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Now Leading Off...

   by Al McMordie - 05/30/2005

Now Leading Off...
By Al McMordie

An often overlooked area of baseball is the leadoff hitter. They are one of
the most valuable and important parts of baseball teams, but don't get as
much press, partly because leadoff hitters are usually not home run hitters.

The extraordinary Ricky Henderson spoiled casual followers of the game,
because Ricky could hit for average and power, draw walks and steal bases.
Comparisons with his productivity are inevitable, but it's important to
understand that there is nobody like him, before or since.
A leadoff hitter doesn't have to hit home runs. His job is to get on base,
then steal or threaten to steal to disrupt the opposition's defense and
pitcher. Having a man on first base helps the next batter. Next time someone
is on base, notice where the first baseman lines up. He'll usually be close
to the bag to hold the runner on. When no one's on first, the first sacker
plays a bit closer to second base. So, when someone's on first, the next
batter has a bit more room to hit on the first base side. Nuances like this
are what baseball is all about.

In addition, stealing bases can cause havoc to the other team, especially
the starting pitcher. The pitcher thinks too much about the guy on first
when he should be focused on the location of the pitch, or even what pitch
to throw. Many times you see a great base stealer on first and the pitcher
walks the next batter because he's not focused. Suddenly it's first and
second, with the possibility of a big inning.

This is a key factor in the improvement of the Chicago White Sox this
season. Chicago is not a great hitting team (9th in the AL), but they are
first in steals because of the addition of Scott Posednik (26 steals). His
.288 average and .276 on base percentage gives the "Go Go" White Sox a
weapon that can be just as valuable as a home run hitter.

The surprising Orioles aren't all home runs, either. They have a brilliant
duo atop the batting order in speedy Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts. Roberts
is having a career year with a .377 batting average and .459 on base
average. Getting those guys on base for the O's big sluggers leads to a two
or three-run homer, instead of a solo shot.

The Red Sox had a leadoff ace last season on the way to winning the World
Series in Johnny Damon, while the Marlins upset the Yankees in the Series
two years ago with Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo atop the order. Both those
teams didn't hit as many home runs as the Yankees, but upset the Bronx
Bombers in the postseason.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have had a surprising season and a big part of the
story is patient leadoff hitter Craig Counsell and his team-leading .420 on
base percentage. Baseball teams function best over the course of 162 games
when they can play different styles to score runs. Some parks are huge, so
teams that rely on the home run ball are at a disadvantage. But if they can
use speed and steal some bases in big parks, for example, they have a better
chance to compete and win than if they have a one-dimensional offense. And a
strong leadoff hitter can be an important weapon.

Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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