Who’s on first? These days, it’s more accurate to wonder, ‘Who’s up first?’
Managers from Cleveland to Toronto to Minnesota to Queens have been using power hitters in the leadoff spot. Gone are the days when slap-hitting speedsters would hit first. The stolen base has taken a back seat to the possibility of a home run from the first man up — or at least a rally-starting walk.
Players such as Curtis Granderson, Carlos Santana, Jose Bautista and Joe Mauer don’t fit the old mold of a leadoff hitter. But those hitters, as well as many others who aren’t thinking about bunting or punching a single to the opposite field, have all taken turns in the leadoff spot this year.
Mets manager Terry Collins has continued last year’s successful tactic of using Granderson as his leadoff man even though Granderson hasn’t gotten on base at the same clip as in 2015. Even when injuries robbed the Mets of middle-of-the-order hitters such as David Wright, Lucas Duda, Neil Walker and Yoenis Cespedes, Collins has stuck with Granderson first for the most part.
“You’ve got to look at what he brings to the team,” Collins said. “One thing he brings to the team is his ability to get on base. He was so valuable for us last year. If we had another option of a guy who was a big get-on-base kind of guy, we might switch it out. But right now, I’ve always liked him there. He’s obviously shown he can put a point on the board in a hurry. So right now we’re going to leave him where he is.”
Earlier this season, Granderson hit his 17th leadoff home run as a Met, which set a franchise record. The man he passed? Jose Reyes, who on Saturday signed a minor-league deal with the Mets. But Reyes would not be assured of being an everyday player if he rejoins the major-league team, so Granderson could still see time in the top spot.
“Right now, with a bunch of guys down, we’re trying to scramble to find the right mix,” Collins said. “ is that kind of guy — you can put him anywhere and for him it’s OK. He doesn’t say boo.”
Some guys do say “boo” when their manager approaches them with the idea of moving from a power spot to first in the order.
Indians manager Terry Francona first broached the idea of using catcher-turned-designated hitter Santana as his leadoff man back in February because of Santana’s pronounced ability to draw walks. Santana wasn’t thrilled to hear it, especially since he bristled when Francona used him in the No. 2 spot last season.
“The problem was he didn’t like [hitting second],” Francona told Cleveland.com. “I know you can’t let your nine guys dictate where they want to hit. But if they’re hitting in a spot that’s affecting them in a negative way, and I have the ability to change it, I’d be kind of silly not to.”
Still, perhaps with a nudge from the Indians’ analytics department, Francona has used Santana in the leadoff spot 120 times this season (all stats through Wednesday). Santana is batting .225 with a .354 on-base percentage as the No. 1 hitter. Overall, he’s at .233/.331.
“Because of his skill set, I think he’d be one of the best leadoff hitters in the game,” Francona said. “I know it’s a little unique. Maybe out of the box.”
It’s getting less so all the time. Nearly every time the Yankees face a division rival, they might have to deal with a slugger in the leadoff spot.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has used centerfielder Adam Jones as his leadoff man 110 times this season. Jones averaged nearly 30 home runs over the last five seasons. Showalter has also given Manny Machado 25 at-bats as the leadoff man.
The Red Sox have Mookie Betts batting first. So far, he has hit 15 home runs and stolen 11 bases while hitting first in the order. That’s almost a Rickey Henderson-like combination of power and speed.
Toronto manager John Gibbons has written Bautista’s name in the leadoff spot for 86 at-bats. Bautista once hit 54 homers in a season and is known for his long home runs and energetic bat flips. Gibbons also used Troy Tulowitzki extensively there last year after the Blue Jays acquired the slugging shortstop from Colorado.
“I think you better be ready for the first hitter,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said when asked about facing Bautista. “It’s not that he’s just a power guy. He’s an on-base guy, too, and I think they’re looking at that — ways to get people on base in front of two power hitters, in a sense. I think it’s twofold. They’re trying to get themselves a really quick lead, but he’s also an on-base guy that also makes a pitcher work right out of the get-go.”
Twins manager Paul Molitor — who hit leadoff 7,291 times in his Hall of Fame career — has used catcher-turned-first baseman/DH Mauer as his top man 25 times this year. But the experiment didn’t last long as Mauer hit .152 with a .250 on-base percentage.
One manager who won’t be switching a slugger to first is Girardi, who has traditional leadoff men Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner one-two most days.
Girardi recently exploded when asked an innocuous question about whether he would ever do something radical such as move a power hitter to the first spot. The Yankees were struggling mightily to score runs at the time.
“Who do you want me to lead off?” Girardi said. “I mean, tell me. You guys have these questions ... You want me to lead Tex off? You want me to lead Alex off? You want me to lead Carlos off?”
For the record, Mark Teixeira has never started a game in the first position, but he has hit there three times after entering a game. He has a .667 on-base percentage (two walks in three plate appearances).
Alex Rodriguez started six games in the leadoff spot in 1998 and one in 1999 with the Mariners. He got on base eight times in 25 plate appearances and hit two home runs.
Carlos Beltran has started 102 games at the leadoff man, but none since 2001. He has 11 leadoff home runs and probably won’t get any more.
“These days, the game of baseball has all these analytics and teams are thinking out of the box,” Beltran said. “They’re thinking, ‘Why don’t we get these guys five at-bats instead of three or four? Let me put the best guys all together and see what happens and maybe these guys get an extra at-bat.’ But I don’t see me batting there anymore.”
Player HRs 1st spot ABs/HRs
1. Barry Bonds 762 1,798 /75
2. Hank Aaron 755 2/0
3. Babe Ruth 714 2/0
4. Alex Rodriguez*69529/2
5. Willie Mays 660 254/7
6. Ken Griffey Jr. 63026/1
7. Jim Thome 612 3/0
8. Sammy Sosa 609 473/21