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Saturday, March 15, 2014
Evolutionary Puig: Leadoff hitter

By David Schoenfield

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The game changes in small, incremental directions, actions and movements and strategies slowly evolving. Go back to the 1930s and 1940s and into the ‘50s and most pitchers used that old two-handed windmill wind-up, the pitcher’s arms swinging behind him and then back forward above his head, often accompanied by the front leg kicking madly out to the side. Compare Bob Feller's motion to the smooth, compact deliveries you mostly see today; they're efficient and seemingly effortless. Who decided the windmill motion didn’t actually generate more power or arm speed? That a big leg kick made it more difficult for a pitcher to repeat his delivery? Who was the last guy to pitch like that?

Things are changing even now. They were about 5,000 more defensive shifts in 2013 than in 2011 and we’ll see even more this year. Catchers like A.J. Ellis are not only aware of the value of pitch framing but will study video and data to learn where their strengths and weaknesses are in that skill. Managers bunt less often than they used to.

The game changes, but some traditions still hold out. They’ve become truths. For example, the batting order: fast guy hits first, bat-control artist or "professional" hitter type bats second, high-average guy hits third and power dude in the cleanup spot. There are always exceptions, of course, but that’s still a general rule that’s been followed since the days of John McGraw and Joe McCarthy.

That’s why the Dodgers’ decision to try power-hitting Yasiel Puig in the leadoff spot is so intriguing. It flies against the notion of batting a fast guy who may lack power in that spot. Puig is fast, but his type of power is usually seen lower in the order.

"The thought process was the number of guys you want getting the extra at-bat," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He’s a guy who hasn’t really showed us yet that he’s going to drive in runs and we have a number of guys who do that, so get him that extra at-bat and a chance to pop a ball when the lineup turns over."
It’s an argument statistical analysts have made for decades -- there’s run-producing value in simply getting your best hitters more plate appearances, even if it means hitting them in non-conventional spots in the order. Fred Haney, when he managed the Milwaukee Braves, always toyed with the idea of batting Henry Aaron leadoff to get him more at-bats, but never followed through with it. Giants manager Bill Rigney started Willie Mays 45 times in the No. 2 hole in 1959 but Mays eventually returned to his usual No. 3 spot.

Considering the Dodgers don’t have an obvious leadoff candidate -- Dee Gordon is one of the fastest players in the majors but hasn’t shown he’ll hit and Carl Crawford’s on-base percentage has been a mediocre .308 over the past three seasons -- putting Puig there could prove a wise move. Hey, a solo home run is still a run scored, and the Dodgers still have big bats like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp lower in the order. Hitting Puig leadoff also presents righty-lefty balance if the Dodgers go Puig, Crawford, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Kemp.

Puig hit 19 home runs in 104 games in 2013; prorate that to 150 games and you get 27 home runs. Factor in the potential for even more power and you’re looking at a leadoff hitter who could hit 30 home runs. That’s been done just 14 times -- including four times by Alfonso Soriano, who holds the single-season record with 39 home runs from the leadoff spot in 2006. Only five leadoff hitters have reached 25 home runs more than once: Soriano five times, Bobby Bonds three, and Rickey Henderson, Jimmy Rollins and Grady Sizemore twice each.

Chone Figgins, battling to make the Dodgers’ roster as a utility player, was once one of the top leadoff hitters in the game. He fit the more conventional mode of the little guy with speed who battles the pitcher, takes pitches and draws walks. He doesn’t think every leadoff hitter has to fit that stereotype. That fact that Puig may be a more aggressive hitter (although Puig’s walk rate did improve throughout his rookie season) isn’t necessarily something teammates would frown upon, he says.

"The teammates behind you don’t really care. They’re watching the pitcher anyway," Figgins said. "It’s more of an organizational thing on what kind of hitter they’re looking for. Some teams may like a guy like Grady Sizemore when he was with Cleveland, a guy with more power who is going to steal 20 bases. Then you had Seattle with Ichi [Ichiro Suzuki], and he swings, where I’m going to take a lot of pitches. Juan Pierre was sort of in-between Ichi and myself. It comes down to what kind of team it is and whatever players are behind the leadoff hitter."

Figgins pointed out that he had a strong lineup behind him with the Angels, so getting on base was paramount. But working the count was always his game as a hitter; he wasn't going to hit home runs anyway. He hasn't given any advice to Puig -- "I'm not even on the team," he said -- but he believes a hitter shouldn't change his own style of hitting based on where he hits.

While it may be viewed as an easy decision by Mattingly to hit Puig leadoff considering his options, few managers look for big power from the leadoff spot. Only the A’s (27), Mariners (21) and Reds (21) received 20 home runs from the leadoff spot in 2013 and eight teams had fewer than 10. Only three teams had 20-plus home runs from the leadoff spot in 2012. There were eight teams that reached 20-plus in 2011, including the Red Sox with Jacoby Ellsbury, the Rangers with Ian Kinsler and the Brewers with Rickie Weeks all topping 30, but that season was the recent exception.

The major league average has been 13 home runs from the leadoff spot the past two seasons, 14 in 2011, 12 in 2010. Even back in 2001, in the heyday of the steroid era, when seemingly everyone was hitting home runs, the major league average from the leadoff spot was still 13.

As for Puig, Mattingly has liked what he’s seen this spring, even if Puig is hitting just .152 in the early going. "He continues to grow up, and I don’t mean that in a bad way," Mattingly said. "He’s more mature. His outfield play has been really good as far as keeping the ball down and throwing the ball to the right place. His at-bats have been OK this spring."

Of course, just because the initial plans are for Puig to hit leadoff that doesn’t mean he'll remain there. As much as managers and fans obsess over lineups and who bats where, injuries and slumps force managers to be flexible. Most teams use well over 100 different lineups in a season and multiple leadoff hitters. And maybe Puig hits his way back down the lineup or Crawford hits his way back into the leadoff spot (although he was always most comfortable batting second in his Tampa Bay days).

Or maybe Puig hits 30 home runs, scores 120 runs, the Dodgers win the World Series and he becomes that evolutionary figure and 10 years from now every team will be wanting more power from the leadoff position. After all, it's always nice to jump out to a 1-0 lead.