Solving the Atlanta Braves Leadoff Problem
In 2013, even the most casual baseball fan knows that a valuable leadoff hitter primarily does one thing – not make outs. A good leadoff guy has a high on-base percentage and maybe he even steals some bases to top it off. However, the Braves, despite having a good lineup top-to-bottom, have made the odd decision to bat their absolute worst hitter in the leadoff spot, the spot that is the most likely to get the most plate appearances every game.
Andrelton Simmons is the proud owner of a .285 OBP, second to last among Braves regulars, ahead of only B.J. Upton. His walk rate is a miniscule 5.4 percent. He has five steals in seven chances, which is merely a decent rate, and it’s not enough to make up for the consistent out making he brings at the top of the line up. Basically anyone else would be a better leadoff hitter at this point, so here are some options.
Braves fans know that Jason Heyward hasn’t been nearly as bad as his .214/.317/.347 line would indicate. He got off to a wretched start, but has righted the ship since he returned from an emergency appendectomy. In the last month, Heyward has hit a much more respectable .267/.336/.400 and in the last two weeks, bolstered by a 10-game hit streak, he raised that to a robust .310/.365/.466.
His BABIP on the season is still just .244, so even more regression should come into play. Managers are typically hesitant to bat players with Heyward’s power in the leadoff slot, but his ability to get on base at such a high rate makes him worth a look.
Yup, it’s the guy with the team-worst .259 on-base percentage. But like Heyward, Upton got off to a terrible start, one that made his 5-year $75 million deal look like the worst of the off-season. But also like Heyward, Upton has played significantly better recently, and is working his way slowly up Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup card, where he’s now batting fifth.
In the last two weeks, Upton is hitting an excellent .222/.364/.444 and is 3-3 on steals. Fantasy owners will get hung up on that .222 average, but for the real club, his excellent on-base percentage is all that matters. Upton’s 18.4 percent walk rate in that span would lead the majors by a healthy margin. Plus, even with his improved numbers, he’s still hit just .231 on balls in play in those two weeks, so his average likely will climb as well.
Don’t be surprised if Upton gets another crack at the leadoff job soon – he should.
This is probably the most surprising candidate. Managers hate putting high power guys at the top of their lineups; they hate putting high strikeout guys there even more. Couple that with an abject lack of speed and a .193 average, and Dan Uggla would be one of the most unlikely leadoff men ever.
But again, it’s almost all about OBP in the leadoff spot. Uggla’s OBP is .320, but he too is weighed down by a .246 average on balls in play. His walk rate though, is 15 percent, second only to Joey Votto in all of baseball. Once his BABIP starts to creep back towards his career norm of .290, his OBP will rise as well.
Uggla’s not a prototypical leadoff man, but he ability to get on base has value. And again, nearly anyone is better in that spot than defensive whiz and out-making machine Andrelton Simmons.
Alex Hampl covers baseball and the Atlanta Braves weekly for numberFire. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hampl9.