They’re running a poll on MetsBlog about who the team’s leadoff hitter should be. The good news is that Brandon Nimmo is the overwhelming favorite, garnering over 80% of the votes among the three candidates. The bad news is that Amed Rosario is listed as one of the options.
It’s disappointing that in 2020, people still cling to the belief that guys who run fast and can steal bases are best utilized as a leadoff hitter. There are things upon which reasonable people can disagree. How best to utilize Jeff McNeil – the other leadoff option in the MetsBlog poll – chief among them with the current Mets. But the idea that a fast guy automatically makes a good leadoff hitter is simply not one of these debate topics.
If you were going to create the perfect leadoff hitter, he would get on base, have great speed and be able to hit the ball out of the park. Someone like 1969 Tommie Agee. But somewhere along the way, the ideal became bastardized into batting your fastest guy first. And it sounds great in theory because the fast guy can turn singles into being on second base with a steal. But the reality is that you’re better off with a slow guy who gets on base compared to a burner with a poor OBP.
Back in 2013, the Mets picked up Eric Young Jr. during the season and he gave the club something it didn’t have very much of at the time – speed. In 91 games with the Mets that year, Young swiped 38 bases. He was a fun guy to watch play and that speed and excitement led a lot of people to clamor for him to bat leadoff. And we see the same thing now with Rosario.
Unlike today, where the Mets have far superior options for the first spot in the order, the 2014 Mets didn’t have a slam dunk to bat leadoff. That fact still didn’t make batting Young first a good idea. Young had a .318 OBP for the Mets in 2013, better than the .290 mark he had with the Rockies in the first part of the year and right in line with his career .325 OBP at the time.
That offseason we looked at the issue of leadoff hitters with a low OBP (.330 and below) and high steals (40 or more) and compared them to guys with a high OBP (.350 and above) and 10 or fewer SB. Here’s what was found:
The hi-steals/low OBP group has just three players who scored over 100 runs in a year while the lo-steals/hi OBP have 54 seasons of 100 or more runs scored. Jack Tobin scored 132 runs in 1921 when he had a .396 OBP and 7 SB. Pete Rose had 130 runs in 1976 when he had a .404 OBP and 9 SB. Meanwhile, the best runs scored total for the hi-SB/low-OBP group was the 112 scored by Lou Brock in 1967 when he swiped 52 bases and had a .329 OBP.
In 2005, Jose Reyes had 733 PA and stole 60 bases. He also had a .300 OBP and only scored 99 runs. Overall, there have been 20 times in Mets history where a player scored at least 100 runs in a season. Only twice did those come with an OBP under .350 – Howard Johnson in 1991 (.342) and Agee in 1970 (.344). Reyes scored 100 or more runs as a Met three times and he had an OBP of at least .350 in each of those seasons.
In 1979, Frank Taveras had 680 PA, swiped 42 bases, had a .301 OBP and scored 89 runs. In 1983 Mookie Wilson had 663 PA, swiped 54 bases, had a .300 OBP and scored 91 runs. They’ve never employed a full-time leadoff hitter with good OBP skills and little speed. The best example is probably 2015 Curtis Granderson, who had 636 PA as a leadoff hitter and scored 93 runs with 8 SB. Granderson was no burner at this point in his career but he had more speed than his SB totals would indicate. In 1973, Wayne Garrett led off 80 times, had 1 SB and 53 runs scored thanks to a .363 OBP.
The Wilson/Garrett comparison stands out. Wilson had several years right around the 1983 numbers quoted above, as his speed made everyone think that he was the ideal leadoff man. Garrett had a grand total of 107 starts as a leadoff hitter after 1973. Just imagine how different the Mets’ fortunes would have been if after the 1969 season, someone had whispered to the powers that be that the Mets should just install Garrett as their full-time third baseman and bat him leadoff against RHP. If nothing else, it would have meant 1,000 fewer PA with Bud Harrelson and his .312 OBP batting first.
You put Nimmo and his lifetime .387 OBP in the leadoff spot for a 162-game season and he’s got a shot to challenge Carlos Beltran’s franchise record of 127 runs. You put Rosario and his lifetime .305 OBP in the leadoff spot and he has a chance to challenge 2005 Reyes. Sure, the hope/expectation is that Rosario improves upon last year’s career-best .323 OBP. But is that any different than the hope/expectation that Nimmo improves upon his injury-plagued 2019 OBP? Why on earth would you sacrifice 50 points of OBP and 20 runs in the leadoff spot?
In 2014, Young played 100 games, swiped 30 bases, had a .299 OBP and scored 48 runs.