As the concept of the true leadoff hitter seems to be trending towards being a forgotten commodity in today’s sabermetric game, the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers, like last year, give the impression of being one of those teams that puts little emphasis on having a legit speed burner at the top of the batting order.
The Dodgers’ rich heritage has seen players like Junior Gilliam, Maury Wills, Davey Lopes, Steve Sax, Brett Butler, current manager Dave Roberts and most recently Dee Gordon wreak havoc on the basepaths — bunting for base hits, swiping bags, and using that extra quickness to go from first to third or second to home when the squad needed it most.
Nowadays, statistics like oWAR and OPS+ exist to tell us that some of the best leadoff hitters in baseball are worth less than most average players in terms of wins and runs added to the team.
The role of the leadoff hitter is being redefined by many of today’s managers, coaches and front offices. Analytics have shown that getting on base more frequently and hitting the ball harder are actually more beneficial to a team’s success than the traditional values and perceptions.
In the same sense, the customary duties of first base coaches like Lopes also show signs of changing. In each of his three seasons in Philadelphia, the Phillies led the majors in stolen base percentage, including 87.9% (138-for-157) in 2007 — the best in MLB history. In contrast, the Dodgers, like many other clubs, haven’t gotten anywhere near those numbers in recent years, and don’t forecast to do so considering the departure of Gordon after the 2014 season.
Regardless, the critical point remains the same as it was 50 years ago — leadoff hitters need to get on base to create runs. And the players the Dodgers used last year — Jimmy Rollins, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig, for example — were very inconsistent in finding ways to get on base when the team needed it most.
New additions in Micah Johnson and Trayce Thompson may actually profile better hitting leadoff than many others on the Dodgers’ roster, but projections are difficult to make based on their limited time in the bigs. Still, room would need to be created on the 25-man roster for either one by trading away or DFA’ing one or more veteran players who may be considered less valuable.
Based on potential alone, Puig seems to be the logical choice to assume the leadoff spot heading into 2016, but health, making contact with the ball, and on-base consistency will be the chief factors in determining his role in the lineup moving forward.
If able to rediscover his swing and reduce his strikeout rate from last season, Pederson may also be given another opportunity to bat first.
The good news is Roberts will have 33 Cactus League games to experiment and analyze which lineup combinations will be best for the club to begin the season. First base coach George Lombard and third base coach Chris Woodward also bring fresh perspectives in terms of improving run production.
All that being said, there’s still time for the front office to make an additional move or two to fill a few minor needs and change the complexion of the squad even further.
The Dodgers open Cactus League play against the White Sox on March 3.
(Photo Credit: Lance Iversen/USA Today)