The two most exciting leadoff hitters in the National League this year have been Dee Gordon of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds. Both are young players with extraordinary speed who are racking up impressive stolen base numbers. Gordon has stolen 35 bases in 39 attempts, while Hamilton has stolen 22 bases in 29 attempts. These two players have been a big part of their team's success -- or at least that is what one would think based on the attention paid on these two phenoms. However, Gordon's Dodgers, expected by many to run away with the division are in second place, a full eight and half games back from the Giants. Hamilton's Reds are in four place and two games below .500.
It is, of course, not fair to blame the Dodgers' and Reds' shortcomings entirely on their leadoff hitters, but it is also unfair to overlook the player who has been the leadoff hitter on the team with the best record in the National League thus far. Angel Pagan does not have the blinding speed of Hamilton or Gordon, nor is he a young player about whom fans can project a fifteen year career, but he has a higher OBP and more runs scored than either Gordon or Hamilton.
Getting on base is the most important skill for a leadoff hitter, especially one like Pagan or Gordon who bat in front of power laden lineups. Pagan's .370 OBP is significantly higher than that of Gordon (.327) or Hamilton (.296). Hamilton's speed is an extraordinary tool, but more than 70 percent of the time Hamilton has come to bat it has not helped him because he has not been able to reach first base safely. Runs scored is a counting statistic that is also very dependent on the performance of teammates, two more runs than Gordon (33 to 31) and nine more than Hamilton. Pagan has come to bat 18 fewer times than Gordon and about 25 percent more times than Hamilton, but not some of the disparity.
The Oxymoron, as Pagan is known by some Giants fans, or maybe just by me and my sons, is a big reason why the Giants have done so well in 2014. The Giants have a top heavy lineup with productive, but erratic sluggers filling the 2-6 slots. Pagan's ability to get on base, steal a few bases, and take the extra base when needed has helped the team surprise many with its strong offense, good for third in the league in runs per game, this season. Pagan's success, and his impact on the Giants this year, is a reminder that behind all the language about being a spark plug, making things happen, or adding a different dimension to the game, batting leadoff is, to a great extent, a one-dimensional role. That one dimension is getting on base. Players who cannot fill that one role cannot be great leadoff hitters.
It is possible that Gordon and Hamilton will improve their OBPs and be able to mature into top level leadoff hitters, but there are no guarantees of that. At their current pace, Gordon will likely evolve into a bottom-of-the-order middle infielder who brings some speed and defense to the game and Hamilton into a fourth outfielder, or a bottom of the order hitter charged with playing good defense and using his speed whenever possible. If Hamilton and Gordon do not grow better at reaching first base, but remain in the leadoff spot it will be due to bad and risk averse managing rather than their actual value.
Speed is, of course, part of the skill set of most leadoff hitters, but it is peripheral. The greatest leadoff hitter of all time was Rickey Henderson, who is also the game's greatest base stealer, but Henderson was a great leadoff hitter because over the course of his career he reached base safely 40 percent of the time he came to the plate, and finished in the top ten in his league in OBP 16 times. His 1,406 stolen bases in 1,741 tries made him a better leadoff hitter, but stealing bases was not his core source of value.
While a leadoff hitter who is extremely slow, probably would be a poor fit for that role, a fast player who either does not get on base much or who is really a power hitter with speed are much worse fits. Batting order is not the most important decision facing a manager, and batting Gordon and Hamilton leadoff, at least to see if they can do it, is not a terrible decision, but right now neither of them are better than the player at the top of the Giants order.