Leadoff hitters have been the spark plugs for baseball teams since the game began, but these days there isn’t a solitary mold for hitters who sit atop the batting order.
Some of today’s table-setters ignite their club’s offense in a different way, hitting for more power and running less than ever before. In speaking with a few of the more prolific leadoff hitters in terms of slugging from the No. 1 hole this season, Sporting News found there is little difference in how they approach the role.
While the players do not believe they make wholesale changes to their game when leading off, there is clear evidence that the performance of leadoff hitters has been completely transformed in the past few seasons.
Teams are more willing than ever to sacrifice speed for power at the top of the order, and lineups across the game reflect the shift. Here's a look at how it's playing out.
Speedy veteran flips power switch
Some teams are fortunate to have a bit of a balance at the top of the order. Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner has revamped his game into a combination of the old- and new-school thought process as a leadoff hitter. Gardner speaks like a player knitted from the old cloth.
“My job up there is to get on base and get these guys behind me RBI opportunities,” he told Sporting News. “I feel comfortable (at the top of the order) and the goal is to get on base.”
Gardner is an interesting subject when it comes to leadoff hitters. At 33, Gardner has altered his game from a 30-plus stolen base threat to a legitimate power source who maintains exceptional on-base prowess and above-average speed.
Gardner owned a .263 batting average, .357 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage in 430 plate appearances from the leadoff spot this season through July 31. He has launched a single-season career high 19 home runs this season (all as the leadoff hitter) with four dingers to lead off a game. The kicker? Gardner still exhibits some speed on the bases, stealing 13 bags.
Despite the multitude of balls Gardner pulls into the upper deck during impressive batting practice sessions, he didn’t bite when asked whether he goes up to the plate looking to turn on a pitch and put it into the seats.
“I have different approaches against different pitchers and different situations,” Gardner said. “It depends on who is on the mound, the situation in the game, what inning it is, who is on base in front of me, who is up behind me.”
Diminishing returns on the bases
Using speed on the bases is a part of the game that has been in steady decline over the years. The changes are not lost on players from baseball’s running era.
Two-time All-Star and 1985 Rookie of the Year Vince Coleman, who stole 752 bases in a career in which he predominately hit leadoff, told Jacksonville.com last June that it’s about the type of athletes who are becoming baseball players these days — strong, muscular players are being developed over quick, lean players.
“You need a certain type of athlete (to steal bases) and not every (team) has that type of athlete, or is developing that type of athlete,” Coleman said.
Without base stealers, Coleman believes the game is missing some pizazz.
“You would hope that all teams would be that way (steal more),” Coleman said. “It brings more excitement to the game. But too many teams are afraid of losing outs on the bases.”
The statistics support what Coleman has seen; diminished base stealing and increased power from the leadoff position in the lineup.
The decline in stolen bases has been gradual since 1980, being cut by more than half compared to with season. Meanwhile, home runs from leadoff hitters went up and down until significant seasonal jumps from 2014 to 2016, with another 1.40 home run increase on a 750 plate appearance scale thus far this season. Home runs hit by leadoff hitters in a season’s worth of plate appearances has almost completely caught up with the number of stolen bases from a leadoff hitter across 162 games.
For comparison’s sake, the league as a whole owns a .426 slugging percentage in 2017. Leadoff hitters sit just .038 points behind cleanup hitters in slugging percentage this season, where that difference was .081 points in 1980. The increase in power from the leadoff spot is unmistakable, and some teams are beginning to maneuver their lineup construction around it.
One item that stands out from the data above is the slugging percentage for the very first at-bat from each team. One of the Rays’ leadoff hitters, Steven Souza Jr., told Sporting News how he believes it has come to fruition.
"It used to be guys at the top of the order just on, slapped the ball, speed guys. You get a guy now at the top of the order like (Houston Astros outfielder George) Springer, who can leave the park on the first pitch. It used to be pitchers could try to settle in, find the zone with their pitches. If you get a guy who’s a fastball hitter, it’s usually a bad combination for the pitcher."
Straight up power at the top
The Yankees are fortunate to have a hitter who possesses a speed/power combination as a leadoff hitter. In Tampa Bay, the Rays have primarily used three players at the top of the order: Mallex Smith, a traditional speedster, and a power tandem of Corey Dickerson and Souza.
Dickerson, after a brief glance at his batting history, seems completely out of place at the top of the lineup. Dickerson is more of a free swinger (6.4 percent walk rate), yet he prefers not to change his approach when hitting first.
“There might be a time when I want to see the first pitch or sometimes I want to see what the guy has, but I don’t want it to take away from my approach,” Dickerson told Sporting News. “The newest thing (for me hitting leadoff) is getting into a fresh box and feeling comfortable.”
Dickerson has been very comfortable as a leadoff hitter. In 202 plate appearances as the Rays' leadoff hitter this season through July 31, Dickerson generated a .316/.363/.626 slash line (159 OPS+) with 14 doubles and 14 home runs. Dickerson also launched six home runs to kick start a game for the Rays, but suggested he doesn’t go up to the plate specifically looking to homer.
“I try to stay in the same approach,” he said. “I try to think along with what I want to do, the plan I have. I'm thinking about driving the ball no matter where I am (in the lineup).”
Dickerson elaborated on his overall approach at the plate, suggesting it does not differ based on his position in the lineup. Dickerson heads to the plate looking to swing at specific pitches in certain spots.
“I know my weaknesses,” Dickerson said. “I know the pitcher’s tendencies and how he might attack me. I try to (maintain) a good game plan.”
Souza, the Rays' other power-hitting leadoff hitter, was brutally honest about where he prefers to hit in the lineup.
“I love hitting with runners on base,” Souza said. “I love being able to drive guys in, doing some damage. I think there is more value in that.”
GALLERY: MLB's 3,000 hit club
However, Souza has seen some success when leading off in 2017. In 118 plate appearances (27 games) through July 31 as the Rays leadoff hitter, Souza had a .279/.364/.481 slash line. Souza had yet to lead off a game with a home run, but mashed four of his 22 homers this season in games in which he hit leadoff. Souza takes pride in being able to handle leading off and understands the importance of the role.
“I do enjoy going up there knowing I’m going to get more at-bats (as the leadoff hitter),” he said. “Also, I know I’m going to get quality pitches because (the pitcher) doesn’t want me to get a free pass, knowing the guys behind me can hit.”
Souza was the most forthcoming of the players SN spoke with about ambushing the occasional fastball they feel is coming their way.
“Sometimes when I know I’m going to get a heater, I can go for it,” he said. “I try to see it right down the middle and let it eat. There aren’t many times in this game when you’re guaranteed a fastball.”
Mainly, Souza understands he minimally has to get on base for the several power bats up and down the Rays' lineup, especially in his first at-bat of the game.
“The first at-bat is the biggest difference,” Souza said, before going into more detail. "I definitely want to get it on for the guys behind me. If I’ve seen a guy a bunch of times, I’m treating it like any other at-bat against him. If I haven’t seen (the pitcher) or he has a lot of different pitches, I’ll probably be a little bit more apt to work the first at-bat, so the guys behind me can see how his pitches work. And for myself, knowing I’m going to get four or five at-bats, I’m going see all his pitches."
The game forces the evolution
The mold of the leadoff hitter is surely different from even five years ago, let alone the 1980 version. What about Rickey Henderson, you might ask?
Well, MLB's all-time stolen base leader was an outlier during the days of speed. Henderson certainly had a penchant for the dramatic as a table-setter, drilling 81 of his 297 career home runs when leading off a game. However, there was only one Rickey Henderson.
The question is, what has caused the shift across the game? Is it a new perception of need from the players hitting at the top of the order, or are leadoff hitters simply acclimating to the game around them?
Gardner said any changes have been brought on by those building rosters and lineups.
“It depends who is running the team, who the GM is, who the manager is and what kind of look they’re going for,” Gardner said. “What kind of guys are in the lineup besides just the leadoff guy. It depends on what makes the lineup work.”
Souza said lineups with significant power six or seven players deep have a better chance of capitalizing on deployment of a leadoff hitter with pop.
“We’re blessed with a lot of guys with a lot of power,” Souza said. “Our 3-4-5 hitters are not going to suffer if one of the leadoff hitters has power. But, not a lot of teams have six-seven players who can hit 20 home runs.”
The Rays are indeed fortunate and, according to Dickerson, the lineup has been constructed to take advantage of the power.
“I really think some teams want to do things a different way,” he said. “We want a team that drives in a lot of runs with home runs and another team might want movement on the base paths.”
The quicker path to scoring runs via the long ball is taking hold across the game. Station-to-station baseball has been diminished to a handful of teams — thus, fewer ballplayers of that ilk. Players who might see the most success at the top of batting orders in coming years are those who can manage above-average on-base skills, but add a power dimension to their game.
Today’s spark plugs do it with big bats, not just quick feet. Speed is no longer a necessity, but a power bat can play anywhere, even at the top of a lineup.