Slump Busters: Leading off with struggling hitters is paying off

It was just about a month ago when Joe Maddon penciled in Evan Longoria to be the leadoff hitter and the baseball world collectively thought Joe had finally gone crazy. Even Joe had to preface the idea to Evan Longoria with “promise me you won’t think I’m crazy.”

Longoria had been slumping badly and was hitting just .209 into Joe Maddon’s experiment. Typically, slumping hitters are moved lower in the order to allow more productive hitters additional opportunities for RBI chances. Pitchers also tend to speed through the bottom of the order by attacking the hitters more directly, and throwing them fastballs.

The trouble with the second part of that theory is that wherever Longoria bats in the lineup, pitchers still recognize him and they sure as heck won’t be grooving him a fastball because he’s batting eighth instead of fourth.

Instead of being moved down, he was moved to leadoff. Leadoff hitters are typically fast guys who can get on base a variety of ways including with bunts, singles, or working the count to a walk .When you’re a middle of the order guy, you might be more aggressive on pitches that as a leadoff batter you might be taking. A leadoff hitter’s main job is to get the pitcher to work a little harder in the first inning. They want to have a good AB to see a lot of pitches, get a good look at his repertoire, and reach base to prolong the inning.

That latter half is exactly why Joe’s theory just might not be so crazy. When batters are slumping they tend to expand their strike zone and swing at pitches they normally wouldn’t have. Rather than becoming more disciplined and working out of their slump, it’s not at all uncommon to see hitters getting more erratic and prolonging the slump; it’s a viscous cycle. Hey, it’s easier said than done.

By moving a slumping hitter to leadoff, you’re forcing him to work harder on his approach to at bats. Even if it’s just for the first inning of the game, it’s one situation where the goal is “work the count and reach base” rather than “I’m 0 for my entire life, I couldn’t buy a base hit if it was on sale, let’s just find something close and swing.” Leadoff hitters take a different mentality into their AB’s, and it’s a mentality that can help slumping hitters.

It turns out Joe isn’t so crazy after all. Admittedly the move looked crazy at the time, but we’re writing this with the luxury of hindsight. Batting leadoff that game, Longoria snapped his 4-33 skid with two hits, and went on to bat .366 with an OPS of 1.094 over his next 13 games. Compared with his .226 and .721 OPS overall for the season, he’s batting .455 and 1.418 in three games as the leadoff hitter. In those three games, he’s 2-3 with a 1.333 OPS in his first AB of the game. Those are some outstanding stats.

Further to Joe’s argument, other teams have tried it as well. The Yankees have a struggling Nick Swisher on their hands who is batting just .235 for the season. With Derek Jeter on the DL, the Yankees have been experimenting with different options at the leadoff position, including Nick Swisher. In 4 games as the leadoff hitter, he’s batting .308 with a .988 OPS.

The Rockies also have tried this by moving Carlos Gonzales to the leadoff position with the direct intention of increasing his patience. Batting leadoff in 15 games, he’s .385 and .999 compared with his overall line of .285 and .801.

There are a number of examples of unexpected players who have been moved to the leadoff position and have prospered. An example which doesn’t follow the above results would be Jayson Werth who is batting just .167 and .602 as a leadoff hitter this season. The entire Nationals lineup has been scuffling this season, and Werth was moved up to get him additional at bats. The experiment hasn’t been successful; however it is yet another example of teams utilizing this strategy in the efforts of busting a slump.

There is definite cause for consideration in using the leadoff position to spark a struggling hitter. In a perfect world, lineups are assembled with the best possible choices in each position of the order – this just isn’t a perfect world. It’s a world with slumps, and it’s a world where managers sometimes need to get a little bit crazy in order to bust out a slumping hitter.

Sometimes new ideas seem crazy just because we aren’t used to them. This is one idea that definitely has some merit behind it.

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This post was written by Philip Gardner who has written 206 posts on Infield Chatter.

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