wasn’t up to it. The White Sox made him hit leadoff, which he had never done before, and they made him bounce around the diamond throughout the year, moving from position to position on a near-daily basis.
 
Unsurprisingly, the White Sox were lousy with Swisher in the leadoff spot.
 
 
G
W
L
W. Pct.
As Leadoff
30
14
16
..467
Other
123
69
54
..561

Now Swisher is with the Yankees, where he has a solid hold on a position, and a spot in the lineup where he can do whatever the hell he wants. And he’s doing better for it. He just needed the consistency.
 
 
Conclusion
 
Name
As a Leadoff Hitter He Was:
His Team Was:
Wynn
Slightly Better
Much Better
Singleton
 Same
Same
Evans
Slightly Better
Slightly Worse
Downing
Much Better
Much Better
Swisher
Much Worse
Much Worse
 
It’s hard to reach conclusions on small sample sizes. We can break it down another way:
 
Batting Average
 
When moved to the leadoff spot, players’ batting averages:
 
Improved Dramatically
Improved Slightly
Decreased Slightly
Decreased Dramatically
2
1
2
1
 
Three players experiences wild swings in batting average when shifted to the leadoff spot. Two of those players saw improvements in their batting average; one saw a steep drop.
 
On-base Percentage
 
When moved to the leadoff spot, players’ on-base percentages:
 
Improved Dramatically
Improved Slightly
Decreased Slightly
Decreased Dramatically
1
3
2
0
 
I thought, going into this study, that there would be a high degree of variance when players were slotted in the #1 spot of the order. That wasn’t the case: mostly, the on-base percentages stayed stable, with one exception.
 
Slugging Percentage
 
When moved to the leadoff spot, players’ slugging percentages:
 
Improved Dramatically
Improved Slightly
Decreased Slightly
Decreased Dramatically
3
1
0
2
 
 Interestingly, here is where the greatest variance occurs, by far. In five of the six seasons, the players saw a dramatic fluctuation in their slugging percentage. Three times it was a positive shift, while twice it was negative.
 
Again, we’re talking about small sample sizes. It’s interesting that slugging percentage is the statistic most effected when a player switches from the middle of the order to the leadoff spot, but I would hardly call the evidence conclusive. Just interesting.
 
I’ll end this with one more table: the overall team records with the sluggers hitting leadoff, and when they hit in the middle-of-the-order:
 
 
G
W
L
W-Pct.
As Leadoff
363
201
162
..554
As Other
389
201
188
..517
 
(Dave Fleming is a writer living in Iowa City, Iowa. He is proud to report that, after a lengthy and humiliating losing streak, Fiction managed to defeat Poetry in this year’s annual softball game.)
 
 

COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveFleming
Right...also, Bonds was a leadoff guy for a big chunk of his career...these other guys were sort of one- or two-year wonders, guys who otherwise batted in the middle of the order.

And Richie: herbal tea? Really? Most writers I know could drink an elephant under the table.
1:46 PM May 6th
 
papahans5
- Great work, Dave. Brian Downing will always be the poster child for this move, for me. I still think it makes sense. I wonder if the SLG goes up because as a leadoff hitter they get better pitches to hit - as in pitchers are less careful and stingy - than when they hit 5th and have men on base in front of them. Swisher, btw, seems to be in a 3-2 count just about every time up in 2009.
12:47 PM May 6th
 
Richie
Ummm. You've supposedly read this article on "sluggardly" leadoff hitters, in which Dave talks about how slow the guys were, and you're asking why a fast guy didn't make it??
11:04 AM May 6th
 
evanecurb
Fun read. Any reason that Bobby Bonds was left off the list? (He was younger and faster than the others on the list). I think he led off the entire season in '73 for the Giants and fell just short of the first 40-40 season.
9:53 AM May 6th
 
BrianFleming
Poetry lost? I find that hard to believe. Sounds like some of Tean Fiction are telling stories again.
12:42 PM May 4th
 
Richie
Then Spike TV came along hoping to steal the beer, and feeling vengeful at finding only herbal tea at the diamond, subjected both Fiction and Poetry to an unending series of Atomic Wedgies.

Nice article, Dave. Thanks!
8:34 PM May 3rd
 
 
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