Where did the leadoff monsters go?

May, 21, 2011
5/21/11
12:00
PM ET
Yes, this is another article about the sorry state of offense in 2011. Scoring is down a fifth of a run per team from 2010, a "year of the pitcher." It's down four-tenths of a run from 2009, six-tenths of a run if you want to reach back to 2006. We've also heard about how power is a big part of this "problem," as MLB-wide isolated power is down 20-25 points from 2006. But we're not talking about something else that seems to have gone missing: leadoff hitters who are quality table-setters.

[+] EnlargeLeadoff OBPs
Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comOn-base percentages for leadoff men.
We'll get into the data up front and then start seeing if we can parse what it might mean. First, there's the simple fact that OBPs for leadoff hitters are down. Last year's MLB-wide leadoff man OBP of .329 was the lowest we've seen in a full season since 1982, when it was also .329. It hadn't been lower than .329 since 1978, when the leadoff OBP was .323. From 1993-2010, the American League’s leadoff OBP of .330 was its worst, the NL’s .328 its second-worst. Keep in mind, leadoff OBP didn’t disappear in a puff of PED ban enforcement. As the first chart reflects, leadoff OBPs weren’t just stable after 2006, they went up. The AL’s 2009 leadoff OBP of .355 was its highest since 1996. On-base percentage for leadoff men was back up where it had been in the offensive onslaught of the late '90s… until last year.

So, a low-water mark was set in 2010, the worst leadoff OBP in 32 seasons … until this spring's action. In 2011, leadoff hitters have managed to get on base at a .325 clip. It’s especially bad in the American League, where leadoff men were eking out a .312 OBP through Thursday’s action. More than a quarter of the way in, we’re still waiting for both leagues to flip the ignition, but without any ignitors, let alone the original Paul Molitor, how is that supposed to happen?

[+] EnlargeBase on balls percentages
Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comBase on balls percentages for leadoff men.
Naturally, the first question to ask is why? Looking at walk rates for leadoff hitters in the second table, we’ve obviously lost some of what we took for granted -- hitters aren’t managing that walk once every 10 times up, a pace you might once have accepted as the basic standard. We’re not at the bottom of a trough, but the rate is back down where things were earlier in the Aughties, and that’s sub-good.

Some of that is a matter of the selection of leadoff likelies available to their teams: Jacoby Ellsbury is not a big-time walking man, for example, and wishing he was won’t make it so, but it doesn't make him ineffective. However, in a league and time where Rickey Henderson is still retired, finding people who can draw ball four hasn’t exactly been easy, which is probably why Juan Pierre or even Scott Podsednik keep getting opportunities. Some of it can also be institutional -- last year, the Rays came up with a perfectly functional creative adaptation, moving John Jaso and B.J. Upton into and out of the role as Joe Maddon played matchups. But this year they got carried away with the Sam Fuld phenomenon, only to learn what they already knew from his projections, which is that for a leadoff hitter he makes a heck of a defensive replacement.

Admittedly, when we think about leadoff hitters, it's easy to stick with happier memories, of the guys who are or were truly great at it: Rickey and Tim Raines in the '80s for example, or Ichiro for the past decade. You can take things down a notch and think fondly of Ray Durham or Tony Phillips, or from the current generation of players get sentimental about guys like Brian Roberts and Chone Figgins. And from any of these guys, you generally knew what to expect: OBPs that were .350 or higher, plenty of walks, and stolen-base totals in the 20-50 range.

But even then, there were always the other guys, the way the other half lived with their leadoff options, which pulled leadoff OBPs down around .333 year after year. If you were around in 1981, you had a rare opportunity to see one of the worst leadoff hitters of all time in action, achieving what would be, even by his standards, a career lowlight. Alfredo Griffin posted a .236 OBP leading off for the Blue Jays for the bulk of a season that was blighted by a strike. It's a mark for single-season leadoff putrescence that hasn't been underwhelmed in the 30 years since.

We can get into origin myths if you like, and ask where the great leadoff men came from and now, where they went, and whether or not we're bereft of truly elite leadoff men in this particular generation of players -- beyond admirable dinosaurs like Ichiro, of course. I wonder if we aren’t just stuck in the Michael Bourn generation. That might not seem entirely fair to Bourn, because he's one of the better leadoff hitters by today’s standards. He has posted OBPs better than league average in 2009 and 2010, after all. He's off to a slow start this season, but at least he's reliably within spitting distance of walking once every ten times and he runs well. That might represent a new, lower standard of what will do, but perhaps this isn't a burden to be Bourn, but a reflection of a changed game. Bourn makes an appropriate symbol for a time when teams are getting used to living with less offense.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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