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Eric Young Jr. may be Mets' leadoff man despite his low on-base percentage

Eric Young Jr. of the Mets reacts after

Eric Young Jr. of the Mets reacts after grounding out to end the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field. (Sept. 18, 2013) Credit: Mike Stobe

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - On the surface, the situation seems baffling, especially considering the background of the current Mets regime. After all, it was general manager Sandy Alderson who once helped spawn the movement toward Moneyball, which turned on-base percentage into the game's primary currency.

It's the same school of thought that challenged traditional assumptions -- such as entrusting the leadoff spot to speedy players without regard for their ability to reach base.

Yet as spring training gets underway, the Mets appear willing to do exactly that with outfielder Eric Young Jr.

Manager Terry Collins has been clear about his preference for Young, who led the NL with 46 stolen bases but struggled to consistently get on base. Last year, NL leadoff hitters posted an on-base percentage of .333. By contrast, Young managed a meek .310.

Considering Alderson's belief that reaching base is "the most important characteristic of a leadoff man," Collins' preference for Young could be construed as a disconnect.

But with a roster that offers no obvious alternatives, Alderson appears comfortable with giving Young a chance despite a lifetime on-base percentage of .325.

"The question is whether he has the potential to improve on that if it becomes a priority," Alderson said. "On-base percentage is often a function of approach as opposed to mechanics. If we were asking him to hit 30 home runs, that's not going to work. But guys can adjust."

During Alderson's stint as GM, he has installed an overarching offensive philosophy that emphasizes selectivity. It's a belief rooted in the hope that hitters will wait for pitches that they can drive, with a side effect of that selectivity being longer at-bats and more walks.

In recent springs, Alderson has started camp with a presentation designed to underscore the proven relationship between reaching base and scoring runs. Alderson insists he's seen players benefit by altering their approach. He noted former Mets infielder Ronny Cedeño, who reached base at a .332 clip with the Mets in 2012 despite a career on-base percentage of .289. Said Alderson: "That was the product of one thing, it was one conversation."

Mets officials also seem encouraged by Young's track record. Albeit in limited sample sizes, Young has shown flashes of improving his ability to reach base. In 2012, Young posted a career-best .377 OBP, the result of an unsustainably high batting average for balls in play. But Young's 2011 season might be slightly more telling.

That year, he reached base at a .342 clip thanks to a career-best walk percentage . He also kept the ball on the ground [58.4 percent] and used his speed to rack up infield hits and bunt hits.

Collins hinted that Young might once again adopt a similar strategy since his lack of power makes him less likely to draw more walks. Still, Young believes improvement will ultimately come from refining his approach. "That's what the main key is," Young said. "Fortunately, everybody's on the same page with the front office, as well as myself and the coaching staff."

Alderson believes there's enough reason to give the speedster a chance to stick in the leadoff spot. "Will it happen?" he said. "We'll find out."


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