At the beginning of the season, there weren’t many people who envisioned Jose Bautista as the Blue Jays leadoff hitter. For multiple seasons in a row, Bautista has occupied the three-slot and there was no reason to assume that anything would change. When the team is scuffling, however, anything is possible. As a result, Jose found himself at the top, and at the moment, there is nothing to suggest the Jays will revert to the previous order anytime soon. The club did get a more ‘natural’ leadoff hitter with the return of Devon Travis’ to the big league club, but he is still essentially in spring training and might take a while to get going.
The major surprise with Bautista leading off is that he isn’t the prototypical table setter. For the majority of baseball’s history, the leadoff hitter was a fast, high-average batter. With the emergence of on-base-percentage as an important statistic in recent years, the mentality has begun to change but not everyone has taken hold. Let’s take a look at how Jose Bautista stacks up with the other leadoff men in baseball. I have constructed a table with relevant statistics and labelled each player as Player A, B, C, etc… in random order. We will compare the numbers of 12 top of the order bats in baseball, but we will do so without the knowledge of who each player is at first. As a disclaimer, I am using Bautista’s full season statistics, not just what he has accomplished since moving into the number one spot.
Despite the notion that many teams are moving away from the ‘stereotypical’ leadoff hitter, there is still quite a bit of speed at the top of the lineups. Just over half (7/12) of the players on this list project to have around 20 or more steals this season. These 12 players are also generally some of the better leadoff hitters in the game, so it is no surprise that on-base-percentage is a targeted attribute. Among this group, the median OBP is .355, with a the lowest OBP of 0.285 owned by ‘Player L’ and the highest belongs to ‘Player H’ at 0.399.
In previous baseball generations, it would be unheard-of to have a player that hits more than 30 home runs in the top spot. In this season alone, six of the 12 have already hit ten or more, which projects to at least 30 this season. The ISO number indicates this change toward more power than simply speed alone. ISO communicates a players extra bases per at-bat; for context, an average ISO is around 0.150 and anything above 0.200 is an indication of a hitter who drives the ball for consistent extra bases. On the graph above, five of the hitters are above that 0.200 benchmark while numerous others are nipping at their heels. The underlying principle driving this change is that a team wants their better players getting more at-bats in a game. If the leadoff hitter can consistently hit doubles or get walks, then that continually puts the two, three and four hitters in a position to drive them in.
Let’s look at the difference between ‘Player F’ and ‘Player H’. F is the prototypical leadoff hitter, he steals a lot of bases, has a small amount of power and doesn’t get on base as frequently as you would like. H is the more ‘new age’ leadoff hitter. He has not stolen a base yet this year, but does everything else a team would want of their table setter. He gets on-base 40% of the time, has the highest ISO of the group at 0.271 and sees 4.28 pitches per plate appearance. He works the count well, gets on base and takes advantage of poor pitches by hitting them for extra bases. A hitter that can do all of the above is more beneficial to a team than one who can simply swipe a couple of bags to get into scoring position for the team’s big guns.
Now let’s look at the table with the names of each player revealed. Before looking, try and take a guess which one Jose Bautista is.
Now that we know Bautista is mysterious ‘Player E’ we can assess where he stacks up among the top leadoff hitters in the game. Unsurprisingly, Jose ranks near the top in home runs and in the cellar for bases stolen. Jose is one of the most patient hitters of the group; on average he sees 4.28 pitches per plate appearance which helps him attain an OBP of 0.368. Bautista’s numbers don’t particularly stand out one way or the other. There are certain aspects of his game that are better than other leadoff hitters (i.e. power) and others that are worse (i.e. speed and base running). Jose has a good strikeout rate of 16% and an above-average TAv of 0.288. True Average is a measure of total offensive value and the number is adjusted to a batting average scale. The metric is made so that a TAv of 0.260 is average and accounts for park factor and league quality; the statistic’s aim is at evaluating players on a level playing field. Thus far into the season, I would give the edge to Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter and Mookie Betts as the best leadoff hitters among the group; but in that second tier is where Jose Bautista finds himself. I added Rougned Odor to the list because I have no love for him and his numbers are visibly poor compared to the rest of the group. C’mon Rougned, get on-base at least 30% of the time, it is 2016 after all.
Bautista’s average is lower right now than he would like but he is still getting on-base at an acceptable rate to be at the top of the order. He ranks third in the majors and first in the AL with a 17% walk rate this season. If Donaldson and Encarnacion are repeatedly getting opportunities to hit with Bautista on base, the Blue Jays surprisingly mediocre offense will eventually begin to score more runs.
Jose Bautista is not the picturesque leadoff hitter, but what he provides in the number one spot is exactly what any ball club would want. He continually allows the best hitters on our team to hit when there are ducks on the pond. Personally, I am quite confident with Bautista setting the table and getting the most at-bats on the team game in and game out. The Jays are 13-7 with Bautista up top, so we could see him there for a while. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
Batting stats are current as of the start of play on Tuesday, June 14.
Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports