Who Should Hit Leadoff for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
This winter was full of questions for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Chief among them was whether or not to trade star player Andrew McCutchen. After all was said and done, the outfielder stayed put in the Steel City.
But quickly, a new question arose: which outfield position would McCutchen play? Would he stay in center, where he's played all of his career? Or would he be moved to left or right in favor of Starling Marte in center? Once again, after much deliberation, Pittsburgh decided to move McCutchen to right field while shifting Gregory Polanco to left in lieu of Marte's new role in center.
Now a month removed from the decision, the McCutchen saga is over (at least for now). The Pirates have now come to a new fork in the road, though. Who hits leadoff?
It's a decision that has to be made, but that's exactly what it is: a decision, not a predicament or a problem. Options are always a good thing to have. The question here is who is the better of the two?
The Case Against Marte
The argument has been made that Marte, not Harrison, should be at the top of the lineup. His .362 on-base percentage ranked second on the team behind catcher Francisco Cervelli. He also tied Polanco (in 58 less plate appearances) for the most doubles (34) on the team while leading with 47 stolen bases, the third-most in baseball.
Those traditional statistics are the making of a prototypical leadoff hitter, and the advanced numbers don't completely disagree.
According to FanGraphs, Marte's weighted on-base average (wOBA) -- a statistic that, on the same scale as on-base percentage, credits a hitter for the value of each outcome -- of .351 ranked 49th among all hitters. Meanwhile, his 121 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) -- which quantifies a player's total offensive value, measured by runs while controlling for other factors -- placed even higher (47th).
The thing is, throughout the 2016 season, Marte never once manned the leadoff position.
|Spot in Order||PA||% of PA|
He made 75.81% of his plate appearances from the fourth or fifth spot, and 93.58% from either the second, fourth or fifth spot in the order. How did he do in those capacities?
Overall, Marte's numbers were much better further down in the lineup than they were when hitting second. Check out his production in wOBA and wRC+ in each of these spots last season.
|Spot in Order||wOBA||wRC+|
Even if we use his career numbers when leading off, the numbers say the same thing. In a sample size of 857 plate appearances, he has a respectable wRC+ of 115, but not near his career 141 wRC+ when batting cleanup.
In case you're hung up on the lack of home runs (9) and RBI (46) from a year ago, no need to fret. We've seen Marte hit 19 dingers and rack up 84 RBI in 2015 when he played 153 games. We know he has the ability to hit the ball out of the park and to bring runs in. Last year, the opportunities weren't there.
Thanks to a slumping (or declining, depending on who you ask) McCutchen, Marte came up 301 times with zero runners on base in 2016. In situations where there were runners on, Pittsburgh's new center fielder produced a wRC+ of 116 with a .336 wOBA.
While mainly hitting second and with 104 additional plate appearances in 2015, Marte came to the plate 324 times with no one on, which barely marks much of a difference. That same season, Marte, with a wRC+ of 116, tallied an RBI on 71 of 81 hits with runners on and was even more effective when those runners were in scoring position, driving in 57 on just 45 hits with a wRC+ of 113.
So, when runners are put in front of him, he's a valuable commodity in the meat of the batting order.
The Case For Harrison
On the other side of the coin, Josh Harrison is a different type of hitter.
While there are comparisons between the two -- which gives us this debate in the first place -- he's never hit more than 13 homers (2014) in a season and posted a wRC+ of just 79 with runners on base a year ago. He was substantially better (92 wRC+) with runners in scoring position, but he was still not close to the level of Marte.
Harrison was at his best with nobody on, posting a wRC+ of 94 in 283 plate appearances. That's not bad, but it leaves much to be desired for someone who would come to bat at least one time a game with absolutely no chance of someone being on. When we narrow it down to the leadoff spot, though, things are much more promising.
Using FanGraphs' splits tool, we can see how the 29-year-old fared when batting first and, in particular, when batting first without anyone aboard last season.
|2016 - Batting 1st||PA||wOBA||wRC+|
The overall numbers are even more encouraging when you consider that Harrison has a .346 wOBA and a 122 wRC+ in 877 career plate appearances when leading off. Of places where he's had at least 200 plate appearances, that's where he's best -- not lower in the order.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about his aggressive approach at the plate. Harrison isn't one to seek a walk, as evidenced by his 3.3% walk percentage a year ago in the leadoff spot. He could certainly show a little more patience, but like the proof is in the pudding, the production is in the stats, and that we cannot dispel.
The Pirates need to trust the numbers. The rest is up to Harrison, who is due $7.75 million in 2017. It's time for him to prove his worth and adapt.
There's no reason to panic and throw Marte in the leadoff spot. It would be to the benefit of everyone involved to leave him where he is most familiar and effective, while putting Harrison in a spot where he has thrived when given the opportunity.