George Brett frequently batted leadoff for the Royals 1977-1979

Is Alex Gordon the Royals Best Option to Leadoff?

The Royals will likely ask Gordon to leadoff and aggressively run the bases in 2011 (Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE)

What is the job of a leadoff hitter?  His job is to get on base and score runs by any means possible.  It doesn’t matter if he gets a hit, a walk, forces an error, lays down a bunt, is hit by a pitch, bite, scratch, slash, burn, dive – anything to turn himself into a potential RBI.  Then, job number two is to move his way around the bases by getting good leadoffs, watching the pitchers’ moves, avoiding a pickoff, stealing when appropriate, taking the extra base when he can, and being aggressive.  Generally, the prototypical leadoff hitter is also fast, very very fast.

Who fits this description on the Royals roster?  Jarrod Dyson fits many pieces of this description, but his projected batting average is less than optimal, and he may not even make the major league roster.  Lorenzo Cain has the potential to fit the description, but he hasn’t demonstrated elite base stealing skills in the minors and we haven’t witnessed his abilities first hand for an extended period at the big league level yet.  How about Alcides Escobar?  Maybe, but then again, maybe not.  The Royals don’t currently have a player in the Willie Wilson mold, and they aren’t projected to have one for the foreseeable future.

So, why is Alex Gordon batting leadoff?

Alex Gordon is batting leadoff because last year he hit .303, he took 67 walks, he stole 17 bases (but was picked off 8 times), he banged out 45 doubles, he was hit by pitches 7 times, and he scored 101 runs.  (Plus 23 homers – Bonus!)  Alex knows how to get on base and he knows what to do once he gets there.  He isn’t the fastest guy on the team, but he’s not the slowest either, and he’s a good solid choice to hit leadoff.

The sight of Alex Gordon batting leadoff reminds me somewhat of former Royals coach Whitey Herzog’s decision to regularly place George Brett at the top of the order from 1977 – 1979.  Herzog’s theory was that nobody got on base more frequently than Brett and this would lead to increased opportunities for other batters to push him around and score runs.  I was an avid Royals fan in the 70’s and I must confess I wasn’t very excited about Brett batting leadoff.  Without conducting any research, my bias against this decision clouded my memory and I had assumed the Royals probably under-achieved with this approach.

I was skeptical of the decision to bat Brett at the top of the order because first of all we know George was able to hit for more than just average and on base percentage, he had power and the ability to stoke clutch base hits.  I assumed the Royals weren’t able to take advantage of this talent when placing him in a leadoff role with nobody on base.  And later in the game when he typically wasn’t leading off, he was hitting behind the batters in the bottom of the order who didn’t present as many RBI opportunities.  You would think that his RBI count would have gone down while batting first, but you’d be wrong.  Brett had 88 RBIs in 1977 (about average for his career) while playing in only 135 games, which projects to nearly 100 if he had played 155 games that season.  So, it doesn’t appear that batting first had any significant impact on his RBI total.

Brett was no slouch running the bases, but he wasn’t a burner either, so it would seem plausible that his run total would be reduced due to the difficulties he would face with scoring from first on a double, stretching a double into a triple, or challenging a strong outfield arm at the plate.  Once again, that thought would be wrong.  Brett scored the 3rd most runs in the league in 1977.

While leading off 58% of the time (he only played in 139 games), Brett scored 105 runs in 1977 which was good for the 3rd most in the American League that year behind Rod Carew who batted 3rd for the Twins at 128 runs (in 155 games) and Carlton Fisk who started the season batting 8th and finished the season batting 5th in the Red Sox order at 106 runs scored (in 152 games played.)   Hal McRae also scored 104 runs that year while batting primarily 2nd in the order.  Brett and McRae – now that was a one/two punch!

Do you know what is conspicuously absent from a list of the American League top 8 in runs scored from 1977?  Prototypical leadoff hitters!  (None of them even batted at the top of the order!)  I don’t think anyone ever accused Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, or Bobby Bonds of burning up the base paths.  Rod Carew was fast, but not that fast.  These guys scored runs because they hit for average and they knew what to do when they got on base.  Their hitting skills and base running expertise permitted them to overcome their lack of blazing speed.

And how about the leaders of the 2011 season?  Of the Major League top ten in runs scored last year, only two of them regularly batted in the leadoff position or could be considered prototypical type leadoff hitters.  The rest of them were just like George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Bobby Bonds, and Rod Carew in 1977.  You may recognize some of their names from 2011: Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, and Jose Bautista.

Alex Gordon is following in the footsteps of many great leadoff hitters and run scoring leaders who didn’t quite fit the “perfect” mold and characteristics of a prototypical top-of-the-order athlete.  Gordon may not be the Royals leadoff hitter forever and my guess is his tenure in this role depends on what Lorenzo Cain does with the bat over the next few months.  Until then, I’m happy to watch Alex Gordon stride to the plate immediately after the umpire yells, “Play ball!”

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Tags: AL Central Alcides Escobar Alex Gordon Baseball George Brett Jarrod Dyson Kansas City Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Lorenzo Cain MLB Royals Willie Wilson

  • jim fetterolf

    Gordon is good at leadoff because he gets on base and doesn’t clog them up when he is there. He seems to have a good eye, walked a lot even with Melky and Billy following, and managed 87 rbis on top of his runs scored, so about perfect for the job. Biggest drawback was his K% at 20.1, but he worked on stuff at Mac-N-Seitz in the off season trying to address that. With a weaker #2 hitter than last year, Alex should walk even more this year.

  • mmeade17

    I’m going to up the anti and say that Gordon is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. He has a great on-base for a leadoff guy, and though he doesn’t steal a lot of bases, he does hit a lot of doubles, which is the same as a single and a stolen base–actually better. Of players with at least 80 games as a leadoff hitter, Gordon had the highest OBP in the leadoff spot (tied actually with Jose Reyes at .383). The Royals are lucky to have him.

  • the5allens

    great article.  to me, the ability to take a walk is more valuable for a leadoff hitter than the ability to steal a base.  it is nice when your leadoff hitter can show some pitches for his teammates – gauge what the opposing pitcher has going that night.  Commanding the strike zone as a hitter leads to walks, which are baserunners and potential runs.  Not that speed is unimportant – as Fetterolf said, you don’t want someone who will clog the bases.  but you can’t steal first.

  • eric.akers

    I like a lead off hitter that can work the pitcher more than most hitters. I remember Joey Cora of the 97 Mariners being a great lead off.  He would foul off pitch after pitch at times which is a great way to start a game. Make the pitcher work for the very first batter and let everybody else see what he is bringing that day.  Alex needs to stop taking those close pitches with two strike counts and work to foul them off rather than letting them go by in hopes of a walk.

  • jim fetterolf

     @eric.akers eric, that was worked on all winter by Alex and Seitz. Billy is one of the best at that, wasting two-strike pitches by flicking them down the first base line. He gets lots of ten and twelve pitch at bats.

  • michael.allen.engel

    This is one of the rare spots where Ned has gone against the grain. I like it when managers don’t get trapped into the “by the book” mentality, and the stats make sense. The leadoff hitter will see more plate appearances than anyone over the course of a game and season, so it makes sense to put someone who’ll be productive there. More opportunities to get on base. 
    It’s a lot better than being stuck in the rut that the leadoff hitter has to be a stolen base guy. Often, that’s all you get.