Heyward remains the only logical option to consistently fill the leadoff spot
Fredi Gonzalez watches the same games and analyzes the same numbers that you do. When he put B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot for Tuesday night’s game against the Astros, he fully anticipated the ridicule that followed. But as long as he wants to keep Jason Heyward in the middle of his lineup, then he really does not have a logical option to place at the top.
Raise your hand if you just read that previous sentence and said something like, “Yeah, so, just go with the most illogical option?” (Seriously, you just raised your hand with nobody around you understanding why. And you think Fredi is a buffoon for putting B.J. in the leadoff spot.)
Gonzalez made it clear that he is not married to having Upton fill the leadoff spot. It sounds like he’s going to experiment with this arrangement much like he did the Tommy La Stella experiment that did not work last week.
Perhaps, three weeks into his career was too early to ask La Stella to fill the lineup’s top spot. Or maybe the time was right for him to finally get exposed. Whatever the case, as he went 2-for-20 and drew two walks over the five games he served as the leadoff hitter, he did not show the patience and plate discipline that had set him apart during his Minor League days.
If La Stella continues to consistently put the ball in play, he could prove to be effective in the lineup’s second spot. But the jury is still out on the second baseman.
When La Stella was hitting .387 entering last Tuesday’s game against the Philllies, a highly-regarded scout pointed to a stat sheet and told me, ‘that three will be a two within a week.” Once again, he proved to be right. La Stella will enter tonight’s game hitting .289.
Freddie Freeman is really the only logical number three hitter on the Braves roster. So if Gonzalez wants to keep La Stella in the two hole, he would have left-handed hitters filling the second and third spots of his lineup. This brings us back to the argument against filling the top of the lineup with three consecutive left-handed hitters. In other words, using this premise, Heyward is out of the mix for the leadoff spot. (SPOILER ALERT: Heyward is always the best leadoff option, unless the Braves facing a left-handed starter. Just in the process of making an argument right now.)
So now we’re tasked with the assignment to find a right-handed hitter to put in that leadoff spot. Well, unless you want to argue that it would cut down on the double play opportunities Chris Johnson would encounter, Johnson, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis are not exactly leadoff types. When given a shot to fill this role last year, Andrelton Simmons proved to be the least productive of the many leadoff hitters the Braves have utilized since saying goodbye to Rafael Furcal.
So essentially by default, Gonzalez threw B.J. and his .272 on-base percentage into the leadoff spot yesterday. How long this arrangement lasts remains to be seen. But it’s obviously not one that makes sense, especially this week with the Astros set to start three consecutive right-handed pitchers.
I understand that Astros veteran left-handed reliever Tony Sipp has been tremendous against left-handed hitters this season. But he’s also been pedestrian again them throughout most of his career. More importantly, does is really make sense to allow a lineup’s structure to be based on the concern that one specialist MIGHT be able to dominate three consecutive left-handed hitters in an inning?
So if La Stella has to be in the two-hole for now, I think the Braves would be best suited to begin their lineup against right-handed starters with the left-handed trio of Heyward, La Stella and Freeman.
Concerns about putting Heyward in the leadoff spot on a daily basis are focused on the fact that he has hit .139 with a .198 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers. In fact, he his hitless in his past 27 at-bats against southpaws.
So, when the Braves face a left-handed starter, it might make sense to fill the leadoff spot with Simmons, who has hit .348 with a .362 on-base percentage against southpaws this year. But, other than recognizing that his speed is an asset when he gets on base, I can’t even begin to make an argument for B.J. being in the leadoff spot.
Proposed lineup vs. RH starters: Heyward, La Stella, Freeman, Gattis, J. Upton, Johnson, B.J., Simmons
vs. LH starters: Simmons, J. Upton, Freeman, Gattis, Johnson, Heyward, B.J., La Stella
Here is a look at the top on-base percentages compiled by players while manning the leadoff spot (Min. 50 games) for the Braves dating back to Furcal’s departure after the 2005 season:
Yunel Escobar (80 games) .370
Gregor Blanco (70 games) .370
Omar Infante (97 games) .363
Heyward (99 games) .354
Michael Bourn (204 games ) .340
Martin Prado (139 games) .340
Kelly Johnson (141 games) .338
Nate McLouth (99 games) .336
Marcus Giles (113 games) .334
Jordan Schafer (88 games) .316
Andrelton Simmons (65 games) .255