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The Leadoff Man

Just like almost everyone on the Rockies roster, Charlie Blackmon has been subject to trade rumors this offseason. As Ryan Hammon wrote, Blackmon is valuable because he can play all three outfield spots, he can do everything on offense moderately well, and most importantly, he is the only man on the Rockies who can bat leadoff. Or is he?

Chuck Nazty, a 2014 All Star, slashed .288/.335/.440 with 19 HR, 72 RBI, 28 SB, and a 100 wRC+ in 648 PA. But after batting almost .400 in the first month of the season, he came back down to earth with a 82 wRC+ from April 28th forward. Still Blackmon was one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball last year. His .333 BA when leading off the first inning led the National League in 2014. So too did his 5 HR, and his .532 SLG%. Blackmon also saw a good amount of pitches at 3.80 per PA.

There is no doubt “Your Love” has worked out when starting a game, but his poor walk rate leading to his not very good on base percentage, his age and a few other reasons have made him a questionable fit for the Rockies. It might be his beard or his personality with the fans that make me a fan, yet he could garner some nice value back if he were to be traded. So let’s build a list of who else could bat number one in the Rockies order.

Charlie+Blackmon+85th+MLB+Star+Game+WGytUyu19JQl

Leadoff Candidates

In 2014, other than Blackmon, Brandon Barnes, Corey Dickerson, Josh Rutledge, Drew Stubbs, and Rafael Ynoa batted leadoff. None batted leadoff more than Barnes, who nine times swung the bat there instead of Blackmon. Barnes had three hits and one walk, while Dickerson and Rutledge combined for three hits.

The other guys on the roster, who at some point in their careers, have batted leadoff are Daniel Descalso, Carlos Gonzalez, and DJ LeMahieu. CarGo has done it the most of these three and has the most success at it. With 104 PA, and a .340 BA, he has shown the ability to bat first in the order, but he hasn’t done it since 2011. Descalso and LeMahieu have batted in this spot only 19 times.

Alternatives that have never batted leadoff are Michael McKenry and Justin Morneau. This is just based on OBP; I’ll circle back to this in a second. Guys who had higher than a .350 OBP in the high minors (AAA, AA) in 2014 and who are still with the organization are Cristhian Adames .392 OBP AAA, Ben Paulsen .378 OBP AAA, Rafael Ynoa .356 OBP AAA, Jayson Langfels .377 OBP AA, Dustin Garneau .363 OBP AA, and Harold Riggins .351 OBP AA.

Unless the Rockies get help from the outside, that is their list. Who knows who they can get in a trade, but the following are all the free agents left with leadoff experience: Casey McGehee, Tony Gwynn Jr., Marco Scutaro, Eric Young Jr., Colby Rasmus, Rickie Weeks, Mark Ellis, Reed Johnson, Elliot Johnson, John McDonald, Tony Abreu, Brian Roberts, Jayson Nix, Nyjer Morgan, and Reid Brignac. That’s a lot of former Rockies… Also fun stat; John McDonald has played 1100 games in 16 years and has batted leadoff once, June 27th 2010. One more fun John McDonald fact; his career fWAR once again for 16 years, is 0.8. John McDonald is the pinnacle replacement level player.

Ranking Leadoffs

1) Charlie Blackmon

charlie-blackmon-mlb-minnesota-twins-colorado-rockies-590x900Carrer: 305 G, 1129 PA, .290/.329/.430, 28 HR, 111 RBI, 41 SB 94 wRC+, 2.9 WAR

2014: 154 G, 648 PA, .288/.335/.440, 19 HR, 72 RBI, 28 SB, 100 wRC+, 2.0 WAR

Chuck Nazty is obviously the best option the Rockies have at this point to start off the game. He’s proven he can do it and he’s done it well.

2) Carlos Gonzalez

mlbf_10489871_th_13Carrer: 761 G, 3107 PA, .294/.351/.520, 136 HR, 483 RBI, 11o SB, 121 wRC+. 19 WAR

2014: 70 G, 281 PA, .238/.292/.431, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 3 SB, 83 wRC+, -0.3 WAR

CarGo is due for a great 2015 season. His attitude is great from looking at His 2014 was derailed by injuries and off the field issues; but before 2014, he had never really had a bad year. The real question here is not will CarGo have a good year, it’s why I did place him as the second best leadoff option. Here are the reasons why: Gonzalez has batted leadoff before for the Rockies and was really good at it. I brought the numbers up earlier, and in his career, the only spot in the order where he’s had more success than batting first, is batting fifth. As a rule, you want your best players batting highest in the batting order because they will get more plate appearances. From 2009-12 the average first hitter saw 4.67 plate appearances per game, while the average fifth hitter saw the plate 4.25 times a game. Not important you say? Well, that’s 68 more times one of your best hitters could have made it to bat over a 162 game season. Yes, he would lose RBI chances batting first, but really, he would only lose that the first inning and if he’s coming up five times in two out of every three games rather than once out of every four games, that is worth the sacrifice. Another key to having one of your best hitters bat first in the NL, it’s often the one spot in the order that will come up after your pitcher has recorded an out prompting the one hitter (in this case CarGo) needing to come through with a clutch hit. CarGo isn’t the best hitter with a runner on base, but he’s better than most of the other candidates. Even later in the game, CarGo, if he were to be batting 1st, would come up after a pinch hitter; meaning, instead of the PH needing to be the power guy, the PH could just get on base and CarGo could drive him in. There are many situations like this. The point is, you want your best players playing more, or you want your best hitters to get more plate appearances. There is not a clear cut second option for leadoff, but I think CarGo is an even a better option than Charlie Blackmon in some situations.

3) Corey Dickerson

Corey+Dickerson+Colorado+Rockies+v+Los+Angeles+sVYUM9Qdd5XlCarrer: 200 G, 691 PA, .297/.349/.533, 29 HR, 93 RBI, 10 SB, 127 wRC+, 3.1 WAR

2014: 131 G, 478 PA, .312/.364/.556, 24 HR, 76 RBI, 8 SB, 140 wRC+, 2.6 WAR

Dickerson is a very similar candidate to CarGo. Dickerson and CarGo have about the same walk rate, and slash lines. Dickerson though does not have the same speed as CarGo. Dickerson batted leadoff eight times last year, which was only topped by Blackmon and Barnes. In those eight PA, he had one hit and one walk, but the sample size is obviously very small. I’d rather Dickerson bat behind Tulowitzki than at number one. A lot of the reasons that make CarGo a good leadoff can be said for Dickerson as well. He is not a traditional leadoff hitter, but he would get the job done effectively being the talented hitter he is.

4) Justin Morneau

Colorado Rockies Photo DayCarrer: 1438 G, 5992, .281/.349/.483, 238 HR, 945 RBI, 5 SB, 117 wRC+, 22 WAR

2014: 135 G, 550 PA, .319/.364/.496, 17 HR, 82 RBI, 0 SB, 123 wRC+, 2.5 WAR

The former MVP has never batted leadoff once in his MLB career, and he may have never batted leadoff once in his life. Certainly it would be untraditional to bat the Canadian first and the thing you’re probably thinking is he isn’t fast enough. I’ll give you the facts; he doesn’t steal bases, and he was the worst base runner according to UBR (Ultimate Base Running) on the club last year, so he’s not good in that aspect. You know where he is good? Getting on base. I don’t know if the veteran would feel slighted by being put at number one in the lineup, but he’s better than some of the Rockies other options and once again, he would see the plate more when batting higher up. When you have a guy who got on base as well as he did last year, you probably want him seeing the plate more often.

5) Drew Stubbs

colorado_rockies_dancing_fanCarrer: 764 G, 2909 PA, .246/.315/.396, 84 HR, 266 RBI, 147 SB, 92 wRC+, 11.3 WAR

2014: 132 G, 424 PA, .289/.339/.482, 15 HR, 43 RBI, 20 SB, 1113 wRC+, 2.5 WAR

Stubbs is interesting because he didn’t put the ball in play in almost 40% of his PA, with a 32.1 strikeout rate and a 7.1 walk rate. Stubbs did end up seeing the most pitches per plate appearance at 4.02, which is a great thing if he were to bat lead off. He works the pitcher and gives the players coming after him more to look at in terms of what the other team’s starter has that day. The issue is he often did not get the ball in play with his horrendous K rate, but when he did hit the ball, it often fell for a hit. He had a .404 BABIP in 2014, which was so good that it’s too good. His career BABIP is .334, 70 points below what he hit in 2014, meaning he is due for some regression. His line drive rate only went up a point and a half while he was a lot luckier on infield hits than he had ever been before. Stubbs would likely be the starting center fielder if Blackmon left, and there are some positives to batting him first, but the negatives drastically out-weigh the positives. I like Stubbs and I think he can be successful in Denver so long as he is put in favorable situations. I don’t see batting him leadoff as doing any favors to him or the Rockies.

6) Michael McKenry

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles DodgersCarrer: 250 G, 799 PA, .245/.317/.408, 25 HR, 86 RBI, 0 SB, 97 wRC+, 3.1 WAR

2014: 57 G, 192 PA, .315/.398/.512, 8 HR, 22 RBI, 0 SB, 141 wRC+, 1.7 WAR

Like Stubbs, McKenry’s BABIP suggests he’s due for some regression. Unlike Stubbs, he actually walked with a 11.5% BB rate in 2014. Like Stubbs, he also strikes out often with a 24.2% career K rate. Unlike Stubbs, McKenry is a catcher, and catchers don’t really bat leadoff unless your name is Jason Kendall. Let me start this off without numbers. In American Legion ball, I often batted first and caught, like Kendall and unlike Engelberg from Bad News Bears, I too am pretty small. Here is why it doesn’t happen; the mental capacity it takes to catch is astounding. In Yadier Molina’s first season, Tony LaRussa said Molina could go zero for the season and still be valuable to the St. Louis Cardinals. That is how valuable a Gold Glove catcher is. Not only that, but often the toughest spot to hit from a mental standpoint is leadoff because you’re thinking about working counts so your teammates can see pitches, getting on any way possible, dealing with the start of the game jitters, and you’re the first guy to see the pitcher pitch that day. The worst year I had at the plate (once again not high level baseball) was when I caught. It is really hard to do both. So why is McKenry on this list? Because, you guessed it, the dude gets on base. He’s unlikely to even start though, given Nick Hundley is the likely starter and Wilin Rosario is still in the picture.

7) DJ LeMahieu

20120801_kdl_aq2_039.0Carrer: 376 G, 1281 PA, .276/.314/.348, 9 HR, 96 RBI, 29 SB, 69 wRC+, 2.1 WAR

2014: 149 G, 538 PA, .267/.315/.348, 5 HR, 42 RBI, 10 SB, 67 wRC+, 0.8 WAR

The only reason he is this high is because he is good to have in the lineup and I’d rather have him in than Trevor Story at this point (I don’t think that will be true in a few months.) It says a lot about LeMahieu’s defense that he can have a 67 wRC+ and still a positive WAR. DJ batted first nine times in 2013, and wasn’t too bad at it, but a look at is 2014 numbers raises many questions. Not just about batting leadoff, but whether or not his glove is worth his bat. Another review of his 2014 stats makes you notice he batted eighth more times than not and he only got on base 31.5% of the time. Considering there is a pitcher behind him that’s really bad, DJ should be able to walk more than 6% of the time batting eighth and another spot in the lineup guys should be walking is first. So no, no DJ you’re not my leadoff DJ, no, no, no, no.

8) Rafael Ynoa

20140927_jla_aj4_998.jpg.02014/Carrer: 19 G, 71 PA, .343/.380/.463, o HR, 13 RBI, 0 SB, 121 wRC+, 0.7 WAR

Ynoa is a middle infielder who got his cup of coffee last year after batting .297/.356/.419 in the Springs. He is on the 40 man right now and likely to start the season in Colorado Springs given Descalso, and Charlie Culberson are in front of him on the depth chart for the role of utility infielder. I don’t know if he’s a good option, he’s unproven but he has made it on base in every level of the minors.

9) Cristhian Adames

Tulsa Drillers2014/Carrer: 7 G, 15 PA, .067/.067/.067, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB, -92 wRC+, -0.2 WAR

According to MLB.com, Adames is the Rockies 13th ranked prospect, and after his .288/.345/.368 at AA and AAA combined, the 23 year old is looking to make an impact out of spring. Just like Ynoa, there are a lot of guys in front and behind him. Also like Ynoa, he got a cup of coffee last year, but was not successful with it. Adames started off in AA and got only 38 games in AAA, so likely he starts the year in Albuquerque with Ynoa in front of him. Adames has also made it on base at every level, but at this point, I’d rather see Tulo and DJ playing and not Adames.

10) Daniel Descalso

Daniel+Descalso+Milwaukee+Brewers+v+St+Louis+t7kL1O4eZLjlCarrer: 529 G, 1380 PA, .243/.313/.341, 10 HR, 111 RBI, 16 SB, 81 wRC+, 0.3 WAR

2014: 104 G, 184 PA, .242/.333/.311, o HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB, 88 wRC+, -0.1 WAR

Descalso has batted leadoff nine times in his career and has made it on base once, with a walk. He’s a good utility infielder who offers versatility, but he is not someone you want getting five bats a game or to be counting on to get on base for the Tulos of the world to drive in.

11) Brandon Barnes

Brandon  BarnesCarrer: 311 G, 863 PA, .242/.286/.365, 17 HR, 75 RBI, 17 SB, 74 wRC+, 1.2 WAR

2014: 132 G, 313 PA, .257/.293/.425, 8 HR, 27 RBI, 5 SB, 83 wRC+ 0.1 WAR

Barnes is barely above replacement level, and that’s okay. Every roster needs a guy like Barnes, but you don’t want them at the top of your order. If he did bat first, he’d get close to 700 PA and you don’t want a guy who doesn’t even get on base three out of ten times starting the game off for you. Another issue with Barnes being in the leadoff spot would mean that Blackmon and Stubbs would not be available to play centerfield and they both are right now. So Barnes’ chance to even repeat his 2014 number of nine PA at leadoff in 2015 is very slim. Barnes is going to have to fight to keep his spot on the 25 man. He is not the guy you want starting off a game and frankly, I hope he doesn’t end up with 300+ PA again this year. It’s not a knock on him as much as I just want to see CarGo and Dickerson healthy.

Free Agents

Rickie Weeks

berniebrewCarrer: 1142 G, 4700 PA, .249/.347/.424, 148 HR, 430 RBI, 126 SB, 108 wRC+, 18 WAR

2014: 121 G, 286 PA, .274/.357/.452, 8 HR, 27 RBI, 3 SB, 127 wRC+ 1.2 WAR

He’s batted first more than any other spot since 2011. Though his PA as the one hitter have dropped, he still has a career .339 OBP when leading off a game. I’ve always liked this former All Star, but what he brings with the bat, he lacks with the glove, costing his team almost nine runs to his team per 150 games (UZR). I think he’s better than Descalso, but he doesn’t offer the same versatility. If the Rockies are looking for a guy to bat leadoff, this may be their man.

Colby Rasmus

colby-rasmusCarrer: 793 G, 3039 PA, .246/.313/.438, 116 HR, 352 RBI, 28 SB, 103 wRC+, 13.4 WAR

2014: 104 G, 376 PA, .225/.287/.448, 18 HR, 40 RBI, 4 SB, 103 wRC+ 0.6 WAR

Rasmus’ name has been brought up the most if Blackmon gets traded. That would be to replace Nazty as the starting centerfielder and leadoff man. I just don’t see it. I’d rather have Stubbs, even with his strikeout rate, Stubbs gets on base more than Rasmus. Also with Rasmus, he is just a worse version of Blackmon with hair instead of a beard. I’m all for nice flow, but I don’t think Rasmus’ paws are saucy enough to bat lead off at a bar-south smooth caliber. I’m sorry I had to do that. The point is, yes he has experience in the spot, and when I mean experience, he’s done it five times, but he is not you’re answer as leadoff man or as center fielder.

Eric Young Jr

pics_mets_eric_young_517883993Carrer: 504 G, 1589 PA, .252/.320/.332, 8 HR, 83 RBI, 138 SB, 77 wRC+, 2.5 WAR

2014: 100 G, 316 PA, .229/.299/.311, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 30 SB, 77 wRC+ 1.2 WAR

Been there, done that, NEXT! No wait, EY JR was a solid Rockie with a 112 wRC+ in 2012 and a .261/.329/.342 in his time here. If you’re looking for a traditional leadoff man, here is your guy who can steal bases, hit singles, and bunt. He also has a lot of success at leadoff, being one of the best in baseball at it in 2013. Another positive to EY JR is he is as versatile as any player in baseball, and maybe we only know that because he was the Jim Tracy dream. But he is, and always will be, a solid all around ball player. Is he an upgrade over what we have though? No

Reed Johnson

Reed+Johnson+San+Diego+Padres+v+Chicago+Cubs+vtZZhv3du6AlCarrer: 1303 G, 3968 PA, .280/.336/.406, 65 HR, 405 RBI, 41 SB, 96 wRC+, 10 WAR

2014: 113 G, 201 PA, .235/.266/.348, 2 HR, 25 RBI, 0 SB, 69 wRC+, -0.7 WAR

Johnson is due for a bounce back year if he even gets signed, despite his age. He hasn’t really been a leadoff hitter since 2007. He’s really here just to show how hard it is to find a leadoff hitter. He has a .344 OBP when starting off a game, however, and he’s a good left fielder. He has his benefits, but he’s nothing more than a spring training invite guy at this point. Still, I’ll always have a place in my heart for a man who still wears stirrups.

Conclusion

The Rockies have other options besides Charlie Blackmon if they were to trade him and when I say other options, I mean Carlos Gonzalez. To me, Gonzalez is obviously a good choice; the dude can do anything – he’s a spectacular player. If the Rockies don’t want to use CarGo in this spot, then I’d suggest going out to get Rickie Weeks. But realistically, the guy who would leadoff is Drew Stubbs. I guess it’s a traditional choice rather than a calculated one, but he’s far from the worst option. However, he is not even close to the best the organization already has. Talk to Chuck before letting him go to another town. Although he may not be the best hitter, he is the best leadoff option.

About Jake Shapiro

Born in Chicago, raised in Boulder, I fell in love with the Rockies in 2009 and beautiful Coors Field soon there after. I played baseball throughout high school, stopping after a bevy of injuries (Hi Mark Prior). Now I umpire Little League, and write/podcast about the Rockies and Buffs.
I attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I enjoy long walks on the beach, romantic get-a-ways… oh this isn’t a dating profile.

2 Comments on The Leadoff Man

  1. I don’t have a problem with Charlie leading off for the most part, but I do have a problem with just setting a lineup and not adjusting to the fact that we struggle to score runs on the road. Walt needs to have a road lineup that bunches the best ROAD hitters up top and gives us a better chance to score runs. If that is still Charlie, fine, but if that is Morneau on the road, so be it. Cargo is probably a slight upgrade at leadoff over Charlie, if healthy, but is much more versatile in other spots. Also, Stubbs vs LHP might make sense if the numbers confirm he hits them better than Charlie. Hopefully, considering anything or anyone else for the job was just speculation for the article, sheesh. We don’t really have that many options and I wouldn’t sign any of those free agents….that would be a waste. Nice article.

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