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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